Adding Maple to Cider Creates Sweet Success
Juanita, Matthew and Patrick Critz at the entrance of their Harvest Moon Cider Mill.
Photos by Brian P. Whattam.
Combining two major revenue sectors at Critz Farms (http://www.critzfarms.com) captures a new demographic market for the diversified ag business located in Cazenovia, N.Y., 30 miles south of Syracuse, N.Y.
In 2011, after three years of experimentation, Matthew and Juanita Critz and their son Patrick added Harvest Moon Cidery (http://harvestmooncidery.com) to the 350-acre farm business and debuted six hard ciders, including three that incorporate maple syrup produced on their farm.
"We wanted to blend the resources of the apple orchard and our sugar bush to create something new," Matthew explains. "Adding the cider operation has broadened our customer base to include the 20 to 30-year-old age group that was too old for our playground and too young for the family activities we offer."
"The cidery and tasting room have definitely brought us a whole new demographic, and their word-of-mouth enthusiasm is driving new visitors to us," says Patrick, who manages the tasting room.
"The tasting room also provides a great opportunity for direct feedback. For example, the first year we made Blissful Moon, it was a straight dry cider. People said it was good, but they wanted more body, more finish, so we added honey, and that was just the backbone it needed to become an award winner," Patrick adds.
Blissful Moon is named for the farm's original owner, who bought 150 acres in 1793 at a cost of $1.50 per acre.
Maple syrup has been produced at the farm since 2001, and sweet cider was pressed after the first apple harvest in 2007. In 2008, they began trialing different fruit-flavor combinations to produce hard cider.
The farm's three maple-added ciders have won nine awards in two years, including double gold and best in class honors for Maple Moon at the 2012 Indy International Wine Competition at Purdue University.
Rippleton Original is a champagne-style cider made with a subtle maple syrup charge that replaces cane sugar in the recipe.
A discerning palate will taste the maple influence in the semisweet Four Screw hard cider made with tart dessert apples pressed on the farm's historic apple press. It has earned silver and bronze medals at competitions including the New York Wine and Food Classic and Indy International Wine Competition.
"In 2006, I found a traditional-style rack and cloth cider press built by Boomer & Boschert in Syracuse in 1890. It is one of the oldest apple presses in the U.S., and one of only a few of its kind in New York state," Matthew says. "It took two days to take it apart and two months to restore it and put it back together with new wood."
John Eberl, a neighbor and teacher, has overseen press operation every weekend through the fall season since 2011. He says the antique press, which can make more than 1,000 gallons of cider a day, is a draw for visitors.
"I enjoy talking with visitors about how the process works while we press approximately 11 bins of apples in six hours," Eberl says.
During the busy season, there are up to 50 employees working on the farm. There are six full-time, year-round employees, and a crew of Jamaican workers helps in the orchards and in the press room.
John Eberl checks the press at Critz Farms. He shares the history of the antique Boomer & Boschert rack and cloth press with visitors during the busy fall harvest and pressing season.
Up to 10 apple varieties are used to make cider, which is sold as sweet cider and also blended with maple, honey, cherry, raspberry or blueberry juice or hops to make Harvest Moon hard ciders that range from dry to sweet.
"An aging room in one of the barns is a big part of the process to achieve our desired flavor profile," says Matthew. "Champagne yeast is added, and we age all of the cider at least six months or more, then add the maple syrup or fruit juice in the bottling stage."
Demand drives expansion
Due to the success they've had with their ciders, the Critzes are expanding their maple and apple operations.
"We cannot make enough syrup or cider to meet demand," Matthew notes.
Currently, they harvest sap from 2,000 taps on vacuum tubing on 40 acres of sugar bush.
The Critz Farms crew has pursued education through the Cornell University Maple Program (http://www.cornellmaple.com). They have adopted maple tap sanitation measures that can increase sap yields, according to Steve Childs, Cornell maple program director. Extension education for maple producers on these practices has been funded by the New York Farm Viability Institute (NYFVI, http://www.nyfvi.org).
"Taphole sanitation practices, which involve using new spouts, regularly replacing droplines, or using check valve or silver spouts, can improve sap production 15 percent to 100 percent over the old methods of continuing to use the same spout and drop year to year," Childs explains.
"Our evaporator and tank capacity can handle more sap; what we need is more taps," Matthew notes. "We buy sap from a neighbor with 1,000 taps, are leasing another 1,000 taps in 2014 and will add 1,000 more in 2015."
Critz Farms' staff has also attended the value-added confections training taught by Childs and funded in part by the NYFVI.
"Steve pioneered extension of value-added maple opportunities for New York producers," says Matthew. "For our operation, value-added is the thing. In addition to syrup and our maple ciders, we sell maple sugar candy, maple fudge, lollipops and other treats in the farm store.
"On the apple side, we are developing new orchards to produce European cider apple varieties that are aromatic and high in tannins. You have to place orders nearly three years ahead for these specialty varieties. We will be adding these trees and more dessert varieties on land previously used for Christmas trees and pumpkin production this year," Matthew adds.
The new 5-acre orchard will complement another 6 acres (1,800 trees) of dwarf apple varieties. Pumpkins grown on 45 acres are sold wholesale throughout the East Coast. Christmas trees are planted on 100 acres.
Matthew and Juanita began their first-generation agricultural careers as Christmas tree farmers in New York's Adirondack region after Matthew graduated from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Having lived in Cazenovia while attending school, he jumped at the opportunity to buy an existing farm in the area in 1984.
"The initial plan was to sell Christmas trees here. Then we added pumpkins and hayrides and a hamburger grill and suddenly we had all this," Matthew says, gesturing to the expansive panorama with several barns, a corn maze, playground, animals, café, gift shop, event venues, and you-pick apples and pumpkins.
Matthew designed a kiln-style hop barn (for storage), the cider mill, press house, and a small, elegant tasting room. All the carpentry and electrical work was done in-house by Matthew, Patrick and the farm crew.
"I had a gut feeling a cidery could be successful, but we backed it up with figures and then knew it would work. A Cazenovia College marketing study has shown that we have a drawing reach of about 60 miles that includes three cities," Matthew explains.
Crtiz Farms, named New York State Agritourism Business of the Year in 2002, welcomes 50,000 guests annually and expects that number to increase as the cidery continues to develop as a destination.
"We took a leap of faith, and it paid off by helping us reach young, single people and young couples. In just the past year, our visitation by college kids has doubled," Patrick says.
The tasting room is open Thursday through Sunday. Weekdays tend to attract retired boomers, and weekends bring in the younger crowd.
Matthew estimates that 20 percent of the farm's revenues in 2013 were from the sale of Critz Farms' Harvest Moon ciders, as well as wines made by local vintners. He expects 10 percent annual growth, so the ciders and wines would account for 40 to 50 percent of sales by 2018.
While sales increase, they're also working on increasing the hard cider lineup and plan to add two new flavors in 2014.
"The cidery provides a year-round balance to the busy fall revenue season for the farm," Matthew says.
Harvest Moon ciders are also available at a host of restaurants, taverns, and selected grocery, liquor and convenience stores. Matthew is currently concentrating on building wholesale outreach. Three distributors currently carry Harvest Moon products to nearby counties, into New York's Adirondack region, and to New York City and Long Island.
Farm Cideries Law
In October 2013, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Farm Cideries Law (http://bit.ly/1czd0QW) that established a new licensing process similar to that for farm wineries, breweries and distilleries. The law came in response to interest that was expressed during the governor's New York State Wine, Beer and Spirits Summit.
According to a New York state press release, "To obtain a farm cidery license, the hard cider must be made exclusively from apples grown in New York state, and no more than 150,000 gallons may be produced annually. Farm cideries will be allowed to offer tastings of and sell not only cider, but also beer, wine and spirits made from New York products. In addition, because farm cideries may also sell products such as mustards, sauces, jams, jellies, souvenirs, artwork, crafts and other gift items, these businesses, much like farm wineries, will become destination locations that will promote tourism within their communities."
The new law also excludes the licensed cideries from certain sales tax information return filing requirements.
Jim Allen, New York Apple Association president, says the Farm Cideries Law will greatly benefit New York's apple industry.
"We see hard cider as an emerging growth category for New York apple growers, creating new and exciting markets. The fact that this legislation applies only to New York state-grown apples will increase demand for our apples and expand markets," Allen said.
As a licensed farm winery, Critz Farms is allowed to produce cider as well as wine and sell it retail from the farm. They also have a cider distribution license and a wine distribution license that allow them to sell wholesale.
Juanita handles marketing, event development, human resources and the public relations side of the business. The family is also aware of how their business is helping the local economy.
"Drawing the 20 to 30-year-old demographic to our farm has injected youthful enthusiasm and interest in local foods and beverages, to the benefit of all the businesses in our regional economy," Juanita says.
Critz Farms was the first in the area to obtain a farm winery license and prompted the start of the Cazenovia Beverage Trail (http://www.cazenoviabeveragetrail.com), with a grape farm winery and a microbrewery growing its own hops and barley, all within 10 miles of one another.
The author is a freelance writer with a 100-acre farm in Mannsville, N.Y.