Odd Jobs: Cider maker - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Odd Jobs: Cider maker

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John Matson isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. They're usually immersed in some sort of creative ingredient.

"One of the things we do to impart the flavors in some of the ciders, is we use this infusion tank a lot," he said.

Matson and Ben Calvi are the creative thinkers behind the recipes at Woodchuck Hard Cider in Middlebury. The cider-making duo pride themselves on pushing the limits of the hard cider industry.

"Every two months we're putting something new in a bottle and it's flying off the shelf," Matson said.

"You can't make good cider without good starting ingredients no matter how talented you are as a cider maker," Calvi said.

Calvi and Matson say the key to a good cider starts with quality fruit. Most of their ciders use an "orchard blend" sourced locally. Woodchuck buys about half of all available cider fruit in Vermont.

"I get to play with apple juice a lot," Matson said.

These cider makers ferment the juice in huge tanks over several weeks, adding yeast and other natural ingredients to convert sugar to alcohol.

"One of the things we've got to do is track fermentations," Calvi said.

Calvi tests daily samples to ensure fermentation stays on target. The result is a base cider. This is where their creativity takes off.

"We have in our mind what we want it to taste like and if it's not there, we can add a little more," Matson said.

A little more fruit, a little more hops depending on the flavor they're trying to achieve.

"We work in our lab space and I'll do extractions one liter at a time," Matson said.

It can take six months to a few years for a formula to make it out of the lab and into a bottle.

"I really like cider making because it's a combination of something very social and something very scientific, as well," Calvi said.

Calvi initially studied environmental science at Middlebury College and later got a master's degree in winemaking. His career blossomed in Napa Valley.

"That's when I fell in love with the alcohol industry," Calvi said.

Three years ago he traded vines for orchards, funneling his wine skills into cider making.

"I kind of fell into it by accident," Matson said.

Matson started as a beer brewer looking for a new challenge. He found it at Woodchuck five years ago, studying under company's master cider makers.

"My focus more is on creating new styles and just kind of pushing the innovation of the things that we're working on here," Matson explained.

One of the team's favorite projects-- creating barrel-aged ciders.

"You can actually smell the tequila coming out of the bunghole on top," Calvi said.

They fill 53-gallon oak barrels with base cider to create a distinct flavor. Not many cideries do it because the barrels are pricey.

These cider makers say despite Woodchuck's 24-year history, hard cider is still a relative newcomer to the adult beverage industry. They're constantly working to convince beer and wine drinkers that cider is its own category worth trying.

"The coolest thing is when I'm in the grocery store with my kids and they're like, 'Oh, there's Woodchuck dad.' Or, 'Is that one of yours?'" Matson said.

But the downside to cider's exploding popularity is finding enough fruit to keep up with the demand.

"There's a real shortage of specialty cider fruit," Calvi said.

Matson and Calvi truly have their hands on every step of the process, down to bottle and canning, and, of course, taste testing their ciders from fermentation to final product.

"It's all about the balance of the sweetness and the acid levels," said Matson said.

An odd job turning apples into alcohol and beer drinkers into cider fanatics.

"It's just an exciting time to be in the cider business," Matson said.

Calvi and Matson estimate cider makers earn $40,000-$80,000 a year.

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