BENTON, Pa. — Come September, when apples hang ripe and heavy on the tree in this tiny, rural corner of Columbia County, Bob Antanitis stands ready. No doubt there’s a giant smile spread across his mustachioed face. Time to make cider!
Not the sweet and cloudy, kid-friendly variety sold at farm markets and roadside stands, mind you. (Though who can say “No” to that classic taste of autumn?) We’re talking the good stuff from Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider Winery, the small cidery he started four years ago.
In 2007, on what he cheerfully admits was a whim, the Luzerne County native purchased a commercial cider press at auction. Friends and family loved the cider he’d jugged in the past, and with this hydraulic system, he figured he could make a ton of it. He even had a ready place to put it: a three-sided building his father-in-law, Miles, had used as a wood-drying kiln for his lumber biz, the Little Lumber Co.
As he played around with the press and different apple combinations over the next two years, however, the seed of an idea grew in his head. He really could fill a lot of barrels with the press, a big green monster of a machine capable, at full throttle, of turning 40 bushes of apples into about 130 gallons of cider. Why not ferment and bottle it, and then try to sell it?
Locals have been pressing, fermenting and aging small batches of traditional hard cider for generations in this northeastern part of the state. Mr. Antanitis himself started making hard cider in his basement as a hobby some 30 years ago, after he married his wife, Debbie, and moved from Trucksville to Benton.
“That was my introduction to moving there,” he says with a chuckle, describing how his father-in-law led the way. “It was one of the things guys would do — make it, put it in jugs and give it away to friends.” At one time, he had two barrels in his cellar.
Mr. Antanitis knew, then, there was a taste for the alcoholic drink, and not just in and around Columbia County. Thanks to America’s growing love affair with craft beers and cocktails, hard cider is experiencing something of a renaissance across the U.S.
According to The Beer Institute, American hard-cider production has more than tripled in the past two years, exploding from 9.4 million gallons in 2011 to 32 million in 2013. And a 2012 Neilson Report says that hard cider is “poised for great growth” because it appeals to more affluent, nontraditional beer drinkers — women, who prefer its sweeter taste, and Gen Y-ers, who have gravitated toward wine, spirits and craft beer.
“Innovative cider offerings keep the millennials engaged,” notes the report.
Blessed with a head for business — he ran two lumber yards over 23 years for his father-in-law before the business closed in 2000 — Mr. Antanitis realized cider’s potential.
“I was thinking there was no reason we couldn’t sell it,” he says. “I liked it, and my friends liked it. In fact, I thought it was interesting no one had ever tried to bottle and sell it.”
When it came to naming the cider he’d eventually start selling at the big white Green Acres Barn at the north end of town, at the corner of Route 487 and Green Acres Road, one local name immediately came to mind. Native son Colonel Robert Bruce Ricketts was a Civil War veteran-turned-lumber baron/land speculator who’d won honors for his valor on Cemetery Hill on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. After his death in 1918, many of his 66,000 accumulated acres were sold to the Pennsylvania State Game Lands, and that became the nucleus for Ricketts Glen State Park. Opened in 1944, it’s one of the state’s 20 “must-see” parks, thanks to the trails Col. Ricketts built along its 24 named waterfalls.
Says Mr. Antanitis, “Everyone knows it.” Why not capitalize on that famous name?
A throwback drink
Hard cider has a long, if sometimes forgotten, history in the U.S.
Apple trees for cider production were among the first fruits planted by British colonists upon arrival in the New England. Public sources of water were not fit to drink from back in merry-but-unsanitary old England, notes Dave Williams of George Mason University, so the colonists initially distrusted the streams and rivers in the new world, too. Cider sanitized dirty water.
Plus, it tasted good. More stable on pantry shelves than fresh-pressed juices and cheaper to make than beer or whiskey, hard cider quickly became the alcoholic drink of choice.
By the 1670s, Mr. Williams writes, orchards in New England were producing up to 500 hogsheads (a barrel containing up to 63 gallons) of cider annually in some communities. “From the early 18th century to 1825 even children drank hard cider with breakfast and dinner.”
A few famous people loved it, too. Our second president, John Adams, reportedly drank hard cider regularly at breakfast to “soothe his stomach.“ And during his “log cabin campaign” for president in 1840, William Henry Harrison promoted himself as the “hard cider candidate” from the rough-and-tumble West. He lost, but the point was made: Cider was the drink of the common man.
Tastes changed as the country grew more urbanized and industrialized. A rise in the number of German immigrants brewing beer in the late 1800s took a hard toll on hard cider, which typically was produced on site near the orchards or in towns surrounded by apple trees. By the time Prohibition rolled around in the 1920s, the once-popular drink had all but disappeared.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s, on the smoking hot heels of the craft-beer revolution, that hard cider started making a comeback. The more people tasted it, the more they wanted it. Along with Vermont’s top-selling Woodchuck — purchased by C&C Group of Dublin for $305 million in 2012 — some of the biggest names in the brewing business now offer the drink, includingAnheuser-Busch (Johnny Appleseed), Boston Beer Company (Angry Orchard) and Miller-Coors (Crispin and the brand-new Smith & Forge).
“It’s sort of a darling right now,” says Mr. Antanitis. “Big alcohol producers want to see what they can do that’s a little different.”
While making cider is fun, all the red tape involved in getting the business up and running was not. Before he could sell his first bottle, Mr. Antanitis needed a winery permit, a process that took more than six months. He also had to jump through hoops with the label, which features a picture of the distinguished colonel late in life, with white hair and mustache.
The first ones simply read “Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider.” Problem was, the government defines “hard cider” as a subset of wine containing less than 7 percent alcohol by volume — and his product ranges from 9.3 to 15 percent alcohol by volume. So they were rejected.
“We had to add two words,” he says. “Table wine.”
The process of cider-making is fairly simple: After sorting, washing and chopping the apples, they’re ground into pommage, then pressed in a rack of trays seven layers deep for 15 minutes. As the juice flows out of the trays, it drains to a reservoir, where it’s pumped to a stainless-steel storage tank. It’s then filtered, fermented and aged for up to a year in 55-gallon oak barrels. Before the finished cider is bottled, it’s filtered three more times.
What sets Colonel Ricketts’ product apart from the competition, says Mr. Antanitis, is the fact it’s aged in Jack Daniels’ barrels. Charred on the inside, the whiskey-infused wood imparts a unique flavor into the cider.
First, you smell the barrel. Then, you taste it. Each sip finishes with a “Jack aftertaste,” he says.
Also, it’s not carbonized like the Woodchucks and Angry Orchards of the world, he added. Because his is a “true” hard cider, it’s also not pasteurized.
At a time when simple, locally sourced food is the rage, Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider is about as simple a product as you can get. All the apples comes from local orchards — spicy McIntosh, tart Stayman and Red and Golden Delicious are common varieties — and the only other ingredients are sugar, yeast and salicylic acid, which prevents sediment from forming.
Also, nothing goes to waste. The cake-like remains of the ground-up apples (each layer of pommage weighs about 2 1/2 pounds after pressing) is given to local farms to feed pigs.
Each year brings new flavors, depending on the available apple varieties and growing conditions. Best-sellers typically include Colonel Ricketts’ semi-dry “Original” cider, made with a blend of five apples, and Fuji Fantastic, a semi-sweet cider with a tart finish. The 750-milliliter bottles are priced from $10.50 to $18.
Not sure what you like? From Memorial Day through the first weekend in November, you can get a free sampling of five varieties at the cidery’s tasting roof in Green Acres Barn, which in summer also hosts the Benton Farmers Market. Purchased in 1960 to store lumber and other products, it’s about as charming a place to enjoy a drink as you’ll ever find. All kinds of farm tools, antique vehicles and other found art are displayed under its lofty roof, along with local honey for sale and quirky tin sculptures by local artist Rich Dumond. The rest of the year you can sample and buy at the winery a few blocks away on Third Street (they’ve had visitors from as far away as Russia and Switzerland), or at a second location in Lewisburg manned by Mr. Antanitis’ son, Robert, who liked making cider with his father so much that he got his own winery permit.
Neither is making a living off it quite yet, but sales are brisk enough that there’s hope, along with some money in the checking account, Mr. Antanitis says with a laugh.
“It’s a labor of love,” he says, “and fun.”
Colonel Ricketts Ciderworks and Hard Cider Winery is located at 126 S. Third Street in Benton, 15 miles north of Bloomsburg and 8 miles south of Ricketts Glen State Park. From April through the first weekend of November, you can buy and sample the cider in the big white barn at the corner of Route 487 and Green Acres Road (Benton Farmers Market); the rest of the year you can buy and sample at the winery.
Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Fri., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sat., and noon to 4 p.m. Sun. For more info: 1-570–854–1948 and colonelrickettshardciderwinery.com.