An Interview with Eleanor Léger of Eden Specialty Ciders

Posted on: January 8th, 2019 by

You know I love cider. I spent a dang January living on an idyllic organic family farm and cidery. (Read all about it.) So when I get a chance to taste (drink) it and learn about it, I jump at the chance. I was invited to attend a convivial dinner at Jeepney, a very cool Filipino gastropub, in the East Village. There I was introduced to Eleanor Léger. She is the founder of Eden Specialty Ciders in Newport, Vermont.

Not only was I impressed with the ciders, but also with the force of will and dedication Léger has when it comes to making cider in a way that honors the apple, the land, and the tradition. A word that was a theme of the event was “Heritage.” Afterwords it kept swirling around in brain for days. Not in a Citizen Kane “Rosebud” type of way but more thinking about the past, present, and future of hard cider. Regional producers like Eden Specialty Ciders are doing a lot for the, well, heritage of the beverage. So without further adieu, here’s the interview (conducted via email).

Eden Specialty Ciders are worth seeking out.

Just some of the Eden Specialty Ciders / Photo Ellen Mary Cronin

Q&A With Eleanor Léger of Eden Specialty Ciders

Why is the word “heritage” important when talking about cider? What led that word to be a kind of rallying point for cider producers like Eden? Does it go beyond using heritage apple varieties?

Those of us making these kinds of ciders, from heirloom and tannic apple varieties and made like wine, have been trying to find a name for the category for a long time. Groups among us have tried at various times, including “American fine ciders,” “orchard ciders,” and others.  The United States Association of Cider Makers [USACM] put out an initial set of style guidelines for the industry last fall and created “Heritage Ciders” as a category. We are running with it.

It does go beyond using apple varieties that are grown for cider. It also implies ciders that are produced like wine rather than beer: one pressing per year at harvest time and fermentation and aging to develop the flavors of the fruit. This as opposed to pressing apples out of cold storage every few weeks, fermenting fast, and using a recipe to adjust flavor afterward, followed quickly by packaging, usually within 3-4 weeks of juicing.

With Heritage Ciders it is all about expressing the qualities of the particular fruit. With modern ciders it is about making a consistent product where the flavor is determined by a recipe and post-fermentation adjustments. The economic implications for cost are significant. [See Léger’s post on Cidernomics.]

Heritage Ciders tend to be packaged in 750ml sparkling wine bottles because that is the most efficient form for us, in addition to communicating that the ciders are more like wine than like beer.

Eleanor Léger in the apple orchard.

Eleanor Léger in the apple orchard.

Is “Heritage” something you want to see codified, defined in a legal manner for use on a label?

The Federal Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau has to approve all labels for cider that has more than 7% alcohol, which most Heritage Ciders do. The TTB in general does not enforce style definitions, except in a very few cases where they have been forced to by the World Trade Organization (ice wine and ice cider being one of those exceptional cases).  

I don’t think we expect or need the term Heritage to be defined legally, as long as the USACM is willing to help provide and support the use of standards. I think those of us who make Heritage Ciders feel that by listing the names of the apple varieties we use, and describing the methods, that is sufficient to get the point across.  If there are bad actors at some point that try to call a modern cider a heritage cider, I think we will just have to hope that the market will figure it out.

What about something similar to the AVA system that wine has for cider? 

AVA is geography based in this country, not process based.  In Europe it is both geography and process based, and very strict which is too much regulation for producers in the US (and starting to be for some people in France and Italy, too). Geography might tell you something about the fruit, but it doesn’t tell you anything about quality or process. I don’t believe there is help to be had from this discussion.

One of the things you talked about what how difficult it is to know what’s in your cider, how it was made, where it came from. Do you think ingredient labeling is something that will happen in the future? Are you for it? What kinds of things would cider fans be surprised are in their cider? What can you learn about what’s in (or not in) your cider based on the limited information on the front/back label?

One of the apples that goes into Eden Specialty Ciders.

Photo by Ellen Mary Cronin

I think listing the apple varieties is KEY, and that more and more, Heritage Cider producers are doing that.  I do think ingredient labeling is something that will happen for ciders and wines above 7% abv. Right now, most modern ciders are below 7% and are already subject to ingredient facts labeling requirements from the FDA.  

There is a LOT of squirreliness out there among modern cider labels. Shacksbury cans being an example where labels have talked about “English apples” rather than listing bulk hard cider from Europe as an ingredient. Also, processing aids are not ingredients if the compounds are filtered out of the final product. The things I think most people would be surprised about are water and added sugar/corn syrup/aspartame/other sweeteners, and then all those flavors that come out of bottles.

[Note: I reached out to Shacksbury for a response and received a reply from co-founder Colin Davis. Léger also added further clarification. You can read both at the bottom of this interview.]

How big are cans becoming in cider? What are the advantages? Do you think every cidery (with the means) is going to can their kind of go-to, everyday cider?

Cans are HUGE.  Craft beer made them cool again, they are convenient, easy to carry, no risk of broken glass, and most of all [impact] price point. It’s amazing to me how easily people forget the principles of supply and demand: when price is lower, people buy more.

Among Heritage Cider producers I don’t know how many are going to can. Mobile canners make it easier for smaller producers to do it. I think the price point for heritage cider in a can is still high for the general market, so we will see how well it works.

Is there still a stigma on sweetness in cider among a certain segment of beverage professionals? Like “fine” cider equals bone dry and ones with some sweetness are somehow less serious? 

I think there is still a stigma on cider in general! Sommeliers don’t feel comfortable recommending a cider with a dish on the menu as a great pairing. Juliette Pope was about the only person who could pull it off. And yet Heritage ciders are so versatile with food. It reminds me of high-end restaurants in the 80s who finally had great wine lists but would put a Heineken on the drink list to be able to say “yes we have a beer” to those guests uncouth enough to prefer it.

I guess I’m hoping that if the press and trade adopt the term “Heritage Cider” they can more heartily endorse ciders on the menu that will pair well with food and support the reputation of their establishments and their lists. Every good drink menu should have a “Heritage Ciders” section on it. Not some random cans and bottles mixed into the beer section!! Similarly, Cider should be made part of the wine buyer’s responsibility, not the beer buyer’s.

_____

Response from Shacksbury/clarification from Léger regarding labeling (via email):

Colin Davis, co-founder Shacksbury:

I had a good conversation with Eleanor today to talk through this issue. Deciding what to put on a label is tough, both from a compliance perspective, and from a marketing one as well. It is not our intention to be misleading or evasive. We call out our production partners on our website. We often connect industry friends traveling abroad with Simon (England) and Ainara (Spain). We’ve also mentioned them numerous times in news articles and have done events with them in the US. We love Eleanor and her ciders and think that the lengths that she goes to to educate the consumer (on her label and otherwise) is a boon for the industry.

Leger:

I want to reach out to say that I do believe that Shacksbury’s label is factually accurate and completely legal. I hope nothing I said implied that it is not the case. I’ve spoken with Colin and I have a better understanding of the challenges they have in how to describe the cider while keeping things simple.

While our objective at Eden is to put as much factual information as possible on our can label, that’s a marketing decision, not a legal one. And even then there are legal issues that can get in the way. We would love to say that there is no added sulfites in our can, but that would have required a lab certification and caused a delay in label processing that we weren’t able to get organized for. We wanted to say that our can was packaged by Green Mountain Beverage, but they wouldn’t agree to it.  So suffice it to say that all beverage producers face challenges, and I regret calling out my friends at Shacksbury in the manner I did in that response.

[For another interview with Léger, see Meg Houston Maker’s article in Terroir Review.]

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