By Michele S. Byers
In recent years, New Jersey’s vineyards and craft breweries have surged in popularity, with new brands popping up all over the Garden State. And hard cider is coming back as the next trend in locally produced beverages.
Made from tart apples and sometimes compared to champagne, hard cider has a long history in New Jersey. The state’s cider industry began during colonial times and prospered for more than 300 years. Long before Newark became the “Brick City,” it was famous for its apple orchards and cider mills. George Washington was said to be fond of “Newark cider.”
But Prohibition killed the state’s hard cider industry, just as it did wine and beer. And while small breweries and vineyards have made a comeback during the past decade, the hard cider industry has been slower to grow.
Rutgers researcher Megan Muehlbauer believes hard cider is ripe for a revival. She is studying more than two dozen heirloom varieties of cider apples to determine which will grow best in New Jersey’s hot, humid summer conditions.
That’s important because when it comes to making delicious hard cider, sweeter apples are not better.
“Hard ciders made from heritage varieties are way more interesting in terms of flavor and complexity,” Muehlbauer said in a Rutgers Today interview.
Heirloom cider apples, she added, have acidity and tannins that add astringency and depth – something not found in mass-market ciders made from apple concentrate.
Muehlbauer is testing apple varieties at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in Pittstown, Hunterdon County. She is growing varieties like the Harrison, one of the signature apples used in Newark cider, and others with colorful names like Kingston Black, Golden Russet, Blue Pearmain and Calville Blanc.
According to Rutgers, in addition to determining which heritage apples grow best and resist disease, the research is also helping to determine how quickly farmers can switch existing orchards planted with sweet apples over to cider apples.
This past spring, Muehlbauer grafted cuttings from heirloom cider apple trees onto existing Fuji apple trees at the Snyder Research and Extension Farm in Pittstown. The “new” trees should start producing their first crop next year.
Right now, New Jersey has only a few hard cider producers, including Melick’s Town Farm of Oldwick, Ironbound Hard Cider of Asbury, and the soon-to-open Armageddon Brewing of Somerdale.
Melick’s is the largest apple grower in New Jersey, with more than 650 acres of farmland and 20,000 apple trees. Ten generations of the Melick family have tended their fields and orchards since about 1725.
After producing regular nonalcoholic cider for more than 50 years, the Melicks began making hard cider four years ago. In addition to traditional champagne-like hard ciders, Melick’s also produces flavored hard ciders like ginger, tart cherry and lemon shandy.
“It’s a great beverage of choice, because we produce it locally and people can drink it locally,” said owner Peter Melick. “I think we’re getting in at the right time, kind of riding the wave. I think hard cider is coming back in a loop, since it was popular in the 1700s.”
With its reference to Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, Ironbound Hard Cider gives a tip of the hat to Newark cider. Newark hard ciders were traditionally made from a blend of four apples – Harrison, Campfield, Poveshon and Granniwinkle.
Ironbound founder Charles Rosen was lucky enough to get cuttings from an original Harrison apple tree discovered near Newark and is now growing his own Harrison trees at the Asbury orchard.
Armageddon was founded by four friends who love craft brews and felt that beer, wine and spirits lovers, especially millennials, were ready for a new taste. In addition to hard cider, Armageddon Brewing plans to produce mead, a beverage made by fermenting honey.
If the hard cider trend catches on, there are sure to be more New Jersey cideries. Thanks to the Rutgers research, it will be easier for new cider makers to choose and grow the best trees for hard cider. So move over, microbreweries and vineyards, and make way for hard ciders from New Jersey!
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at email@example.com