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Hard Cider Craze Owes Craft Beer Big Thanks

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Apple advocates have craft beer to thank for hard cider’s latest comeback. The drink, which first fell out of favor after Prohibition, has a long history in this country. “Apple cider is the original beverage of America,” says Hank Frecon, head of Frecon’s Cidery in Berks County, where he produces various craft ciders. 

He’s not alone. Several other operations around the state are joining the artisanal movement to bring back the alcoholic drink that was so popular with our forefathers, including Big Hill Ciderworks in Adams County and Blue Marble Beverages in Phoenixville.

From left: Frecon’s Josh Smith inspects the goods and makes his rounds; a sampling of Frecon’s bottles.

For Frecon, the venture was a logical extension of his family’s longtime fruit-growing business. With his brother, Steve, and childhood friend Jamie Bock, an avid home brewer, he began making hard cider and selling it at farmers’ markets in 2010. The tart, fermented drink is now found on draft in several local bars throughout Berks and Chester counties, thanks to a collaboration with Shangy’s The Beer Authority. 

The Frecon brothers aren’t just any craft-cider makers. As third-generation apple farmers with a massive wholesale- production enterprise, they’re able to control the fruit’s growth and manage more than 29 heirloom and modern varieties to produce original blends. 

“We just completed an enormous planting of cider apples—over seven acres,” says Steve, a graduate of Delaware Valley College’s agricultural program who maintains more than 70 acres of orchards. “Like grapes are to wine, it’s all about the apples with our cider—and we do a great job with what we have.”

The Frecons’ fruity ferments include the Early Man (semi-dry, peppy and well-balanced), the Crabby Granny (champagne-like, complex, and crafted with a blend of crab apples and Winesap and Granny Smith apples), and a New England-style sparkling Hogshead (fortified with brown sugar and raisins, and aged in French and American oak barrels). 

This month, Frecon’s Cidery is debuting a Farmhouse line, featuring single-origin estate releases. The first is a three-year-aged sour cider.

Left: The heady inventory at Blue Marble Beverages; Chris Firey of Blue Marble Beverages samples a barrel-aged batch.

Elsewhere, at Big Hill Ciderworks, farmers-turned-cider-makers Ben Kish-baugh (Crooked Woods Fruit Farm) and Troy Lehman (Rex Farms Orchard) are taking their own grassroots approach to cider. “Essentially, there’s a whole world of ciders that haven’t been touched in this country. We’re looking to bring those to fruition,” says Lehman, who can be found with his bottles at Kennett Square Farmers Market every Friday. “There is so much more to cider than a sweet soda-pop-type drink.”

Big Hill’s Summer Scrumpy is now available at Pinocchio’s Beer Garden To Go in Media, Coatesville’s Whip Tavern, and Exton’s Rino’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria. Other releases include batches aged in whiskey and brandy barrels, plus a dry-hopped variety.

And then there’s brewer Chris Firey of Blue Marble Beverages. He wanted to step outside the beer industry. After stints at Victory and Manayunk brewing companies, he began specializing in ciders and cysers (fermented with honey). At a downtown Phoenixville facility, Firey uses local organic apples and ages in French oak barrels. The spirited results can be found in the area at Pickering Creek Inn, the Fenix Bar and Franco Ristorante.

Firey calls his flagship Easy-Eve cyser “double hard”—a slightly carbonated mix of tartness and vanilla smokiness, aged
for four months. His Hillside cider line is a crisp, lighter choice with a lower alcohol content.

As cider makers continue to explore various flavors and styles, the renaissance is likely to move forward unabated. For Steve Frecon and other Pennsylvania producers, there’s a twofold mission. “It’s our goal to preserve the local agriculture and get the cider industry to where the wine industry is today,” he says.