The story of the apple in American history is something Andy Crown Brennan knows in his bones. He’s making a living on a small orchard that has more in common with early American history than any apple orchard you’re likely to find in the region. Brennan is growing more than 50 varieties of heirloom and wild apples for drinking, not for eating.
Hard cider is commercially hot right now. But Brennan’s Aaron Burr Cidery in Wurtsboro was on the scene well before the current vogue, and what he’s doing is beyond the merely fashionable. The sorts of cider that Brennan’s making on his ten-acre orchard have nothing in common with the watery stuff you can buy in a supermarket or on tap at a tavern. Brennan’s cider is created with the same care and attention to detail usually reserved for artisanal wines. The way he grows his trees, gathers his apples and makes his cider recalls the vital role that the apple once played in American life, when it was known as “the drink of patriots” – a drink that eventually became so thoroughly vilified that its manufacture was prohibited by federal law.
Brennan came to wild apples by following a long and overgrown path. He grew up in Washington, DC into a family of lawyers. But rather than law school, Brennan wound up at art school, where he studied painting and tried for more than a decade to make a living as an artist.
He was introduced to the lives of apples by a friend with whom he shared a fishing shack on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay in the ’90s. Behind the shack stood an old abandoned orchard, part of a long-gone-to-seed plantation. “I really loved the anthropomorphic shapes of those old trees,” Brennan recalled recently. “The apples, of course, weren’t cultivated; they were all kinds of red and yellow and green, usually scabby and deformed.”
The plantation, and the shack, were ultimately sold and bulldozed in 2004 or 2005. But by then Brennan had met and married his wife, Polly Giragosian. The couple were living in Brooklyn in the early aughts. Brennan had taken up architectural drawing for a living. The idea to homestead in the countryside took hold; in 2006, they bought the small patch of land where the cidery now stands. (Asked why he named the cidery after the notorious vice president/duelist, Brennan noted, “Aaron Burr wrote our property deed in 1817. He was also a lawyer, as well as murderer.”)
At first, when they moved to the property, Brennan expected that he could continue working as an architectural artist. Then the bottom fell out of that market with the recession of ’08. “We discovered we couldn’t be hobbyists anymore,” he said.
There were about 40 cultivated apple trees on the property. Maybe their future lay there, he thought, in the carefully laid-out rows of trees so common to the region’s landscape. Then something happened: Some uncultivated apple trees caught Brennan’s eye – trees whose gnarly golfball-sized fruit reminded him of those beauties that he used to paint along the Chesapeake.
He did some research and experimenting. The cider from wild apples could be dark amber in color, with a viscous quality that put “traditional” watery cider rendered from cultivated fruit in the shade. Different varieties of apples provided different tastes: bitter, sweet and every combination in between. New possibilities began to take root in the couple’s plans.
A word here about the apple, some myths and misunderstandings: The apple is not as American as apple pie. It’s not indigenous to America. Apples originated in Asia and parts of Europe thousands of years ago. They arrived on our shores with the Mayflower. The Pilgrims planted the first appleseeds in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1625.
As the populace moved west and settled the land, cider was as common and as welcome as a glass of water, and sometimes more reliably drinkable. The autumnal harvesting of apple crops became a shared experience among farm families. “Apples were one of the glues that brought people together. Everyone had apples that they’d take to the local mill.”
Cider even became a symbol of what today would be called the populist campaign of William Henry Harrison, who portrayed himself as the “log cabin and hard cider candidate” and beat out Martin Van Buren in the election of 1840.
By the end of the 1800s, there were more than 14,000 distinct apple varieties to be found across the farmsteads of America (as compared to the approximately 90 varieties grown commercially in the U.S. today). But when industrial-scale agriculture began a century or so ago, the cultivated orchards that supported those farms went wild, its trees weatherbeaten and forgotten. Then came the ax-wielding hand of Carrie Nation and her army of Temperance crusaders. The Volstead Act provided a blow to hard cider that it is only now recovered from a century later.
Brennan’s wild-apple approach to making a living hearkens back to those pre-industrial days. “I’ve been planting trees all around me for years now. I visit neighbors and ask if I can harvest their trees.”
Brennan pays for his harvest by sharing the resultant cider with his neighbors. He harvests apples from between four and five hundred trees on his property and his neighbors,’ while throwing seed-rich pomace about the countryside, à la Johnny Appleseed.
Brennan recommends pairing cider with turkey, pork, wild game, shellfish, salads and cheeses because the drink’s malic acids cut though the buttery feeling of rich foods, and its soft tannins do not dry the mouth. “I think of cider as a wine,” Brennan said. “I promise you, it’s not me who makes my cider what it is. It’s only because I serve the components as undivided equals: the trees, the fermentation and what I call the ‘cider culture’ – the community involvement. If you follow nature’s thread through all those components, the world mysteriously pays you back for your service.”
If you really want to know about the wild apple and why it holds such allure for Brennan, he suggests reading Henry David Thoreau, whose essay “Wild Apples” can be found in all its glory here: http://theatln.tc/2tlAg57. The essay’s final paragraph looks backward and forward to a history that was and a history-to-come that Thoreau warned against. It also explains the passion that Andy Crown Brennan shares with Thoreau as he has followed in the great man’s meandering, wild ways:
“The era of the Wild Apple will soon be past. It is a fruit which will probably become extinct in New England. You may still wander through old orchards of native fruit of great extent, which for the most part went to the cider-mill, now all gone to decay. I have heard of an orchard in a distant town, on the side of a hill, where the apples rolled down and lay four feet deep against a wall on the lower side, and this the owner cut down for fear they should be made into cider. Since the temperance reform and the general introduction of grafted fruit, no native apple-trees, such as I see everywhere in deserted pastures, and where the woods have grown up around them, are set out. I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know! Notwithstanding the prevalence of the Baldwin and the Porter, I doubt if so extensive orchards are set out to-day in my town as there were a century ago, when those vast straggling cider-orchards were planted, when men both ate and drank apples, when the pomace-heap was the only nursery, and trees cost nothing but the trouble of setting them out. Men could afford then to stick a tree by every wall-side and let it take its chance. I see nobody planting trees to-day in such out-of-the-way places, along the lonely roads and lanes, and at the bottom of dells in the wood. Now that they have grafted trees, and pay a price for them, they collect them into a plat by their houses, and fence them in – and the end of it all will be that we shall be compelled to look for our apples in a barrel.”
For more information about the Aaron Burr Cidery, visit www.aaronburrcider.com.