Fairfax Mountain Mac Cider Extends Roots in Middlebury | Food and drink characteristics | Seven days
In the fall of 2016, when Conor McManus began experimenting with hard cider, his trial lots took over the 1850s Fairfax farm that he and his wife, Leah, had purchased earlier that year.
McManus, now 42, was in construction management at the time. He was ready for a career change and planned to grow hops to feed the craft brewers’ voracious appetite for local ingredients. “I like being near trees and plants, being outside and working with my hands,” he said.
He had started growing hops while he and Leah lived in the Midwest, but his 35 potted vines did not survive the couple’s return to native New England. McManus noticed that his new property had some old apple trees. He started grinding apples in a blender and using a tabletop cider press to make sweet cider. “The kitchen was always a sticky mess,” he said regretfully.
McManus would pour the unpasteurized cider into clean containers and let the wild yeasts on the skin of the apples do their job: eating the sugar from the cider, producing the alcohol and carbon dioxide that turn the sweet cider into hard cider.
As his experiments developed, “I bought half-gallon growlers one box at a time. That’s all I could afford,” said McManus. The novice cider tried mixing different apples, fermenting at varying temperatures, and adding commercial lab-grown yeasts. “I burned three mixers,” he said. “I drove my wife crazy with a few hundred growlers all over the house.”
Countless growlers and five years later McManus shipped his first cans of Mac des Montagnes cider in June. With the support of the distribution of Vermont Craft Beer Guild, his cider is now sold in retail stores statewide. At the beginning of November, the first barrels land in a few restaurants and bars, including Ken’s Pizza and Pub in Burlington and the Fit for Vermont the group’s three restaurants: Worthy Burger in South Royalton, Worthy Burger Too in Waitsfield and Worthy Kitchen in Woodstock.
McManus is currently fermenting and canned under the Liquor Production License of Groennfell Meadery in St. Albans, but he is in the process of starting his own cider house at Middlebury’s Happy Valley Orchard by the end of the year. He is working with the owners, Stan and Mary Pratt, to finalize a deal that will eventually allow him to purchase the 17-acre orchard, retail store, and cider-making and storage facilities.
Stan Pratt, 68, took a break from making cider donuts on Oct. 29 to confirm negotiations with McManus. “I knew it had to be a hardworking person,” Pratt said. “It seems his ideas for the orchard and its future are what I imagine.”
While details are being worked out, McManus uses Pratts’ massive press this fall to process 500,000 pounds of fruit from a handful of orchards within a 100 mile radius, plus about 3,000 pounds. of fodder apples. The resulting sweet cider will grow to over 35,000 gallons of Mountain Mac hard cider, a seven-fold jump from the company’s first year of commercial production.
Such large-scale production is monumental for McManus, among the most recent of About two dozen Vermont hard cider makers – but a microscopic drop in the North American hard cider market. According to forecast market data, the industry is expected to grow by around 10% per year to around $ 4.7 billion by 2026, driven by continued strong demand for gluten-free and low-alcohol drinks.
Conor Giard, market manager for Craft Beer Guild, said the specialty drink distributor is constantly receiving arguments from new companies and taking relatively little of it. After a few sips of Mountain Mac, Giard said, McManus had his attention.
” There is a lot of [hard] cider out there that’s really sweet, but if you take out all the sweet, really dry ciders are really tart, ”Giard said. Mountain Mac “sits perfectly in the middle. I think that’s what most people want when they say they want dry cider. It’s just very good: drinkable but also complex and a little funky. ”
McManus also stood out as an individual. “It’s not often that people are as passionate and knowledgeable as he is,” Giard said. “He’s talking about grafting trees himself.”
McManus grew up in southern New Hampshire and both of his parents were foresters. “They taught me about trees,” he said, including how to graft live twigs from one apple tree to another to propagate promising varieties. His mother owns an orchard dating from the 1680s, from which he has obtained some grafts.
At Fairfax Farm, the couple have a menagerie of pigs, chickens, geese and goats. McManus grows 450 young apple trees and an acre and a half of raspberries, blackberries and black raspberries. The manure of the cattle feeds the berries and the orchard. The animals, in turn, relish apple pulp meals throughout the fall and winter.
More than a decade ago, McManus was working in the management of a huge construction company in a windowless cabin on the 18th floor of its headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut, when he realized that ‘he needed a radical change. “I just wanted to get out of the office,” he said.
But it took McManus several years to feel he could step away from a regular salary for the risks of entrepreneurship. “Rich, I guess, is just a prospect,” McManus said. “If you’re able to do something you love, being around people you love, doing something you want to do, that’s wealth in itself.”
McManus has funded the project so far with the couple’s savings. He estimates that in five years he spent about $ 250,000 on everything from hauling apples to boxes and labels. He has three presses and a canning line that he has never used.
When he informed Kelly and Ricky Klein of Groennfell Meadery of his intention to use the labor intensive manual line for his first cans, “They said, ‘No, no. You can’t do that, “” recalls McManus. He had befriended the Kleins at a small business conference. They offered to let him use their facility until he found one.
Last year, when the pandemic delayed Mountain Mac’s launch by seven months, cash flow was particularly tight. McManus had purchased apples from the fall harvest and was counting on income from November 2020 to pay for the orchards. “I didn’t finally have enough money to buy fuel oil for our house,” admitted McManus.
When challenges arise, McManus credits his 16 years in the Vermont Air National Guard – which he joined in college – to helping him keep things in perspective.
In 2013, McManus was deployed to Afghanistan for a six-month tour as a civil engineer. “You see up close how difficult things can be and how lucky we are here…” he said. “There are all kinds of things we take for granted: a toothbrush, running water, fresh fruit.” He donates part of Mountain Mac’s income to a project that supports pet ownership for veterans.
McManus has learned a lot about making cider from his early days of sticky cooking. One of the first things he realized was that delicious, fresh-squeezed cider isn’t necessarily what makes good hard cider. Example: the first batch of sweet cider from the old trees on the farm. “Man, that was horrible, so bittersweet,” he recalls, “like that wild apple that you bite into and just want to spit out.”
But after fermenting for a winter, the resulting hard cider was delicious when McManus opened it during a snowstorm in February. “My friends said to me, ‘Do you have any more?’” He recalls.
“There were a lot of failures after that,” he added with a chuckle. “But luckily that first batch was amazing.”
It’s not easy to develop a method that produces a commercial cider with wild yeasts, like McManus does. “I do a lot of tastings to make it as consistent as possible,” he said. “But I absolutely announce that no lot is ever the same.”
For Mountain Mac’s flagship offering, the base cider is pressed from a combination of different apples. To this “mellow” cider, McManus said, he adds a dose of pressed cider from a proprietary blend of forage apples, which he called more “intense.” The blend achieves its goal of “somewhere between a dry cider and a semi-sweet cider with a lot of flavor complexity – dry but not super dry”.
In addition to the wild yeasts on apples, McManus uses a strain he cultivated, such as a hard cider version of a sourdough sourdough. “It took me several hundred batches to get one that I liked,” he said. Towards the end of a long traditional fermentation from October to May, he adds laboratory yeast to stabilize the cider.
Ricky Klein of Groennfell has judged international wine, beer, cider and mead competitions. He said he was impressed from the start with McManus’ approach and diligence.
“Conor is so focused on letting the wild yeast do its job and letting that distinguish his cider,” Klein said. “A well-fermented cider brings out the character of apples. A lot of people think the apple is the most important thing. It’s not the apple, it’s what you make of it.”