Keeping the old ways alive
By J. Chambless
The Gruber family businesses have expanded to include Old Stone Cider in Lewisville. (Photo by Jim Coarse)
By John Chambless
There's history in every part of the
Old Stone Cider operation in tiny Lewisville – from the restored
1800s barn that's the hub of the business, to the spreading orchard
that produces heirloom apples, to the cemetery on the property that
holds graves from the early 1700s.
Located perhaps 100 steps north of the Maryland state line, Old Stone Cider is marking its first year in business in May, but the recipes for making the robust alcoholic ciders are rooted in centuries of tradition.
“Every European country has its own cider tradition,” said Mary Gruber, whose family runs the new business. “It's pretty universal.”
Mary's son, Evan, explained, “When the colonists came over to America, a lot of them brought apple seeds in their pockets. When you bring seeds over, you get a cross between two types of trees. Those were the first unique American varieties. Hard cider was initially the most popular alcoholic drink in the country. Every farm would have a few trees or an orchard and everyone would make hard cider. The colonists were suspicious of drinking fresh water.”
“You drank cider for three meals a day – even children would drink a diluted version,” Mary added. “And apples were grown to make hard cider – they weren't grown to eat.”
Evan's parents started a Christmas tree farm in Lewisville that has made the location an annual holiday highlight for area families. The 75-acre property in Lewisville holds three businesses – the Christmas tree farm, horse boarding facility, and the new cider business.
“This property was three farms,” Mary said. “I know that the farmhouse at the center is an 1816 two-story log house. The cider barn and farmhouse are most likely circa 1840. The farmhouse at the East end of the farm, where we board horses, is even older. It's also a two-story log house, with later additions. There was definitely a community here in the late 1600s and early 1700s, for there to be enough people to form a church before 1720.”
The church building burned, but the cemetery remains, isolated from view but still toured by genealogists and curious visitors. The old stones in the cemetery gave the cider operation its name.
The farm was overgrown in 1991, when Mark and Mary bought it and began renovations. There was a barn on the property that had been used as a dairy barn. It was in disrepair, and by the time the Grubers had discovered the world of hard ciders during a trip to Europe and decided to try their hand at making a U.S. Version in 2010, the barn had to be torn down and rebuilt. The family used existing timbers in the reconstruction, and the barn has the same footprint, but today it's a modern building that holds a ground-floor fermentation room and an upper floor where customers can discover ciders.
The family's first attempt at making a cider “was horrible,” Evan said, laughing. “When we started, we didn't really know much about it. My dad spends quite a bit of time working in the U.K., where it’s on tap in every pub. I was in college and had tried some. When we started, we bought fresh, unpasteurized cider, added yeast, and it ended up tasting like watery alcohol.”
That was about nine years ago, and the Grubers discovered that to make a good cider, you need the right apples. Modern, hybridized apples don't have a strong enough flavor to stand up to the fermentation process.
“We knew that we needed bittersweets and bitter sharps to make a good cider,” Mary said. “We selected trees that were going to work in this environment, did a lot of research and started planting. It was sort of a leap of faith.”
The apples grown in the orchard – almost 20 different types – aren't the pretty varieties you'll find in a grocery store. The historic Roxbury Russett, Harrison and Stoke Red varieties are too tart to be eaten right off the tree, but are strong enough to make a variety of ciders.
“Cider is the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage,” Mary said. The ciders most familiar to Americans are perhaps Woodchuck and Angry Orchard, which the Grubers dismiss as candy-flavored approximations of real ciders. “The first Woodchuck cider was sort of diluted beer with apple flavoring in it,” Mary Gruber said. “Pretty awful stuff.”
“Some of the cider manufacturers in this country are starting to plant and use these traditional apples, but most are using table fruit – using eating apples to make hard cider,” Mary said. “You get a very different end result.”
Evan added, “What's happening in the industry is, they'll make a product and then add a lot of sugar to it, or flavorings.”
For their first successful batch last year, the Grubers sold out 900 gallons by September. Customers can fill up growlers with cider, or sample the ciders in the barn. There are no off-site sales, and bottling Old Stone varieties is still a few years in the future, Evan said. This year, they have 1,200 gallons to meet demand, with larger volumes each year as trees mature.
The process of cider making is similar to making wine, Evan said. “We grow the apples, then we pick them and press them. You store the juice in tanks and add yeast. There's more nuance than that, but that's basically the process. Then we give it a slight carbonation.”
Old Stone is part of the Pennsylvania Cider Guild, Evan said, which provides contacts and networking opportunities, and the farm is part of the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail, but the family has intentionally kept Old Stone low-key up to this point. The business is open on Saturdays, and on Friday evenings as well in warmer months, offering a patio area and occasionally food trucks. There are regular customers who come every weekend, and Old Stone is getting noticed as the hub of activity in Lewisville. On a typical spring and summer weekend, perhaps 150 people will stop by. “It's become a hangout,” Evan said. “People can walk over to fill their growlers, bring their own food and stay for a couple of hours.”
The ciders tend to have a higher alcohol content – around 8 percent – and there are plenty of options for producing unique varieties. Evan said he has added blueberries, as well as oak, to see what happens. “It's been a lot of experimentation,” he said. “There are some resources online, but at the end of the day, you just have to figure out what works.”
And with so many people knowing only the sweetened varieties of mass-production ciders, education is a constant process, Evan said. “A lot of times, people will come in and say, 'Oh, I tried hard cider once.' But the flavor they have in their minds is the mass-produced stuff,” he said. “When they try ours, it's tart, or a little bitter. The flavors are more nuanced. Education is the big component. We talk through each of the varieties we have, and prime the people for thinking about cider in a different way. People's reactions are positive. We try to always have four varieties on tap – a tart cider, a sweet cider, a dry cider, and maybe a flavored cider of some type. Usually people will find one or two that they really like. My thought is that if we can appeal to a wide variety of tastes, that's better.”
Without the pressure of bottling or canning their ciders, the Gruber family has been able to manage the operation with only limited outside help. Lewisville is their only location. Even the barn was largely a do-it-yourself job, with a few Amish artisans brought in to help.
On their website, the family hosts a time-lapse video of the barn project. “In 2011 when we began disassembling the barn for reconstruction, we saved as many of the original hand-hewn timbers as possible,” the site reads. “To replace rotten or unusable beams, our family collected logs from the farm, many felled in the heavy storms of the summer of 2011. These logs were milled at local sawmills and carved with a mallet and chisel to replace the missing pieces.
“The stonework on the foundation was repointed and relaid with the farm's field stone by an Oxford mason, and in the summer of 2013 we raised the beams. A roof, siding, and windows quickly followed and much of the decorative wood you see inside is recycled from the original building. We're pleased with the fruit of our many years of work on it, and are proud to preserve this part of the local landscape. Many barns of its age are torn down or fall into disrepair as the local economy changes.”
At Old Stone Cider, though, the past coexists very well with the present. And the strength of the hearty ciders is drawing a new, vital energy to the village.
The Old Stone Cider tasting room is at 959 Chesterville Rd., Lewisville, Pa. Visit www.oldstonecider.com for more information.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email email@example.com.