Apples on tap: A growing industry, local cideries make a fun fall family outing
As the leaves change colors and crunch under our feet, the scents of autumn fill the air. It’s the perfect time for a road trip to one of numerous family-owned cideries throughout Connecticut and adjacent states.
In laid-back, often picturesque settings, cidery staff members educate visitors on their unique collections of sweet and dry hard ciders, made using recipes from a variety of apples and other fruit, spices and sometimes added alcohol. Many offer flights, or samplings served on a wooden board.
Even though hard cider represents just 1 percent of alcoholic beverage sales, “it has grown exponentially in recent years,” according to Rich Alterman, writing on foodinstitute.com.
Market researchers said hard cider sales totaled $494.4 million, an 11 percent increase, in 2020, according to Alterman, and the North American cider market is projected to grow to $4.66 billion by 2026 as consumers seek out alternative alcoholic beverages.
Most local cideries are an extension of previously opened wineries, but provide a niche of added farm value for orchards and fruit-growers, especially during apple harvest time in the fall. Here are some cideries that offer tastings, family-friendly events, farm stores and more.
Experience a festive fall atmosphere on the weekends between noon and 5 p.m. at Holmberg Orchards & Winery, a 150-acre farm at 12 Orchard Lane in Gales Ferry.
Stop by the 1850s tasting barn to sample hard ciders and wines while savoring a cider doughnut. Then hop aboard a tractor-hay ride, pick-your-own apples, pears, peaches and pumpkins, and test your sense of direction in a corn maze.
“It’s funny. Usually the kids can do it in five to 10 minutes. It takes adults about 20 minutes. It’s so strange kids for whatever reason have an intuition that escapes adults,” said Russell Holmberg, who owns the farm, which has been in the family since 1896, with his parents, Richard and Diane Holmberg.
Before leaving, stop by Holmberg Orchards’ retail farm market, open seven days a week all year long except for a few holidays, at another part of their farm at 1990 Route 12 in Gales Ferry and purchase corn, fruit, sweet/hard cider, wines, baked goods and prepared foods.
Utilizing 35 varieties of apples, as well as peaches, raspberries, blueberries, black currants and grapes grown on their farm, the Holmberg family has been making a variety of hard ciders and wines for the last 15 years.
When the Holmbergs were first establishing the cidery/winery in 2007, customers didn’t know what they were doing, said Holmberg, who oversees greenhouse operations and tree fruit production. He lives on the farm with his wife, Christine, and their children, Andrew and Heidi, who are the fifth-generation of Holmbergs to be raised there.
“There was virtually no market for hard cider. And then in the last especially five to 10 years, it has not only become popularized, but I’d say normalized, where you start to see it on menus: beer, wine and cider, which Holmberg described as a “euphoric” moment, along with seeing three hard cider tents set up at the Newport Folk Festival a few years ago.
“We sell more cider in a month than we sold in our first two years in business,” he said.
Since the 1940s, the Holmberg family has also been selling sweet, nonalcoholic cider every fall.
“We treat our sweet cider with UV (ultraviolet) light to make sure that there are no pathogens in there that can make anybody sick,” said Holmberg. “So we have the same degree of food safety that we’d have from a pasteurized product, but because we do it with UV light, our juice hasn’t been heated, so all the natural flavors and aromatics are there. It’s cold processed. We really feel it’s a better product with the UV treatment versus pasteurization,” he said.
Have fun walking about a portion of the Staehly Farm orchard and picking your own fruit near 23 Petticoat Lane in East Haddam—the site of Yankee Cider Company’s 100-year-old barn taproom, which is open this fall every Thursday and Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
Utilizing most of the 40 to 50 varieties of apples, as well as peaches, rhubarb and other fruit grown on their 100-acre farm, the family produces about 30 varieties of hard cider, which include 12 on draft, limited editions and seven standard options, produced year-round in 12- and 22-ounce bottles as well as growlers. They also offer a variety of wines.
Ordering a tasting flight, or sampler, “is a great way to get your feet wet,” said Kevin Staehly, taproom manager and son of Chris (cider and winemaker) and Gail Staehly, who have owned a Christmas tree farm on the property since 1985, and founded Staehly’s Farm & Winery in 2014 and Yankee Cider Company in 2016.
For those who have only tasted commercial hard cider brands, Staehly added, visiting a local farm is “a great way to start getting into that real, true, straight-from-the-farm craft cider.”
Yankee Cider Company was recently awarded “Best Connecticut Cider” for the fourth year by the Eastern States Exposition Gold Cider & Perry Competition, and was named “Reserve Champion” second runner-up for Best of New England this year.
Hard cider’s popularity has been growing dramatically in Connecticut since 2014, said Staehly, who graduated from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, that same year. Hard cider began to climb in popularity on the West Coast around that time, he said.
“The prediction was that by right around 2022 to 2030, we’d really be hitting our stride on the East Coast with it as well,” said Staehly.
“Not to be funny, but what kind of upset the applecart was the hard seltzer,” he said. “In terms of the alcoholic beverage industry, it just took off out of nowhere and started sucking up a huge portion of the market share.”
The Staehlys also offer pasteurized nonalcoholic sweet cider from a local farm, as well as wine-tastings at their farm winery, located on another portion of the property at 278 Town Street in East Haddam. They’re open May through December on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. and periodically offer craft classes.
For an entirely different experience, step over the state line into downtown Westerly, Rhode Island, and discover Tapped Apple Cidery & Winery at 37 High Street.
Tapped received Best of Rhode Island and Silver and Bronze awards at the Eastern States Exposition Gold Cider & Perry Competition this year and the highest Choice Winery ranking of five venues in Rhode Island by ChoiceWineries.com.
In business since August 2017 and owned by partners John Wiedenheft III and his son, John Wiedenheft IV, this venue features seven types of hard cider, including apple, cranberry, peach and blueberry, and seven different wines, including one with apple and black cherry.
A colorful wooden sign of a tapped apple lets visitors know they’re approaching this welcoming, upscale venue with its white-and-reddish-brown painted brick interior, bamboo and tile flooring and a 20-foot, red-mahogany curved bar and façade, which replicates a wine barrel.
Even though their wine sales have gone up incrementally, John Wiedenheft III said “hard cider is really where the growth” is. He attributes it to people becoming bored of hard seltzer, which “really doesn’t have all that much flavor, compared to a hard cider.”
One of Tapped Apple’s hard ciders, called “First Bite,” is also “pretty low calorie,” Wiedenheft said.
Hard ciders can be purchased as four-packs (cans) or individually. Along with wines, hard cider can also be purchased in 32- or 64-ounce refillable growlers.
Utilizing apples from Sunset Farms in North Scituate, Rhode Island, Tapped Apple’s 4,000-square-foot, off-site location in Westerly now contains 35 to 40 holding tanks. Only two fermenting containers remain at the taproom.
Their offerings include hard cider, many nonalcoholic beverages, a variety of white and red apple wines and a selection of cheeses, crackers, cured meats and Hauser chocolates.
Outside seating is available in the spring and fall during Westerly’s Sunday Fundays. Enjoy playing shuffleboard and board games stored on bookshelves. Attend one of Tapped Apple Cidery & Winery’s events, which include art exhibits, psychic presentations or comedy performances, some of which are private, ticketed affairs. They’re open Friday from 2 to 8 p.m., Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.