Pressing for Success

Hungry hordes turned out for Slow Food USA’s Urban Harvest in Manhattan, roped in by that most appealing of gastronomic vehicles—the tasting event.

image of orange and apple juice

Part of a growing movement to transform the way people eat, the daylong festival was aimed at forging a stronger connection between the city’s residents and the surrounding region’s mostly rural food producers.

Dozens of purveyors were on hand to give out samples, from artisanal cheeses and heirloom vegetables to locally-prepared condiments and handcrafted hard ciders— the latter being a category Slow Food had recently listed on its “Ark” of endangered foods, an effort to boost consumer demand for worthy but vanishing cuisine.

Among the handful of cider producers who flocked to New York City to dispense their potions was a contingent from Flag Hill Farm. Founded by Sabra Ewing '80 and her partner Sebastian Lousada, this family-owned boutique cidery in rural Vershire, Vermont—some 290 miles away—has been at the vanguard of reviving an old American tradition.

Hard cider, a libation made from fermented apple juice, was a staple of colonial life. John Chapman, who earned the nickname Johnny Appleseed for sowing the frontier with apple trees, collected the seeds from the abundant cider mills east of the Ohio River. The beverage was so commonplace that the author Michael Pollan noted in his book The Botany of Desire, “Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider.” Even children drank the bubbly beverage.

illustration of a cider press

As the 19th century drew to a close, however, cider making became a fading art, the victim of a number of forces including the temperance movement and an influx of German immigrants who introduced the nation to beer, which ultimately eclipsed its apple-based cousin in popularity.

For decades, the drink was all but forgotten in the U.S. Then, in the 1990s, interest was sparked anew in the wake of a blossoming microbrewing business. The New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser hailed the revival in 2001, noting that there was “a small cluster of fruit growers around the country turning to cider with a winemaker's approach.” This process, she wrote, resulted in “a drink that can be more graceful than wine.”

In 1984, Ewing and Lousada bought an isolated hilltop property with panoramic views of the Green Mountains and eastern Vermont’s picturesque Connecticut River Valley. In the 1800s, five homesteads dotted the 265-acre property—a setting that “requires extreme independence,” says Ewing. They had to plow a mile of road to access the land, where they also designed and built a passive solar house. “We’ve lived off the grid for 25 years now,” she says.

“Conventional apples are sprayed as many as 17 times from blossom to harvest, with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides,” says Ewing. “We don’t spray at all.”

Five years after acquiring the land, the couple planted a portion of the property with apple trees. Both had had earlier experience picking the fruit, which Ewing describes as a “wonderful communal experience.”

strong>Today, the farm has an established orchard, where they tend 87 kinds of organic heirloom and contemporary cider apples. They also gather unsprayed apples from neighboring farms. “Conventional apples are sprayed as many as 17 times from blossom to harvest, with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides,” says Ewing. “We don’t spray at all.”

After the fall harvest, the fruits are pressed to extract their juice, which is then handcrafted into limited-release cider using a lengthy winemaking process. At Flag Hill Farm, the juice is fermented in small batches for two years, resulting in an alcoholic content of less than 10 percent.

The heady fruits of the couple’s labor have won kudos from Boston to New York and one of their blends is featured in the Williams-Sonoma New American cookbook on New England.

To distinguish their boutique beverages from unfiltered, unfermented apple cider and mass-market carbonated apple wines, Flag Hill Farm employs an historic spelling of the word cider, using the marketing tagline of “Cyder with a ‘Y.’” Accordingly, their sparkling cider is named Flag Hill Farm Vermont Sparkling Hard Cyder and their still variety is Flag Hill Farm Vermont Hard Cyder. Their newest product, a Calvados-inspired apple brandy called Pomme de Vie, lays claim to being the first legal brandy produced in the state since alcohol was banned during Prohibition.

Lousada brought some early experience to the couple’s enterprise. “When he was 12, he began making traditional country drinks like elderflower champagne in England, where he grew up,” says Ewing. In Vermont—the epicenter of the hard cider resurgence—they had friends who concocted the stuff, so they decided to give it a try themselves. Largely self-taught, they also garnered valuable tips from a book on cider-making by one-time Vershire resident Annie Proulx, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News and the short story that was later adapted into the blockbuster movie Brokeback Mountain.

Today, Lousada oversees the orchards and the cider-making process. Ewing manages sales and marketing. A decade ago, when the farm first started selling their products, Ewing had a harder job getting them on menus and store shelves. In recent years, however, the thirst for alternative alcoholic beverages has made hard cider one of the liquor industry’s fastest-growing segments and Flag Hill Farm is reaping the benefits. “We’re having trouble keeping up with demand,” says Ewing. Their ciders can now be found statewide, in supermarkets, food co-ops and beverage stores, as well as restaurants and cafes. Until the operation is set up for interstate distribution, consumers must travel to Vermont to try Flag Hill Farm’s selection (unless they are lucky enough to sample the ciders at an out-of-state tasting event).

cider bottles - illustration

Ewing, who grew up in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and has two children, Raphael, 20, and Lily, 17, has an abiding interest in education and community, as well as deep roots in sustainable agriculture and rural living. Before coming to Evergreen, she attended The Mountain School in Vershire, which provides students with the opportunity to live and work on an organic farm.

Besides establishing her own thriving farm—with its menagerie of Scotch Highland cattle, cats, dogs and parrots (Lousada is an experienced field ornithologist who breeds several parrot species)—and a successful business, Ewing also founded a vital community service organization named VerShare, which is devoted to improving the lives of her neighbors and promoting the town’s unique social capital and knowledge base.

Incorporated in 1998, this grassroots nonprofit has initiated a variety of programs and initiatives, including a free summer camp for local children. Eight years ago, VerShare reestablished a library in the town (after being without one for a century). The organization also operates a hostel and sponsors community get-togethers and potluck dinners. Every year, it holds a Snowshoe-a-thon, which raises money for a children’s activity fund. This year’s event raised nearly $14,000. VerShare also opened the Made-in-Vershire Shop to sell locally made products like handcrafted toys and furniture, hand-woven garments and maple syrup candy. “It was started as a way to physically showcase our social capital…to bring money here rather than have people go elsewhere for work,” says Ewing, who served as VerShare’s president for three years.

It continues, along with VerShare and Flag Hill Farm, because of Ewing’s vision, hard work and values, reinforced by her education at Evergreen.

Illustrations by Scott Young