NJ’s hard cider heritage is on display in emerging alcohol trend
The past couple of summers have been ruled by hard seltzer. Trendy drinks of the past include wine coolers and clear malt beverages. But there is a particular section of the alcohol production industry that has been steadily growing over the past decade — especially in New Jersey, where it has a long history.
Hard cider is often mass-marketed as a beer alternative but it is actually a fermented beverage much closer in character to wine, say two of the state's leading producers, Charles Rosen of Ironbound Farm in the Warren County community of Asbury and John Melick of Melick's Town Farm in OIdwick.
Their particular paths to the forefront of the Garden State's hard cider scene couldn't be more different: Melick's is a 10th-generation, family-run farm, while Ironbound began as an urban renewal and workforce development effort in Newark (hence its name) before moving operations to Hunterdon County.
For John Melick, branching out into alcoholic cider was natural and helped to diversify his farm's apple varieties, including some grown only for the purpose of fermentation.
"It fits nicely in with the craft beverage world, whether it's beer or, actually, hard cider is more similar to wines," he said.
Similarly, as Rosen mulled the merits of hard cider, his research uncovered not only its history in Newark, from whence it was sold centuries ago as black-market champagne, but also heritage varieties of apples, like the Harrison, that he now uses in his own production.
One common thread for New Jersey hard cider producers is the continuous attempt to keep each element as locally sourced as possible.
"Every single different flavor that we're launching is introducing these ideas of either foraged ingredients, or ingredients that we're harvesting at our farm, or from other local growers," Rosen said. "If we're creating partnerships with farmers and having them participate in the value add of cidermaking, now we're creating viability for those farmers throughout the state."
At Melick's, the customer base has been growing 25% year over year since their introduction of fermented cider, which is now also available in nearly 100 liquor stores throughout Central Jersey.
"I feel like we have a leg up," Melick said, referring to the fact that his was already an established business when it launched this novel division. "By no means are we a big producer compared to the big beverage industry, but we're a craft, we're small batch."
Because apple cider is so closely associated with autumn, those producing the hard variety in New Jersey believe their business will continue to boom even as they navigate COVID-19. Rosen calls cider a "critical component" of New Jersey's food system, as simply going to a farm and learning about its production can make for a fun social outing while restaurants and bars are still restricted.