Apple Whisperer and Ciderman
As David Buchanan strides briskly past his tidy freshly painted 19th-century farmhouse and the outbuildings repurposed into the tasting, storage, and cider-making rooms of his newly opened Portersfield Cider in Pownal, his eyes are focused on the fenced orchard out back. As well they should be. These trees, three acres of mostly apple and crab apple with some pear and shorter rows of berries, are 53-year-old Buchanan’s lifework, more than 200 different varieties he’s collected, mostly heirlooms and wild apples from all over Maine, regrafting them to hardy rootstock.
“You could almost call it a disease nursery, he says with a dry chuckle, “because I’m not spraying and I’m trying to figure out what I can get away with,” cultivating trees that are disease-resistant “but that still produce good cider.” Down the road, he will spray, organically, as sparingly as possible.
Buchanan is tall and spare, his face marked by years spent outdoors both for his work as an orchardist and farmer and as an avid Nordic skier. He has the laconic speech of one who spends more time observing than talking and can seem quite serious until something makes him smile. His humor is just like his ciders, dry as a bone and complex into the bargain.
In America, he is explaining, most commercial cider, which he refers to as “seat-at-the-bar cider,” is made from the “dessert fruit” varieties you see in the supermarket, and fermented to be sweeter on the tongue: MacIntosh, Cortland, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Pink Lady—varieties commercialized for their eating characteristics and shelf life. True New England farmhouse cider, on the other hand, used to be made with cider fruit from trees grown for that purpose and which are mildly sweet to sharp to bittersweet to the taste. Buchanan’s cider apples are all over the lot, a handful of commercial varieties, nameless foraged apples, and then what he is able to buy, Baldwins and Northern Spys, from the few orchards that wholesale in Maine.
Up until the 20th century, every Maine farmhouse had its apple orchard often planted beside the house or along the farm lane. Each variety had its purpose, whether for pie-making, winter eating, animal feed, or cider. That cider, probably around 7% alcohol, was often considered the “healthy” alternative to water, which could make you sick. When cider making died around Prohibition, farmers stopped maintaining their trees, which went wild. Roads were widened for automobiles, and trees felled. Farms went bust and were abandoned as people found work in the cities. For Buchanan to find success in resurrecting that tradition—and that most traditional drink—means that he must be historian, preservationist, grafter, cidermaker, and master apple forager all at once. (Apple seeds do not grow genetically identical to the tree that produced them. Rather, a variety is reproduced by taking a piece of the living tree and grafting it to a host rootstock.)
“A number of trees here are real one-off varieties you’re not going to find anywhere else. Those last two rows,” he points at some straggly examples at the bottom of the hill in front of us, “are real unknowns from a dozen trees out on Roque Island Downeast and I can only guess what they will be.”
This orchard then, 5 years old, is “a huge breeding experiment” and a rather risky one at that. And that’s before he even gets to the actual harvest and cidermaking, which have their own vagaries.
Buchanan makes about 12,500 bottles of cider a year for which he needs several tons of cider apples—most of which just are not for sale commercially anywhere in New England. And so, while his young trees are beginning to produce, he must go out and find fully a third of his fruit already on the tree.
“Last season was so challenging,” he says with a shrug, “but also lots of fun. We were driving as far as Liberty, up to Monmouth, up to Paris on day trips just to pick. We put 1,200 miles on my station wagon basically going out on foraging expeditions, knocking on doors, and bringing back bags of all kinds of interesting fruit.” Of course, picking is just the first, backbreaking part because then that alternates with pressing days, as little by little carboys, barrels, and larger tanks fill with fresh juice.
Inside the airy, post-and-beam tasting room, all is artful and orderly, shelves stocked with bottles of current offerings, stainless steel barrels filled with fermenting cider tucked in the corners and along the walls. There is a tidy prep space to one side, for Portersfield serves inexpensive small plates designed for tasting with the ciders, which are uniformly dry and quite complex once you taste past the initial apple burst.
“The message I’m trying to send to people in this space is that cider belongs with a meal just like wine, as an accompaniment. We do a cheese plate and a Mediterranean plate with hummus, to show the range in pairings. He can sound like a cider somm, too, when thrown a challenge to pair. Duck confit? He ponders a moment, then says, “a drier cider with the right balance of acidity and a bit of tannin wants that bit of fat in the meal to balance it.”
Through a door to one side is a multipurpose room for crushing, fermenting, and blending. There is a gleaming Slovenian wine press specially adapted to crush apples. There are racks and racks of five- and six-gallon carboys filled with fermenting juice, straw-colored, amber, and even pink. While some of his ciders, Original Dry and Aronia, he can ferment in larger vessels because he knows the fruit so well, for the rest he necessarily prepares small-batch blends because he can’t take the risk that poor juice from one tree will spoil a whole tank. “It ferments very slowly, up to six months,” he says, “because particularly the wild fruit has lower nutrient levels so the yeast is a little bit stressed and starved. I feel that slow fermentation at cool temps produces a better cider with more of a nose and a little more body.”
And to blend he relies on his own sense of taste and his own nose. “My goal,” he says, “is to produce two ciders that are as consistent as possible for store shelves and then a few more that are wildly interesting in limited quantities. I’m getting pretty good at the consistency.” Judging from the man’s obsession and his vision, it’s pretty clear that the “wildly interesting” ones won’t be a problem.