Ripened in the Catskills: Wayside Cider
East Delhi, NY
East Delhi, NY is accessed by way of winding country roads through small downtowns: a landscape freckled with color. And everywhere – dangling over those roads, angling up beside barns, and creeping up quaint country churches – this year’s apples hang heavy. It’s a big year for apples, and no one’s more attuned to it than Irene Hussey and Alex Wilson of Wayside Cider, an upstate small-batch hard cidery that favors wild and cultivated regional apples.
Irene and Alex met through a mutual friend, but came to really know each other when she coordinated a cider contest at local restaurant Table on Ten, “which she hence won,” Alex points out. “My cider came in second. I drank her cider and thought it was pretty good – a little over average,” he laughs, “and she drank mine and thought it was good – no, they were both really great.” The pair started talking, and realized they complemented one another pretty perfectly. They created Wayside Cider in 2013 and today Irene focuses on the daily life of the cider, attending to the bubbling tanks and baby trees around her home, and Alex has developed relationships with buyers, chefs, and other cider-lovers. He’s sold all the cider they made from 2014’s apples, and then some. When you taste that cider, you can understand why. It’s dry and complex, incredibly light, with tiny bubbles like a glass of champagne.
Alex is holding a handful of future cider. “Cider fruit doesn’t have to be pretty, and doesn’t need to last a long time,” says Alex, explaining their decision to focus on wild apples. “If we find an amazing apple, we can press it in two or three days. Our aim is all about taste in the final product, and this difficult land makes for a unique intensity of flavor.”
Irene tends to the young trees they’ve planted around her home. “Apples are a fragile crop,” Alex explains. “It’s incredible – in these valleys, you can have a frost in one place, then move fifty or sixty meters and not have any. So we have to plant intelligently. Our cider confirms that there’s something special about the fruit in these hills – the cold mornings and nights create an acidity and intensity of flavor that’s not available in even slightly milder climates.”
Ideas, just like apples, are abundant at Wayside. “I have always loved the cider culture in Europe,” Alex explains. “When I moved here eight years ago, I noticed all these resources: incredible apples, incredibly clean land, opportunities for small farms, and money and markets from the city. When Irene and I started talking about this business, we looked at the numbers and realized it didn’t make any sense financially. But we said, ‘let’s do it.’”
The pair found one tree so rich with fruit this year that they’re brewing a single-tree cider. That’s right: a whole batch, 150 bottles, from a single apple tree. They’ve been marking the trees they like best, hoping to take grafts to populate an orchard they’ll plant soon in the neighboring town of Hamden. They plan is to name the unknown varieties after the people whose land they were found on. “Every time we find a new tree, we’re excited. There’s astronomical diversity of flavor in apples, from banana taste to sherbet to strawberries or pineapple,” says Alex.
The best part about Wayside, says Alex, “is just being outside all day with friends, finding new orchards.”
They have also spent time observing how apples grow naturally as part of their commitment to practicing as sustainably as possible. “Observation is a permaculture principle, and we’ve now had two years of observing the places and circumstances where apples flourish. We’ve found a few spots where cattle graze, and smash the roots of the trees, and fertilize them. Every year, this combination produces incredible fruit. So we wonder: How do we incorporate that into our orchards?” Their current practices have pigs consuming all the leftover apple pressings and the press itself is operated with water pressure.
The Catskills community has quickly embraced Wayside Cider in the short time they’ve been harvesting. “People seem to say, ‘Great – you’re doing something,’ and respect us for getting off our asses and building a little business,” says Alex. “When we’re sourcing apples, people are always saying, ‘Oh you know, I’ve got some wild apple trees on my land, come by.’ And so many people on Instagram have told us where to find apples!”
With so many apples to process, Autumn is hard work at Wayside. But, for Alex, there’s room for enjoyment. “From the beginning, we’ve said that it has to be fun. So if we’re spending a summer day doing lots of office work, we’ll go and jump in the pond at lunch.”
Overall, the thing that first brought these business partners together continues to unite them: They both just love cider. “Blending is my favorite part,” says Irene. “We ferment all of these batches, and then a big part of our process is about blending the batches with one another. This cider may have been made with one kind of yeast, and this one with another, and then maybe we add some that was oak aged, and maybe some quince or something…” Alex continues, “There’s wild fermentation, crab apples… We have this palette, and it’s almost like you’re painting. Irene does the math, and we taste just a little bit of each, and then we have to scale it up to figure out how to mix 500 gallons with 250. But, we always start with just one glass.”
“We’re lucky here; unlike a lot of rural communities where there’s tension between city and local folks, we really don’t experience much of that,” says Alex. “There’s a palpable desire to collaborate, to build a life that’s less cutthroat, that’s about enjoying ourselves and enjoying building something together.”