Shacksbury Cider co-founder Colin Davis wasn’t a cider drinker before launching the Vermont-based cider company with partner David Dolginow, but it only took a few sips to spark his interest. “The first time I tasted Basque cider, I said, ‘Is this made from apples?’ It was peppery and yeasty and didn’t taste like apples at all. It was citrusy and bitter and awesome,” he says.
A Midwestern transplant to Vermont, Davis studied architecture, ran a design/build company, worked in electronics recycling and planned to open a specialty meat company with a herd of Highland beef cattle before that transformative taste of Basque cider and a subsequent introduction to a wild apple-based cider made by local cheesemaker Michael Lee. “Part of why we had the courage to start this is because it seemed like there was a lot of opportunity in the category,” says Davis. “After drinking Michael’s cider—something he made in his basement that ended up being some of the best cider we’ve ever had—it seemed like there was room for innovation.”
Because Davis didn’t have a background in fermentation, he sought out partnerships with a few overseas cider companies to help create Shackbury’s year-round offerings. The Dry and Semi-Dry ciders are composed of Vermont cider blended with cider fermented with Once Upon a Tree in the U.K., and Arlo, a 100% wild fermented cider that undergoes a second fermentation in the can, features a blend of Petritegi Sagardoa cider blended with Vermont cider made at Shacksbury. The partnerships have also become a way to fuse Old World techniques with modern innovation. “When I met Simon Day [at Once Upon a Tree], he was very traditional in his approach, using sulfites and cultured yeast and treating things in a modern winemaking style. Now he’s experimenting with wild yeast fermentations,” Davis says. “Petritegi has been using a Champagne method for a very long time, and now they’re starting to innovate. I think that has a lot to do with the triangulation between the three of us.”
Working with his European counterparts also inspired Davis to explore the flavors of cider-specific apples rather than the culinary varieties often used in American cidermaking. “European-style cidermaking is more focused on fruit and traditional cider varieties that have been cultivated in those areas for a long time,” he says, adding that he sometimes forages locally for wild apples. “Another way to get apples that have the characteristics we’re looking for is to forage,” he says. “This goes back to what Michael Lee brought to our tasting group years ago.”
In an effort to highlight some of his heirloom apple discoveries, in 2013, Davis created the Lost Apple Project. When he finds apples that hit all the right flavor notes during fermentation, he grafts and propagates the varieties to create commercially viable fruit with a very region-specific terroir. “A couple of years ago there was a bumper crop of the wild apples, so we were able to get enough from specific sites to do site specific ciders, like at Apple Ridge Farm in Rochester, Vermont. All of the apples from that historic register farm went into one tank with wild yeast fermentation so the flavor is very much of that one place.”
The Lost Apple Project is a long-term venture; going from first apple to a crop of apple-bearing trees can take up to seven years. But Davis says the results are worth the wait. “Before we started this, we didn’t realize (and a lot of people don’t realize) that if a tree grows from seed, you can’t really predict what the apple is going to taste like. There are thousands of unique apple varieties planted in the Northeast, and Vermont especially, so it’s a cool process to go out looking for flavors that you want, and if you find them, to be able to propagate those trees.”
Look for the Shacksbury’s new tasting room to open later this year in a restored 1900s-era building that once houses a creamery, and check out their website for news on future Lost Apple releases.
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