Editor’s note: We just sent our drinks issue to press and have cider on the brain. New York State’s making some of the country’s best suds and as we learned a couple of years ago, it’s also home to several native apple varieties including Queens’s own Newtown Pippin.
Good for baking, eating and cider making, it’s a workhorse fruit. It also has a surprising local history recently told by our sister magazine Edible Queens:
In the 17th century, when New York was still New Amsterdam, residents flocked eastward seeking respite from downtown’s crowded squalor. In contrast to swampy Lower Manhattan, the glacial deposit of Long Island presented a relative agricultural panacea. Beginning in 1652, a stream of European settlers—first Dutch, then English—began populating what became Newtown.
Now called Elmhurst, Newtown remains a point of entry for Queens’ newest arrivals. Strikingly, the neighborhood’s food history extends to its early days of European settlement. While one can find lychee, jackfruit and soursop in the markets of today’s Elmhurst, it’s a humble apple that symbolizes Newtown’s colonial past.
The story of apples in Newtown begins with the Rev. John Moore, who established the Newtown First Episcopal Church, which remains Queens’ oldest congregation. The reverend’s son, Gershom, later planted over 500 apple trees on the estate’s grounds. One such cultivar from the Moore orchard—the Newtown Pippin—eventually rose to national fame. Small, green and irregularly shaped, the Newtown Pippin does not conform to contemporary aesthetic expectations. It is, however, a versatile fruit that can be used for cider or in desserts, providing it is adequately cellared. A freshly picked Pippin contains excess starch that, in time, is converted into sugar. This quality rendered the varietal well suited for overseas shipment.
As the first generation of Newtown Pippins came of age, America’s founders became some of the varietal’s earliest devotees. Thomas Jefferson planted over four-dozen Pippin trees on Monticello’s grounds between 1769 and 1814. As he represented the new republic abroad, Benjamin Franklin introduced the Pippin to English elites as an exemplar of American agricultural prowess. Queen Victoria was so taken with the varietal as to temporarily waive import tariffs on Virginia apples.
The demise of the Newtown Pippin began with the two-fold loss of its name. In the antebellum South, the varietal became so closely associated with Jefferson’s home county that it was known as the “Albemarle Pippin.” By 1897, Newtown itself had been re-christened as Elmhurst. Unsightly and subject to russetting, the Newtown Pippin was hardly poised for commercial success. As the Pippin fell out of fashion, so did cider. As grain-based liquors fell in price, the nation turned away from cider and toward whiskey.
A local cider movement
It took over a century for cider to regain its place in America’s beverage pantheon. In the early 1980s, apple grower Stephen Wood made a radical decision to replace thousands of McIntosh trees—rendered unprofitable by competition from industrial growers—with heirloom cidering varietals. Fast-forward to 2011, when the New York Cider Association hosted the Big Apple’s first Cider Week.
Jennifer Lim and Benjamin Sandler attended that inaugural festival. Months beforehand, they had opened The Queens Kickshaw (now shuttered) in Astoria. “After the festival, we fell in love with cider,” says Lim. “We saw the potential, and were very surprised by how little we knew about it.”
Lim and Sandler developed a cider concept at The Queens Kickshaw for several years, adding more options to their bottle list by the month and witnessing cider purchases rise from 5% to 25% of beverage sales over a three-year period. “It was a very organic process,” says Sandler. “As our knowledge and experience with cider grew, so too did the market, the distribution networks and public curiosity.”
The couple’s fondness for cider culminated in their opening of Wassail in Manhattan, the city’s first cider-focused bar. “We were the first, but we were surprised nobody had done it sooner,” says Sandler.
In spite of the seeming increase in demand for high-quality ciders, Wassail struggled. Despite ambitious educational programming and serving some of New York’s most exciting ciders, Wassail’s doors closed in January. Undeterred, Lim and Sandler remain hopeful.
“Cider isn’t going away. It’s respected in fine-dining circles, and is also beloved as a session beverage. Producers continue to innovate, distribution networks continue to grow and consumers continue to demand new and exciting products,” says Lim.
Not far from the site of the Newtown Pippin’s ancestral grounds, another husband-and-wife team is reviving New York’s cider tradition on the production end. Descendant Cider Company, founded in 2013, is the first cidery to operate within New York City. Jahil Maplestone and Alexandra Fisk run Descendant out of a single room in a mixed-use industrial complex in Maspeth.
“I’ve built everything in here myself,” says Maplestone, gesturing around the small, cluttered space. “We are big proponents of the DIY ethic. Why spend $200,000 on a press when I can make it by hand for a fraction of that?”
Staging a comeback
In tandem with cider’s popularity, the Newtown Pippin has made an unlikely comeback. Environmental activist Erik Baard first came across the apple in the early aughts while researching strategies for remediating the polluted Newtown Creek.
“My initial vision was to plant a few heritage trees on the banks of the creek,” says Baard. “It never happened, but it initiated an enormous project to bring the Newtown Pippin back to Queens, which we’ve done successfully.”
Over the past decade, Baard has forged partnerships with the New York Restoration Project, Slow Food NYC, Green Apple Cleaners and others to promote restoration of the Newtown Pippin and its celebration as a point of local heritage.
With Baard at the helm, Gotham Orchards planted hundreds of heirloom apple saplings across the borough, including at Elmhurst’s First Episcopal Church, where the Moore legacy began. The largest grove of Pippins is at the Queens College Arboretum, the result of a student-led initiative.
To pollinate Queens College’s Pippins, Baard planted them alongside varietals from Kazakhstan’s Tianshan mountains, the apple’s ancestral homeland. “These Kazakh apples are genetically interesting. They do pretty well here,” Baard says.
Where else but in Queens would one expect to find trees that have grown here for generations mingling with new arrivals hoping to sink deep roots and lay their offspring on more fertile soil? Perhaps we can learn something from the story of the apple, a fruit that has origins in a faraway land but is still quintessentially American, and here to stay.