Each fall, my thoughts return to the apple orchards and cider presses of my childhood. The first hints of a chill in the air, crisp as a freshly picked apple, takes me right back to leaves crunching underfoot and warming my hands on a mug of hot cider.
So imagine my delight, then, at the soaring popularity of hard ciders in recent years, which let my adult self get in on the action and celebrate autumn in grown-up style. Even more exciting, over the past three months, local New Mexico ciders have become increasingly available at local breweries. This is due in large part to SB 440, commonly called the reciprocity law that went into effect on July 1. The new law allows local breweries to sell local wines (not just beers), and vice-versa. It’s had a hugely positive impact on local cider businesses, since ciders are considered wine under state law. It’s also a boon for the cider-drinking consumer, who can now enjoy a glass of the charismatic elixir with their beer-drinking friends.
New Mexico cideries are about more than making delicious beverages, though. The real mission behind these cideries is a fundamental commitment to strengthening our agriculture, our economy and our culture.
For centuries, apples have been an integral part of our state’s history. In the past, New Mexico orchards were full of heirloom apple varieties brought over from Spain. In fact, a survey conducted by the Manzano Forest Reserve in 1926 identified a tree that’s believed to have been planted by Franciscan friars before 1676, making New Mexico home to the oldest apple orchard in the United States!Sadly, this long-standing heritage is threatened. Much of it has already been lost. Unpredictable weather patterns, competition from large-scale farms, dwindling interest in farming, and a problematic lack of biodiversity have forced many growers to give up their apple orchards. Sometimes, the orchards are simply left untended and become overgrown. Other growers, tragically, have had to rip out heirloom apple trees and replace them with alfalfa or another more profitable and stable crop. Cider making presents a solution to these difficulties, while handily making use of what’s already available. As a result, the local cideries are fierce crusaders for sustainable New Mexico agriculture.
One of the hardships apple producers face is unpredictable crop yields. It’s very much a feast or a famine, because apple trees will often freeze and fail to produce fruit for several years. When they finally do bear fruit, farmers experience a bumper crop, and they aren’t able to sell it all. As Michael Zercher of Santa Sidra Premium Hard Cider explains, “Farmers can only sell a certain part of the crop. The apples have to be the right size, can’t be hail damaged or misshapen. More than half the apples in New Mexico are ‘imperfect’ and not saleable for eating.” The desire to create a market for those unused apples is what motivated Zercher to start Santa Sidra back in 2013. He had been making cider as a hobby for several years, but after talking with several local apple growers, he learned that millions of New Mexico apples were deemed too small, too damaged, or just too downright ugly to sell at the markets, and were being left on the ground to rot. Michael saw an opportunity to use those wasted apples while also helping to support local agriculture.
“I’ve had conversations with growers about what gets lost when people can’t stay on the farm,” Zercher says. “From an economic and food systems standpoint, that’s a real loss to lose that knowledge. We lose some really important values that go back to the days when we were all small-town farmers: cooperation, collaboration, self-sufficiency. I’m just trying to preserve a tiny piece of that as much as I can with cider and working with the local farmers.”
Today, Santa Sidra proudly uses 100-percent New Mexico apples in each and every batch of cider they produce. The cidery recently took home the Sustainable Santa Fe Award for Food System Adaptation, in addition to taking winning gold and silver in the state fair for two years running. It would seem those useless apples aren’t so useless after all!
The issue of food waste and underutilized orchards also influenced Craig Moya to start New Mexico Hard Cider. About three years ago, his family’s orchard had an overabundance of apples. In an attempt to use up the excess produce, he tried making cider and found he really enjoyed it. After doing some research, he discovered cider would be a viable business in the next few years, so he decided to take the plunge. Moya knows first-hand about the difficulties apple producers face. His uncle owns an orchard in Villa Nueva, and Moya has seen how younger generations’ loss of interest affects farming families. There are simply fewer and fewer people available and willing to tend the orchards, so many are left untended and become overgrown. To combat this problem, Moya implemented an ingenious and inspired solution. He actively seeks neglected orchards and restores them in exchange for the first two years’ worth of produce. After the first two years, the owner is paid a regular price for the apples. Moya gets his apples, the orchards are preserved, and the owner will be able to turn a profit on otherwise unused land.
“I think it’s important because farming really adds to the sense of community,” Moya says. “It keeps the traditions of the community going, and connects people back to the land. Plus the food just tastes better!”
After years of hard work restoring orchards and getting New Mexico Hard Cider off the ground, the cidery now offers many different varieties, including sweet, semi-sweet, tart cherry, perry, hopped, carrot-hopped and barrel-aged ciders. “I really like trying different stuff and experimenting,” Moya says. “We want to focus on experiential batches—the stuff you’re not going to get in a liquor store.” The cidery’s downtown tasting room (in the old Marble Brewing space) is set to open this month, and will provide the perfect experimental space for small batches and seasonal flavors.
Another agricultural issue with far-reaching consequences for all of us is the troubling lack of biodiversity among apple crops. As Santa Fe Cider Works Co-owner Michelle Vignery explains, “The more diversified types of apples you have in an orchard, the more resistant to diseases or insect infestation the orchard is. Those older varieties of apples, many of them have been replaced with more popular varieties. If we can help diversify the orchards, our environment in New Mexico will be stronger.” In other words, popular varieties like McIntosh, Red Delicious, and Gala dominate the market. Less attractive heirloom varieties are all but forgotten. Some of the traditional apple varieties are so unpalatable, they’re even nicknamed “spitters.” But the same astringent, high-tannin apples that are unsuitable for eating are ideal for making cider.
Vignery’s partner at Santa Fe Cider Works, Jordana “Jordy” Dralle, knows exactly how to take advantage of those less popular apples. Since she’s been a professional brewer for the past two decades, Dralle is well versed in fermentation science. A few years ago, Dralle and Vignery began making ciders as a hobby. Then they noticed a growing demand for small-batch ciders. Vignery speculates, “The microbrew explosion has really opened up people’s palates to new experiences, and there’s a greater appreciation for crafted beverages.” As believers in the farm-to-table movement, they decided to seize the opportunity and opened Santa Fe Cider Works. They have two varieties, The Cider Different and Enchanted Cherry, and in all their batches, they’re adamant about using only real fruit and fruit juice so the ingredients are as natural as possible.
While each New Mexico cidery has its own distinctive character, they all share a commitment to strengthening our local economy and to supporting local agriculture. New Mexico ciders represent a marriage of practicality and mirth. It’s a blend of hard work and high hopes, a way of honoring our past with an eye to the future, all while making use of what’s available right in front of us. What could be more quintessentially New Mexican than that?
New Mexico Cideries
New Mexico Hard Cider
505 Cerrillos Road Suite A105
Santa Fe Cider Works
1730 Camino Carlos Rey, Suite 103
3435 Stanford Drive NE
Story by Melyssa Holik