Shawn Carney is one of just a handful of cider makers in the United States making small-batch hard cider the old-world way.
At his Blossomwood Cidery in the Surface Creek Valley of Western Colorado, near Grand Mesa, Carney uses heirloom variety fruits grown in his 15-acre orchard to make hard apple ciders, French-style ciders and perry, or fermented pear juice, using traditional techniques and equipment. It might take a little longer, but the results, to Carney, are well worth it.
"You have to be really patient, and most people want quicker results so the temptation is there to cut corners," he said recently during a telephone interview. But while the traditional way is more time consuming, the cider has a deeper, more nuanced flavor that's hard to beat.
Carney used to work in Boulder as a software engineer and lived with his family in Denver. He enjoyed making hard cider at home using a tabletop press but didn't know much about different styles of cider or varieties of apples until he took a road trip to Oregon and Washington State.
That's where he met "some guys making a real, traditional cider," he said. "I tried their cider, and from then on out I was sold on making old-world cider in the traditional way."
So it must have seemed like fate when, in 2003, he and his wife decided to move with their two school-aged children from Denver to Cedaredge, a small town in Western Colorado, and purchased property that included an old orchard that had originally been planted in the early 1900s.
The fruit growing in the orchard -- apple trees with some pear trees and cherry trees mixed in -- were mostly varieties that were meant for eating, not cider making, and over time Carney cut the tops off the trees and grafted them over to old French, English and American cider trees.
Today, Carney has one of the largest collections of English and French cider apple trees in the United States. The trees produce smaller, high-tannin apples and pears with a deeper, more concentrated color and flavor that's just right for making hard cider.
"In the U.S., a lot of cider makers buy the imperfect fruit from the dessert market or use an apple concentrate," Carney said. "It works but makes a cider that's lighter in both color and flavor. The difference in the fruit is like comparing eating grapes with wine grapes."
Like those in the wine industry, Carney makes an annual vintage of cider from his fruit, and the results are often dependent on the weather.
"Ninety percent of what I do is farming," he says. "We had a wet summer a few years ago, and it made a big different on the flavor, even though we were using the same varieties."
After the harvest, Carney waits until the weather turns cool -- usually mid- to late-November through December -- to press the juice from the ground apples using a traditional rack-and-cloth press. The juice ferments in 62-gallon wine barrels for about six weeks, and he bottles the cider in the early spring.
He usually produces three styles of cider, including a delicious French-style cider made through an old-world process called keeving.
"Keeving is a complicated process that provides a slow, even primary fermentation that can last about six months and results in a naturally sweet product with no added sugars," Carney said.
The fruit is first ground and macerated for a half-day or so before pressing, which allows pectin to build up in the fruit. During fermentation, the yeast runs out of nutrients before converting all the fermentable sugars to ethanol and carbon dioxide, which leaves more residual sugars and results in a finished cider that's naturally sweeter and juicier.
"You kind of get a stuck fermentation on purpose," Carney said.
His French-style cider finishes around 3.8 percent alcohol by volume and pours a clear and shining gold with lots of fruity esters and a clove-like spice. The sip is big and juicy on the front end with a viscosity not unlike mead that washes rich fruit flavors over your tongue before a sweet, dry finish. It's a refreshingly juicy cider unlike any other I've tried.
Carney packages his cider himself and designs his own labels. He started out selling his product primarily at farmer's markets in Crested Butte, Aspen and Telluride and now self-distributes along the Front Range, including the Boulder Wine Merchant, 2690 Broadway St. in Boulder.
"The cider industry is early in the revival stages in the U.S. -- you can't just buy these kinds of apples," Carney says of his unique old-world ciders. "It's like when the craft-beer industry was just getting started. Those guys only had a handful of hop varieties to choose from, and it was difficult to consistently source ingredients."
With his heirloom orchard and old-world techniques, Carney clearly is at the forefront of the craft-cider resurgence.
Contact Tom Wilmes at email@example.com.