In recent years, beverage enthusiasts have spent weekends traversing the Connecticut Wine Trail, debating the merits of single and double IPAs at an increasing number of state breweries and tasting whiskey, gin and vodka right on the premises of local distilleries.
Now a new format of locally produced hard cider enters the mix, with the early July opening of New England Cider Company's new tasting room in Wallingford. The venue presents a brewery-style experience, with six draft ciders available in flights, glasses and growlers.
Miguel Galarraga and Seth Hart's cider business started out as a hobby, stemming from their interest in home-brewing. Hart's brother and friends had tried making cider, gathering dropped apples from orchards and pressing them into juice. So Hart and Galarraga attempted the same, building a press in Hart's backyard and experimenting with batches over three years' time.
"We really enjoyed it. It was something different, something lighter than beer," Galarraga says. "It just kind of picked up after that. We saw the trends moving toward cider; the craft beer industry was really pushing forward, so we just thought it was a good idea."
In late 2013, the business partners launched the cider company, producing a variety of fermented ciders. Their mission is to stay true to the "New England" name, using fresh and local apples from Wallingford's own Blue Hills Orchard and High Hill Orchard in Meriden and sourcing other key ingredients from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. Their ciders have no added sweeteners or artificial flavors.
"We feel that we want to be able to represent the flavor of this area," Galarraga says. "We want to stay as local as possible. It's like grapes; the flavors are going to be different from one region to another."
The business partners describe the product as "modern American style cider," differing from traditional English ciders that use bittersweet apple varieties. Instead, their cider uses several types of "dessert apples" — the kinds intended for eating raw — like Fiji, Pink Lady, Macoun, Empire, Honeycrisp, Red and Golden Delicious and Ginger Golds.
"There are a lot of varieties here in the state," Galarraga says. "We're very fortunate; a lot of smaller orchards are starting to catch on to the heirloom apple."
Hard cider isn't new to Connecticut; for years, many state orchards have made alcoholic drinks from their fruit. But Galarraga and Hart say they're the first local producer to offer their cider on draft. That learning curve was steep, they say, as they didn't find a lot of information to consult.
"You can buy plenty of books on opening up a brewery," Hart says, but there weren't many resources for startup cider companies. "[And] … most of the places that do hard cider are all orchards that have pressed things for years. It was easy for them to transition."
"You kind of go in a little bit blind," Galarraga says. "We didn't do a big jump in. We started small, mom-and-pop style, and started growing organically. We just took our time, real slow, trying to figure out the best route, what equipment to use."
Though the cider is served like beer, their process is more similar to winemaking than brewing, Galarraga says, as they're crushing and pressing apples into juice and storing it in fermenters. Some of the cider is fermented with added yeast; others are "wild-fermented" with naturally occurring yeast found on the fruit.
New England Cider is now found at about 35 bars and restaurants. Galarraga says Wallingford's Westbrook Lobster and Hamden's MiKro Beer Bar have been among the company's biggest supporters, and the partners have gotten the product into locations spanning most of the state, from Litchfield to Tolland counties — especially noteworthy, as the partners are self-distributing.
Offering the cider in kegs was an easier process than the logistics of bottling and labeling, the partners say. But they acknowledge that can be limiting, especially if a craft beer bar only dedicates one draft line to cider.
"If some person doesn't particularly like that one variety, it doesn't mean they don't like our ciders, they just don't like that one," Hart says.
With the opening of the new tasting room on July 1, though, Galarraga and Hart are eager to showcase much more of their product line. During a recent visit, New England Cider was offering its "fresh blend": dry cider mixed with fresh apple juice, and flavored varieties with black currant and strawberry (made with currants from Vermont and strawberries from Lyman Orchards in Middlefield). A raspberry flavor, made with more fresh Lyman berries, is expected this summer.
A Golden Russet cider (10.5 percent ABV) is produced with that single variety of apple, a hopped cider gets an infusion of Cascade and Rakau hops from Four Star Farm in Northfield, Mass., and a barrel-aged cider sits for a minimum of six months in a barrel from the WhistlePig distillery in Vermont, picking up noticeable rye whiskey flavor.
Guests are invited to taste a flight of four ciders for $10, or enjoy a 13-ounce glass for $5 to $9, depending on the offering. Growlers in 32- or 64-ounce sizes are $9 to $22.
Galarraga says he and Hart wanted to get the tasting room up and running before they considered undergoing the bottling process, giving customers a chance to sample and learn more about the cider.
"We wanted to educate people on ciders," he says. In a liquor store, customers "may not want to fork over the [money] to buy something [they] may not like. ... You come in here, spend a few dollars, and you get to try a few things. If you like it, take it home with you."
While Connecticut has embraced craft beer in recent years, Galarraga thinks the state is behind the cider trend. "It's just now starting to get there," he says.
"Most craft beer bars have at least one draft line of hard cider, and it fits in there well," Hart says. "If we do our hopped cider, it will introduce beer drinkers [to] cider a little bit. It's a little bit [of a] lighter alternative." Cider also appeals to drinkers avoiding gluten, he says, and he also believes New England's more tart ciders will attract those interested in sour beers.
The men, who transitioned into the cider business from full-time careers in the auto industry, say it's been rewarding to see customers visit the tasting room and enjoy the cider. Word of mouth within beer and restaurant circles, along with social media, have been crucial to their success.
"You have someone come in here, and tell you that they've been waiting a year and a half for you to open because they had your cider once and they want to try more of your stuff," Galarraga says. "Nobody goes to their mechanic and says, 'I was waiting for my car to break down because I wanted to come see you again.'"
New England Cider Company, 110 North Plains Industrial Road, Wallingford, is open for tastings and sales Friday from 3 to 9 p.m., Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. 203-464-7294, newenglandcider.com.