Ryan Burk joined Angry Orchard in the Fall of this year. Previously with Michigan’s Virtue Cider, Burk will head up cider making duties at Angry Orchard’s new experimental orchard-cidery-visitor center in Walden, New York. Ryan joined the juggernaut of the American cider world. Angry Orchard controls just over 50% of all cider sales in the United States and produces 6 million cases of cider annually. Ryan was kind enough to take some time to answer questions about his own background as well as give is view on the state of the cider industry and Angry Orchard’s place in that industry
Q. What is your cider background and what brought you to Angry Orchard?
I grew up in Williamson, NY – A small town located in one of the most apple-rich regions in the US. Williamson was also one of the last hold outs from prohibition, finally legalizing the sale of alcohol in 2004. Even though alcohol was banned until recently, there was still a rich heritage of cider making in the region. That’s where I started to build my foundation of cider knowledge.
Before professional cider making, I went to college in NYC and then moved to Chicago for law school. The impressive craft beer and homebrewing scene in Chicago plus my cider background had me thinking that maybe I was pursuing the wrong profession. I ended up putting law school on hold to start helping out a then start-up, Virtue Cider. It all really snowballed (in a good way) from there – I received a certificate from the Siebel Institute in Chicago and went forward as a professional cider maker.
Now, I’ve made my way back to my home state to lead innovation efforts and small batch experimentation for Angry Orchard at a new R&D facility on a historic 60–acre orchard in the Hudson Valley.
Q. Can you comment on the apparent dearth of cider apples in the U.S. and any thoughts you have on the future of the supply of Cider Apples?
Temperance, and then Prohibition dealt a serious blow to hard cider production, and orchards began shifting production entirely to culinary apples out of necessity. Even today, many years later, bittersweet apples are hard to find here in the U.S. Most cider apples today are found in Europe (places like France, where we source our bittersweet apples for a couple of our ciders, including our Cider House Collection, Crisp Apple and the new Stone Dry). In fact, I just recently returned from meeting with growers in northern Italy to see this year’s harvest and I’m heading to France later this month to meet with the folks who grow the bittersweet apples we use in some of our ciders.
At our orchard in Walden, NY, we have plans to plant traditional cider apples, and we’re especially interested to see what varieties work well in our region of New York. We’ll start by planting two acres of bittersweet apples this spring, and plan to add to that amount in 2017 and beyond.
In terms of the future of overall cider apple supply, unfortunately it’s a slow process. More and more people are getting cider apples in the ground here but it takes anywhere from 3 to 10 years from initial planting, to grafting, to producing fruit. So as cider’s popularity continues to grow in the U.S. and demand for apples/juice increases, many American cider makers, us included for some of our ciders, are turning towards more creative options, like using the apples already in the ground in the U.S., while the bittersweets continue to grow and mature.
Q. The rate of increase in sales in the tracked cider category will be lower in 2015 as will the rate of increase in sales at Angry Orchard. Any thoughts on why?
It’s tough to say. Admittedly, my expertise is in cider making not sales. From a cider maker’s perspective, we’ve seen drinkers’ palates expand and mature over time, especially in the past 5 years as the cider category has grown nearly 500%. Drinkers are interested in trying new things and that’s great for cider. Needless to say it is a pivotal time to be a cider maker in the U.S., and I feel fortunate to be part of it.
Q. The Angry Orchard “Traditional Dry” has very discernible residual sugar despite being labeled “dry”. Can you tell me the percent of RS in the Traditional and new Stone Dry ciders?
Stone Dry, the newest – and driest – addition to our Core Collection of ciders is just under 1% RS. Drinkers are continuing to explore the full range of what hard cider can be and many are finding they enjoy a cider that is less sweet and more complex, much like Angry Orchard Stone Dry. So as cider continues to experience a renaissance, we’re committed to innovation to help grow awareness among drinkers and encourage them to try a variety of cider styles.As for Traditional Dry, we’re not currently making that style, but it had 1.5% RS.
Q. I have been somewhat critical of Angry Orchard’s approach to cider, suggesting that many of the ciders are far from “craft” and that they often appear to be hyper-sweet apple juice with alcohol. What’s the better way for me to understand the character of Angry Orchard ciders and your approach to making cider?
There’s a lot of care that goes into our ingredient selection process – from sourcing our apples to selecting the right varieties for the flavor profiles we’re aiming for – and we’ve traveled the world to find the highest quality ingredients.
I’d love to taste Crisp Apple, our most popular cider, with you, because really the best way to describe it is to be drinking at the same time! For me, the most important thing about cider is the apple expression, and to me this cider is a perfect representation, much like biting into a crisp, ripe, fresh apple. We achieve that by blending culinary apples from Italy and bittersweet apples from the Normandy and Brittany regions of France. Blending these two types of apples gives the cider a nice balance between sweet and dry. You’ll also get complexity and tannins from the bittersweet apples in the cider. So while it may initially read “sweet,” there’s so much more to it.
At the end of the day, given our experience, we want to create ciders for cider enthusiasts as well as drinkers who are exploring cider for the first time and I think we have a good range of options. So, we’ll make something less challenging like Green Apple which is, you’re right, slightly more sweet and tart, versus something like Stone Dry or our Cider House Collection, which definitely have more complexity. Our goal is to make a cider for everyone to bring more folks into the category and help it grow for all.
Our Orchard home in Walden, NY will be a great way to continue our tradition of experimentation and innovation. There, I’ll lead R&D efforts, and I’m really excited to play around with new recipes, ingredients and techniques, and to push the boundaries of barrel aging and wild fermentation. As you know, the terroir – the combination of factors like soil, climate, sunlight – of the orchard where apples grow is unique to cider making the same way a vineyard is to winemaking, so we’re really excited to explore this at our Orchard beginning with this year’s harvest.
Q. What ciders outside the Angry Orchard family inspire you?
The first ciders I had were made by friends and family in NY and they were always pretty dry; usually left in a barrel to ferment until they were “ready.” The first cider that really got me thinking about what was possible was Tom Oliver’s Herefordshire Dry Cider. The bittersweet character was off the charts, the balance of tannin/acid was excellent. I could taste the farm itself. The intensity and complexity of this cider is what opened my eyes to everything that cider can be. After eight years and many batches of my own cider later, one of the most important bits of knowledge I’ve learned from some of the early ciders I tried is, after apple selection, blending and balance are the most important things in cider making. A cider can be sweet, as long as it’s balanced by acid and tannins.
Q. If I took a stroll through the Angry Orchard in ten years, what would I see?
As I mentioned before, we have big plans to plant bittersweet apple varieties and expand the fruit we have available on-site for cider making. So in ten years, you’ll likely see an increase in those types of trees and fruits.
Currently our new R&D cider house is just getting started, and the idea of what it will look like in 10 years is exciting in many ways. We also have plans to convert an old stone cooler – which already exists on the property and is built into the side of a hill for natural cooling – to a barrel room, where I’ll have the opportunity to play around with aging and other variables, from apples to yeast and barrel types. We hope as cider grows, more and more people will be interested in exploring new styles and cider made with interesting ingredients, much like the exploration we’ve seen with craft beer in the past 30 years.
Five years ago, hardly anyone accurately predicted what cider would eventually grow to be today. I can tell you that in the UK cider is about 15% of the beer market, and here only 1%. It’s difficult to predict what cider will look like in 2025, but I can’t wait to be there to find out. Maybe we can sit down and enjoy a 10-year Walden Orchard vintage when the time comes!