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Hard cider on Long Island: Why it's fall's hottest trend

Woodside Orchards hard cider tasting barn in Aquebogue

Woodside Orchards hard cider tasting barn in Aquebogue offers four kinds of hard cider, traditional, traditional sweet, apple raspberry and cinnamon apple. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

The cider house rules.

On a recent October Saturday, the crowd is deep and the lines are long at Woodside Orchards in Aquebogue. Some come for the apples, some for the doughnuts. And most now visit for a drink that Americans have been downing since the 18th century: hard apple cider.

"It has really exceeded our every expectation," said Bob Gammon, co-owner of the orchard.

Such results aren't unique to Woodside Orchards, either.

A revival of the Pilgrims' and the Founding Fathers' favorite drink has been dramatic nationwide. While cider has a tiny portion of the overall brew market, fermented apple juice is the country's fastest-growing alcoholic beverage, up more than 75 percent last year after even bigger jumps in 2013 and 2012.

Hard ciders typically contain up to 8.5 percent alcohol. You must be 21 years old in New York State to buy hard cider.

The hard ciders aren't all from small producers, either. Boston Beer Co., which makes Samuel Adams brews, contributes Angry Orchard hard ciders. InBev'sStella Artois markets a "cidre;" Heineken, Strongbow. MillerCoors: responsible for Smith & Forge. In the early 1990s, Woodchuck Cider of Vermont presaged the rebirth of hard cider, which was devastated by Prohibition and better beer.

Woodside Orchards continues to produce the familiar sweet, unfermented nonalcoholic cider. But, Gammon said, "We've put up a separate building in the back to increase production" of hard cider.

The repertoire in Aquebogue currently includes a seasonal hard cider with pumpkin and, earlier, an apple-cinnamon cider. There's apple-ginger, apple-raspberry and apple-lemon during the year. The dry traditional and traditional sweet ciders are the main year-rounders.

All are on tap and in growlers at Woodside. What started as a way to lengthen the season for apple products has become a primary attraction.

And on Long Island, hard apple cider's growth keeps bubbling along with big sales for sweet cider. Look for the cars parked along Route 106 in Jericho, as customers proceed to the line for cider, apples, pies and other baked goods at the landmark Jericho Cider Mill. The Mill's trademark: "Live Happley Appley."

"The taste varies depending on the time of the season," said manager Peter Schmidt. "It starts out sweet and gets more tart" as the apples come out of storage after Christmas instead of directly from the orchards.

As at all cider houses, the choice of apples is the key decision. "It's all about the blend," said Louis Amsler, co-owner of Richters Orchard in Northport. He's fond of a classic cidermaker's quote: "No apple makes good cider, but every apple makes a cider good." Richters was established by German immigrant Frederick W. Richter in 1900. The Amsler family has owned it since 1946.

Sweet cider is the mainstay at Richters. "Local, refreshing, hard to pass up," Amsler said. But he added, "Hard cider has so much interest in it," and sometimes, a light white-wine quality, and comparatively low alcohol. It's also gluten-free.

Wölffer Estate Vineyard, one of Long Island's major wineries, entered the hard-cider market in 2013 with its No. 139 Dry White and Dry Rosé versions. Winemaker Roman Roth used "prime fruit," 10 varieties of apple, from nearby White Cap Farm in Water Mill for his bright, round sparkling ciders, sold in 355ml bottles.

The white cider includes 3 percent pear juice. "It adds a little creaminess to the cider," Roth said. The rosé cider is slightly sweeter and includes a small addition of red grape skin extract. This year, Wölffer is producing 15,000 cases of hard cider.

Lieb Cellars in Cutchogue and Mattituck produced Rumor Mill Dry Sparkling Cider, a crisp and tart small-batch winner available in 750ml bottles. But it was made only once, last fall, with 10 varieties of North Fork apples that were pressed at the Jericho Cider Mill. Only 500 cases were made.

Hard cider was popular in Colonial America. The alcohol actually was good for people's health in an age of bacteria-laden, polluted water. Its flavor improved when seedling trees were planted. John Chapman, an 18th century orchardist who became known as Johnny Appleseed, collected apple seeds and planted them in advance of settlers. He became rich.

Now, American cider is made primarily in the northeast, the Great Lakes states and the Pacific Northwest. More than 30 countries on six continents make apple cider.

But the drink dates at least to ancient Rome -- the empire, not the apple.

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