Graft Cidery Wants to Create a New Identity for American Cider

“Now we’re asking: What can cider do better than beer?”

Hearth, indeed. Photo by David Hall.

Wild yeast fermented, gose-style, fruited sour, dry hopped: These terms have come to roll of the tongues of beer-savvy drinkers and home brewers. Fermentation aficionados, entrepreneurs and beer nerds have redefined what craft brewing looks like in America. Now the time has come for cider.

The team at Graft Cidery in Newburgh, New York is proposing a new vocabulary for hard cider. Owner and cider crafter Kyle Sherrer has drawn on old-world approaches and his own creative impulse to create what he calls sour ciders for the modern drinker. Sherrer brands his products as such for clarity, but he thinks the term glosses over the perpetual innovation integral to his company.

“We decided that if we’re going to change the industry,” Sherrer said in an interview, “we’re going to have to create styles. Even on Untapped and all the rating sites, cider is just one big category.” All the Graft ciders are wild yeast fermented, free of sulfites, unpasteurized, and unfiltered—poured into a glass, the ciders are translucent and milky. The tart nose gives way to a robust texture and yeasty finish.

Graft maintains a rotating selection of gose-style ciders, hop-centric ciders and fruited ciders, but Sherrer relies on one mainstay, Farm Flor. The cider takes its inspiration from the rustic ciders of Asturias in the northwestern corner of Spain. All the ciders are fermented with a signature strain of wild Brett Sherrer found samples of what would become the house yeast on an apple tree in New Paltz, New York; he works with RVA labs in Richmond, Virginia, to cultivate the yeast for use in the cider-making process.

The marriage of modern chemistry and old-world traditions is thrilling to Sherrer. “We’re at the tip of the iceberg,” he said, “there is so much more we need to uncover.” He sees his work as a continual process of overlaying traditions and contemporary tastes. Recreating the traditions of yore bores him: His work is to pull from established techniques and integrate them into the contemporary world to create a new identity—and industry—for cider in America.

To do that, Sherrer targets craft beer drinkers, many of whom are eager for funky, tart, and sour flavors. (He estimates that existing cider drinkers are after something a little different than what Graft provides.) The trouble, he has found, is getting craft beer nerds to think twice about cider. At beer festivals, rather than calling his product a cider, he started to refer to it as a sour. It worked, Sherrer said: “Those two words and people say, oh, that’s something I’d like to try.”

Graft is marking the season with new ciders (none of which involve pumpkin, intentionally) and an eye toward the future. “When we started, we were definitely about what we could take from beer and use,” Sherrer said, “Now we’re asking: What can cider do better than beer?”

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Nina Sparling is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Civil Eats, WhoWhatWhy and The Rumpus. She is the associate editor of The Tenderloin, an international journal of food writing.