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Wave of cider makers are branching out from the juicy, sweet stuff in grocery stores

DAVID GURA, HOST:

Cider makers have begun their annual apple harvest across the U.S. And if you like the hard stuff, you'll be happy to hear there's a hard cider renaissance, and a number of craft cideries are turning to foraged apples. Ben Paviour with member station VPM tells us more about it.

KIRK BILLINGSLEY: All these little trees in here are apple trees. These are younger.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Kirk Billingsley's obsession with cider began in childhood. His family had a few apple trees in their yard in Monterey, Va. Every year, they'd turn the fruit into a non-alcoholic brew.

BILLINGSLEY: And I can remember, as a child, running out to the - getting off the school bus and running out to the barrel to fill up a glass.

PAVIOUR: Decades later, it's clear Billingsley's enthusiasm hasn't waned. His Big Fish Cider Co. uses apples from unsprayed and wild trees. He's taken me to see a few in the bucolic, rocky fields of the Bluegrass Valley, a few miles away from the West Virginia border.

BILLINGSLEY: Help yourself. It's going to be sour.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLE CRUNCHING)

PAVIOUR: Oh, man.

BILLINGSLEY: Pretty sour? Spitter?

PAVIOUR: Yeah.

BILLINGSLEY: (Laughter) Feel free to spit that out.

PAVIOUR: The trees we're looking at grew up haphazardly after some bird or deer munched on a fruit and pooped out the seed. The trees that sprout up are all unique. Billingsley is the first to tell you making his award-winning Wild Meadow cider from this fruit is a labor of love. Harvest season means bumping around country roads, dodging groundhog holes and cows that are watching us expectantly.

BILLINGSLEY: We'll spread tarps under these wild trees and shake them out. Well, the cattle come running and want to get on the tarp.

PAVIOUR: Billingsley is part of a wave of cider makers who are branching out from the juicy, sweet stuff in the grocery store. They're making so-called vintage cider in smaller batches, toying with new varieties of fruit and fermentation. Most cider consumed in the U.S. is still made on an industrial scale using juice rather than fresh fruit. But Michelle McGrath with the American Cider Association says there are now around 1,300 professional cider makers. That's six times the number from when the current boom kicked off around a decade ago.

MICHELLE MCGRATH: It's really the small and mid-sized regional and local cideries where we're seeing a lot of growth. And, of course, there's winners and losers in there. But overall, there's been steady double-digit growth for some time.

PAVIOUR: Some may be drawn by the simplicity of cider making. Take apples, press them to get the juice, add yeast, ferment it and, bam, you've got cider.

MCGRATH: That's all you do. It's as simple as making wine. It's really just a really basic process. There's no heating. There's no distilling. It's just fermenting apple juice.

PAVIOUR: But just because it's simple doesn't make it easy. Just ask cider maker Patrick Collins. He and his wife are experimenting with nearly every step of the process in a Charlottesville warehouse.

PATRICK COLLINS: There will never be any time where we're, like, sitting on our hands being like, well, we figured it out.

PAVIOUR: They also use wild apples, some harvested from trees on the side of the road, and ferment in bottles. It's a technique they borrowed from champagne makers, complete with a pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOTTLE POPPING, BOTTLE CAP CLINKING)

COLLINS: So you got to do the timing right.

PAVIOUR: Their company's name is even French - Patois. Using wild fruit cuts costs, but Collins also likes the fact that no two wild apple trees produce the same fruit. The unpredictability of the cider they'll produce each year is part of the thrill.

COLLINS: Our intention will always be subsumed by the vagaries of a given year.

PAVIOUR: The ciders I try are tart and complex. My cider vocabulary is still developing. Meanwhile, Collins says he wants to make a beverage that's taken as seriously as fine wine.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Charlottesville, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ben Paviour