What can you do with 600 square feet of run-down, inaccessible industrial space in Queens? The answer is dry, fruity and unconventional. It would also make Johnny Appleseed proud. Descendant Cider, with its nod to traditions of the Old World and roots firmly planted in the New, is a refreshing take the hard apple taste revival.
Alexandria Fisk and Jahil Maplestone, Descendant’s two co-founders, like a challenge. The Australian and English husband-and-wife team, who have called New York their home for almost a decade, didn’t set out to conquer the cider market. Instead the couple initially began experimenting on a whim from their Cobble Hill apartment. Maplestone, a seasoned home brewer, knows what it takes to make a good American-style IPA or Pale Ale. However it was an attempt to craft something they could both enjoy (Fisk is less of a beer-lover) that turned out to be surprisingly good.
Bolstered by rave reviews from guests after a Super Bowl party, Descendant’s future founders entered their small-batch cider into a national competition. The European-style dry cider took the prize. That was the moment five years ago when Fisk and Maplestone realized they “had something,” namely their “true passion.”
Capitalizing on the experience, business manager Fisk dedicated her capstone project for a Master’s at NYU to create a theoretical business plan for launching a craft cider company in New York City. The project led to finding a potential production space on the borders of Queens and East Williamsburg in December 2013. Taking a leap of faith the couple took over the space, applied for a production license and started making New York City’s first ever commercial cider.
The learning curve keeps on growing. There are many challenges to launching a cider company in the city. For starters you need to find apples. Hard cider apples are different from regular eating apples, with higher tannin levels and sugar content than traditional eating apple varieties (it’s the sugar that converts to alcohol during fermentation). Not a native to the Americas, the fruit stems from the far Eastern reaches of the Silk Road of antiquity. As settlers moved West to the Americas they brought apples with them. Cider often provided a safer source of drinking water than the water itself. However after Temperance and Prohibition, demand dwindled for over a century. Old hard cider apple trees were regrafted to produce more edible varieties. With each tree yielding genetically unique fruit, entire hard apple varieties were lost in the process.
Recent renewed interest in craft alcohol across America, in part thanks to the surge in homebrewing and microbreweries, has led to a tripling in cider production 2011-13 alone. That has left some cidermakers with a shortfall of the raw product. Even with new saplings being planted across the country, it often takes at least three to four years for them to bear fruit. Apples are also seasonal, and Descendant needed to source enough apples by March to support bottlings into the Fall.
As the cidermakers began to source varieties from farms upstate, so their relationship to the Hudson Valley and their craft deepened. Fisk recalls one idyllic day picking apples from old orchards thanks to the hospitality of a local farmer. A beaming smile flashes across her face as she remembers the feeling of, “If I get to have days like this, it’ll all be worth it.”
“Every apple tastes different, you can’t guarantee uniformity with real cider.” Fisk is keen for cider drinkers to experiment with different styles and flavor profiles just as they would wine or beer.
You could argue Descendant deserve their day in the sun. Housed on the second floor of a multi-purpose industrial complex, Fisk and Maplestone now spend their time in cramped conditions where every inch of space is put to good use. They manage most things in-house, including design and packaging. Descendant’s logo is simple yet distinctive: the New York skyline boldly proclaims this cider’s origins. The name, like the city, acknowledges a legacy while being firmly rooted in the present. Its “rur-ban” founders, descendants of a long cider-making tradition spanning continents, now recultivate the fruits of America’s earth.
After securing production space in late 2013, the couple were invited by Ben Sandler and Jennifer Lim to launch Descendant’s first bottling Succession at the restaurateurs’ craft stalwart The Queens Kickshaw. Both couples had just attended the first ever Cider Con, an annual event set up to support America’s new cider making community. The launch took place in the fall of 2014 and he rest is the stuff of cider history. After only one year, Sandler and Lim are now owners of Manhattan cider bar superstar Wassail. Fisk and Maplestone are now at the helm of a reputable brand navigating the cider swell.
Descendant currently offers three ciders: “Succession,” “Pom Pomme” and their latest eponymous offering “Descendant Dry.” Succession, their first cider, is sparkling and semi-dry. Made from six different apple varieties, it makes for a great draft “session cider” to be enjoyed all day long. Pom Pomme (pomme is the French word for “apple”) playfully pairs the tartness of 10 to 11 different types of cider apples with fruity overtones of pomegranate and hibiscus flowers — essentially a rosé for cider-lovers. It embodies the fusion of European-style dry ciders with the fruity profile of some American counterparts. Their newest cider, Descendant Dry, launched at Wassail in August. Made with local heritage varieties like Winesap and Northern Spy, it is dry on the palate after being aged for almost a year. That allows more of the naturally-occurring sugars to turn to alcohol and create a dryer flavor profile.
Now managing young orchards on Long Island and Sullivan County, Fisk is especially keen to promote the element of surprise locked into every apple. “Every apple tastes different, you can’t guarantee uniformity with real cider.” She is keen for cider drinkers to experiment with different styles and flavor profiles just as they would wine or beer. As consumers become more familiar with the possibilities and complexities of cider, so artisanal cider makers can benefit from better business. Fisk notes, “education is the key to helping the cider industry grow.”
It’s clear Fisk and Maplestone’s adventure is bringing them ever closer to the land. Indeed the Cobble-dwellers wonder how long production in the city can be sustained. Despite New York’s industrial legacy, they note “real manufacturing” in the city these days is tough. Despite being closer to customers, mounting real estate costs and slow licensing approvals could prove prohibitive. However farm-based production poses different challenges such as managing deliveries, reaching customers and restaurateurs. Whatever the future holds for this enterprising couple, their digital dexterity and craftsmanship is bound to ensure there’s “success” in succession.
Photos courtesy of Descendant Cider.