Even the casual wine drinker knows that different kinds of grapes produce wines that are distinctive from one another. In a similar way, we can compare apples to grapes—different varieties make different-tasting juices. And if we’re fortunate, those juices will turn into cider. That said, most of us don’t have a clue whether the cider we’re drinking comes from Granny Smiths or Winesaps—or whether those two varieties are even cider-worthy.
Evan Gruber can help us learn. His classroom is a tasting bar, and his schoolhouse is Old Stone Cider in Lewisville just over the Pennsylvania border north of Fair Hill, Md. For the past five years, the Gruber family has been making and selling a variety of ciders from multiple taps in their modern tasting room on the upper level of a converted bank barn.
Down a stairway, the bottom half of the barn is filled with tanks and barrels for fermenting and aging. Old Stone also has a satellite classroom, offering ciders at Hood’s BBQ in Kennett Square. For those who want to engage in further study at home, jugs of cider are available for sale. “My favorite apple is our Ashmead’s Kernel,” Gruber says. “It ferments out somewhat tart with almost a caramel flavor in the background. It pairs well with pork and can stand up to high-fat foods.”
There’s little difference between fresh apple juice and “soft” apple cider. Apple juice is processed to filter out the solids from the liquid so it becomes clear, not cloudy. It’s generally pasteurized to keep it fresh. Soft cider usually retains at least some of the pulp, but certain localities require it also to be pasteurized for health reasons, just as most states restrict the sale of raw or unpasteurized milk.
If you can find fresh cider that’s unpasteurized, it will gradually begin fermentation naturally from yeasts within the juice and become a very basic hard cider that’s somewhat alcoholic with a fizzy taste. Those who make cider professionally follow a more complex path. “My dad had to spend time in England as part of his job, and he turned us on to Euro-style ciders,” Gruber says “They’re a niche of tart cider that’s different from the sweet ciders popular in America.”
In addition to making cider, the Grubers grow Christmas trees. Until recently, they also had a vineyard and made wine. “We finally learned over about 20 years that making wine was enjoyable but not very profitable,” says Gruber.
Each member of the Gruber family has a role. “My dad, Mark, acts as CEO and accountant, and my mother, Mary, takes care of the orchards,” says Gruber. “When the apples come through the door, I take over as cider maker and head marketer. My wife, Hannah Starke, and her brother, Zach Starke, run the tasting room and act as bartenders.”
Evan Gruber has a sensible way of assessing where cider fits in the drinking order. “You make cider in a similar manner to wine, but you drink it in an atmosphere more like for beer,” he says.
And the Grubers have day jobs—mostly in the technical and analytical fields. To moonlight as cider makers, they started their homework about 10 years ago, researching different types of apples. They gradually settled on about 20 different varieties. Some of the more commonly used varieties include Roxbury Russet, Virginia Crab Apple, Black Oxford, Dabinette, Gold Rush and Stoke Red.
The family also purchases apples each year from local orchards. “We do some blends, but generally they’re made by variety,” Gruber says. “The earliest variety is ripe in late August, but one isn’t ready until the first week of November.”
Once harvested, the fruit is trucked about 45 minutes from the Grubers to a farm near Oxford, which crushes the apples into a mush of pulp and juice. This pulp is transported back to the cidery, where the juice is pressed out and commercial yeasts added. The residual pulp is used in the orchards as natural fertilizers.
After fermentation, the cider is aged in large tanks or sometimes carboys. The latter is especially true for the experimental lots. Generally, Old Stone ciders are straight, naturally fermented apple juice produced in the same alcoholic range as beer. “We don’t add any sugar before fermentation,” Gruber says. “Occasionally, we’ll add sugar back after fermentation.”
There are about a dozen other cideries within a 50-mile radius of the Brandywine Valley, especially in the Harrisburg and Allentown areas. Many local orchards also sell jugs of unfermented ciders. They’re mostly made by someone else from fruit from their own trees.
If you’ve not tried ciders before, Gruber has a sensible way of assessing where they fit in the drinking order. “You make cider in a similar manner to wine, but you drink it in an atmosphere more like for beer,” he says.
“My favorite apple is our Ashmead’s Kernel. It ferments out somewhat tart with almost a caramel flavor in the background. It pairs well with pork and can stand up to high-fat foods.”
Old Stone has expanded its cidery with a new building to provide more room for production. And they plan to keep experimenting with varieties to sell in the classrooms. “We have five or six different ones on tap and any given time,” says Gruber. “Over the course of a year, we make cider from 16 to 18 different varieties of apple.”
Once cider aficionados learn to identify the differences between the varietal ciders, it’s time learn about vintage variation. “This year was a great year for apples, with a big supply and excellent quality,” Gruber says. “The first 2021 ciders—most likely Yarlington Mill or Stoke Red—will be ready in time for holiday drinking.”