(Bad) Seeds of Change

An upstate orchard bears fruit—in the form of hard cider.

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These days, some of Brooklyn’s Greenmarkets are buzzing in more ways than one. They’ve got a new—and very popular—table, heavy with brown bottles labeled “Bad Seed Cider.

Wilklow Orchards, based in Highland, New York, has been a fixture of the Fort Greene Greenmarket since its opening day a decade ago (and at the Borough Hall Greenmarket for more than twice as long), selling apples, sweet cider and an ever-growing list of other products: tree fruit, berries, cider donuts, vegetables, flowers, seedlings, free-range beef….

But the hard cider, now available at the Fort Greene, Borough Hall and McCarren Park markets, is more than just the latest addition: It’s the culmination of a two-year saga whose ins and outs were eagerly followed by market regulars. And it’s also a pretty exclusive product; while many Wilklow crops are market staples, no other Greenmarket stand in Brooklyn (and just one over in Manhattan) sells hard cider.

The new business is the latest in the farm family’s long-standing relationship with New York City, which began almost 30 years ago when Fred Wilklow drove down with a truck full of apples to sell on a street corner, discovered the Greenmarkets and saved his family’s farm.

“That’s the barn the Greenmarket built,” says Fred’s son, Albert, on a recent tour of the farm, pointing to one of the many new buildings on the family’s widely scattered holdings. As small farms have fallen victim to developers, the Wilklows have actually expanded, saving neighboring fields and pastures from the bulldozers. The farm’s acreage has doubled since the dark days of the ’80s, and instead of having to do odd jobs to make ends meet, as Fred’s father did, the family now employs about 20 people.

And without the Greenmarkets? “We probably wouldn’t be here now,” Albert says.

The hard cider idea sprang from a stranger’s question one day at the Fort Greene market: Could he use Wilklow apples, and space on the Wilklow farm, to make cider? They couldn’t strike a deal, but later, driving into New York with his longtime friend Devin Britton, who helps out at the market, Albert asked, “Why aren’t we doing this?” The farm was already turning any small or dinged apples into sweet cider, but the growing passion for locavore brews offered a chance of using them for something much more lucrative. And besides, it sounded like fun.

The two formed their own company and started brewing cider in their basements, testing out different yeasts and getting all their friends to sample the resulting brews. (At one sampling party, Albert reports, the tasting got so enthusiastic that they completely lost track of which cider was which.)

Not everything has worked as they expected. A bottle-cap failure on a batch of blueberry cider produced a foamy mess, and an early batch of blackberry cider lost all its blackberry flavor once it was fermented. “I figured there must be a lot more science to this than we thought,” says Devin, who has since armed himself with a cider-making library and plans (with Albert) to take a weeklong cider-making course this winter.

Another discovery: Keeping all the equipment pristine—an essential task—is a massive time suck. One of the biggest cleaning jobs came when they found a huge collection of old bottles in a neighboring barn. They got them for free, but spent days scrubbing. “There were plants growing out of some of them,” Albert recalls.

And then there were the emergencies. One whole batch had to be thrown out because they let it ferment at too high a temperature; they would have lost another to the heat if Devin hadn’t brought in all the fans he could get and spent hours pouring water on the tank in which it was aging to cool it off.

They started last spring with five different varieties. But that was just the beginning. “We’re going to create a lot more,” says Devin, a chef at a senior center in his day job, who designs the flavors (Albert handles the business end). “We want everyone to find one they like,” Devin adds. “And I want to make weird stuff.”

Weird it is. Only one of their ciders, the Hard Dry, could by any stretch of the imagination be called traditional. Their IPC (India Pale Cider) is made with hops and beer yeast; so is the Belgian Wit, which also contains orange peel and coriander. More recent introductions include strawberry-rhubarb and their most expensive—and popular—variety so far: cider aged in bourbon barrels.

But however crazy their brews, they do have a few rules: All the fruit is Wilklow-grown, it’s all naturally carbonated and it’s all dry. To their surprise, that last was a selling point at Fort Greene. “I thought we would have to convince people dry can be good,” Devin says. “But they were demanding dry.”

The two are aiming not just at cider aficionados, but at craft beer and wine drinkers as well. A single bottle costs $8–$15, depending on the variety, because the ingredients are so expensive: Wilklow grows the apples and berries but must buy hops (they’ve planted some hop vines but they’re nowhere near ready for harvest), yeast ($200 worth in every 150-gallon tank) and new bourbon barrels for every batch of bourbon-aged cider. Not to mention the licenses (roughly $2,000 for two pieces of paper, Albert says) and a whole lot of labor, most of it undertaken after the two are done with their day jobs.

They started the new venture at the Fort Greene market because it’s their busiest, says Devin, “and it’s got people who will really latch onto something like this.” Latch on they did: Just about everyone who passed the stand on opening day stopped to ask about it, and the pair sold almost all of the 20 cases they brought to the market. In just a few months, the cider’s become so popular the two can hardly keep up with demand.

And despite all the hard labor and frustration, they’re having a blast; the word “excited” crops up in about every other sentence. “We haven’t had one day that feels like work,” says Devin, who hopes—like Albert—that the business will eventually turn into a full-time occupation.

So would Albert—Fred’s only son—quit working the orchard and turn into a full-time cider-maker? “I’m never going to leave the farm,” he says flatly. But every new product they’ve brought to the Greenmarket has made the farm bigger and stronger. “If I can turn this into something big enough that we can be raising a lot more apples for it,” Albert says, “that would be awesome.”

Photo credit: Patrick Koltz

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Ann Monroe writes about sustainability and local food in a Brooklyn brownstone, where she tries to practice what she preaches by growing vegetables-not always successfully-and making her own (damn good) ketchup, kimchee and hard cider.