By Deb Kaneb / Photos by Adam DeTour
My Polish grandfather made hard cider. If I remember accurately, his “recipe” involved taking a fresh batch of our local upstate New York cider, placing it in his cold basement, checking it periodically, and letting it age long enough to ferment. While this process sounds simple, the founders of Far From The Tree cider would humbly tell you that it bears a striking resemblance to the one they use to produce their unique, dry, and delicious craft hard ciders.
Al and Denise Snape started the business along with co-owner Tim Fitzpatrick, a longtime friend of Al’s, in September 2013 in Salem, Massachusetts. Tim is the company’s Director of Finance and Sales, Denise is the Director of Business Operations, and Al refers to himself as the Cellar Master. They are quick to note, however, that all three help in every aspect of the business. Far From The Tree began fermenting apples this January and released their first cider in mid-May. Although they’ve only been in business a short time, the business has been brewing for years.
The Snapes met in 2007. At the time, Al (a Psychology major) was working at MIT’s Whitehead Institute managing radioactive material storage. Denise, who earned a Masters of Science in Clinical Investigation from Boston University in 2009, was working in project management of clinical trials at Shire HGT in Lexington. In their spare time, the two volunteered at Topsfield’s family owned vineyard, Alfalfa Farms Winery, and learned about winemaking. Each Wednesday, they would meet at Denise’s apartment to taste as many different wines as they could afford. They also experimented with wine they had made using home winemaking kits. Al jokes that he “even came up with a way of making sparkling wine using old corks and duct tape, which considering the base materials came out pretty well!” Before long, the couple’s passion for wine deepened and they both decided to quit their jobs to move to England.
Denise, with a work visa in hand, began looking for a job. She found one as a Senior Clinical Manager for Novartis, and eventually started her own clinical project management company. Al obtained a student visa, and enrolled in the University of Brighton, Plumpton College Bachelor of Science program in Viticulture and Oenology. The chemistry and biology-intense Plumpton College program is located in Lewes, England, and takes three years to complete. It has the distinction of being the only European winemaking degree program taught in English.
During breaks, Al lived in different winemaking regions while learning about that area’s wine and working at a winery. He worked at Orea Wines in Germany’s oldest winemaking region, the Mosel Valley area. That same summer he also worked at Château de Sours, located in Saint-Quentin-de-Baron, approximately 16 miles from Bordeaux. Another year, he lived and worked in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France at the family owned Champagne Huré Frères à Ludes, and learned to make champagne.
Over the course of their time in England, they both became more and more interested in the process of making cider. Lewes’ town market had an apple press, and residents and visitors (including Al and Denise) often gathered apples from the area’s abandoned apple orchards and pressed them.
Degree candidates in Plumpton’s Viticulture and Oenology program must complete an honors dissertation. Al’s choice of a dissertation topic ended up playing a critical role in the couple’s next venture. His research focused on growing Riesling grapes in New England, and he concluded that properly growing the grape in this area was not wise. As he explains, “I had wanted to open a winery for years. The idea of starting our own cider house was a bit of an epiphany during my dissertation, while studying and reading paper after paper about the difficulties of growing grapes in New England, and harsh climates in general. Time and time again the best solutions were always just to grow what worked best in that area without trying to force something to grow where it just isn’t meant to grow. Thus, the idea was born that we should make hard cider, not wine, in New England—its ingredients are what grow well here and as New Englanders that’s what makes the most sense to us. Don’t try to force it. Do what works, and do it well.”
With Al’s degree and hands on experience, and the couple’s new idea of opening a cider house, they returned to the United States. After spending time on the West Coast visiting winemaker friends and exploring the region’s hard cider culture, they briefly considered moving to Washington or Oregon. A craft cider movement was underway and hard cider bars were a growing trend in both states. After their wedding in New York State’s Finger Lakes region, the couple decided to settle on the East Coast. Only a day or two after they married, they began the process of launching and searching for a home for Far From The Tree. They found that home in Salem.
Located on Jackson Street, Far From The Tree operates in the unheated cellar of a building that they share with their landlord, who runs a marine construction company. The entire back section of the cellar contains an abandoned walk in freezer. Oak barrels fill the front and back sections of the room, and a beautiful, rustic wooden bar built by Denise’s brother hugs the left wall of the front space. It is, Al notes, perfect for them. “It’s wonderfully designed to hold a constant temperature. The Champenoise knew digging 50 feet down into the limestone would be worth it for the same reason. Cider, much like white wine, needs to be kept under 60 degrees and maintain a very steady temperature as it ages. With the insulation provided by the abandoned walk in freezer unit we can very easily do this with little to no energy. I would not be able to make this cider in a conventional space without a massive investment in temperature control.”
Far From The Tree’s cider bears no resemblance to large mass produced hard ciders. It is not super sweet, but rather dry and refreshing with light carbonation, and tastes deliciously of apples. That’s because the first ingredient in each of the company’s three current varieties is, in fact, pressed apples.
Making hard cider, Denise notes, is a natural extension of the processes that Al learned while studying in England. Far From The Tree’s goal, she says, is to use these techniques to create a product of which the company can be proud. Their cider is inspired by Aspall, an English cider manufacturer that has been in the same family for eight generations, since 1728. Al makes the cider true to traditional Massachusetts methods, often refering to a book written in 1822 by James Thacher, The American Orchardist Or A Practical Treatise On The Culture and Management of Apple And Other Fruit Trees (1822).
The company gets its apples in October from orchards in central Massachusetts. They drive the apples to Stow to be pressed. The same day, the fresh juice is brought to Far From The Tree’s Salem cellar, where it is pumped into oak barrels to begin the fermentation process. At this point, Cellar Master Al keeps the cellar as cold as possible, opening windows at night and shutting it up the during the day. Al notes that “as winter approaches and the temperature drops, I take advantage of the changing weather. Keeping the fermenting cider cool is key. I can hold onto a lot of delicate flavors that would otherwise be lost if I were fermenting in a huge hot steel tank. A winter with a bunch of barrels sometimes makes me feel like a father with a bunch of gigantic slumbering babies. I even rock them weekly to reduce settling. I taste the barrels quite regularly, and when I think it’s time, usually as Spring is settling in, I “rack” (transfer the fermented cider) to new barrels where I continue to let the cider age. Some of the barrels I’ll use fairly soon as they’ve got a youthful fresh quality to them. Another handful of the barrels will continue to age where they’ll go through something called maloactic fermentation, a process where malolatic acid slowly converts into lactic acid. The last group of the barrels I’ll age even longer, years not months. I build in this layered aging so that every time I bottle, I have a variety of barrels with different upbringings to pick from. After I’ve decided on and blend a number of barrels for a batch, I add a little bit of maple syrup from western Massachusetts for a natural secondary carbonation in the bottle which takes another month or two. Then we load them in my pick-up and bring them to whomever would like them. Some ciders work very well when you pump them at huge volumes from one tank to another through a very specific system, you get something very exact and uniform at the end every time, quickly and efficiently. I’m not really a big fan of quick and efficient, I’m a big fan of our barrels. Rocking, aging, tasting and blending is at the heart of why I’m doing what I’m doing. I love this kind of cider and you can’t make it any other way.”
Currently, Far From The Tree sells three varieties of its dry cider. Al refers to the original one, Roots, as his first baby. Only two ingredients are on the label of this fantastic, crisp cider: pressed apples and maple syrup. The second is the very refreshing Sprig. It includes two additional ingredients: fresh mint and hops, added using a process called dry hopping. Third is their most recent release, Rind. This blend uses a different type of yeast than the others (Saison yeast), and includes both coriander and orange rind. This results in a smooth and earthy spiciness unique to the brand. All three Far From The Tree ciders are sold in 500ml brown bottles. Each contains 6.9 percent alcohol by volume, the highest percentage allowable without being classified as apple wine.
The future is bright for this young company. Their cider is sold in stores throughout the area, bars, farmers markets, and restaurants and has a growing and devoted fan base. They are working on several new techniques and flavors, including a salted pecan vanilla cider using salt harvested in Marblehead. In addition, they’d like to refine their tasting room, get more barrels into the space, and hopefully invite the public in for tastings and events.
If my grandfather were alive today, perhaps he’d be right there with Al, Denise, and Tim, on the cusp of a craft cider movement and introducing old world cider making ways to a new generation. In Al’s words, “It may sound complex but it’s by far one of the purest methods of making cider that I’ve ever come across. Start with apples, let them ferment, give the barrels a rocking every week or so, move the cider to a new barrel, wait a really long time, then bottle. The art of it comes into play when I go around and taste all the ciders and let my palate and nose decide what to do. Instead of following a strict chemically driven procedure I let my gut and instinct make the choices whenever I can. There aren’t any trade secrets to protect because we don’t add anything, or do anything that isn’t just good general practice when making traditional cider, our secret recipe is this: Apples with a couple drops of maple syrup. A lot of patience helps too.”
A complete list of locations selling far from the tree cider is available at farfromthetreecider.com
Deb Kaneb is the owner of the cookie company Batter Up Bakery, LLC, and her hero is Julia Child. She’s a former lawyer who much prefers using the analytical research skills learned in law school to write about food rather than law. She lives with her lively family of six north of Boston and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.