GBH in Residence

GBH in Residence — Shacksbury Cider’s Graft Camp in Vergennes, VT

David Dolginow, Colin Davis, and Luke Schmuecker were bummed out. Commercial ciders in their market underwhelmed them, and they wondered why more people weren’t going the locally foraged route of their friends. Inspired by those amateur pals, the trio left the the security of their full-time jobs to form Shacksbury Cider. In doing so, they dedicated themselves to creating sustainable, naturally fermented ciders using esoteric local apple varietals nearly lost to time.

In the years since they were founded in 2013, Shacksbury has grown quite a bit, now claiming eight full-time employes. And in early April, they held their first “graft camp.” The purpose? To give insight to what sustainably made cider is—namely, a long, slow process that starts years before anything even starts fermenting. This is how Shacksbury got started. By sampling thousands of apples, they decided on 12 varietals and began to graft them onto 1,000 trees. Those trees mark the beginning of what they’re calling their “lost apple orchard.”

I made the trip to Vermont to see first hand what grafting is and why it's important to cider makers like Shacksbury. While there, I got to sample the tastes of a region dedicated to sustainability, agriculture, and locally sourced goods. It seemed like everything I ate and drank during my weekend trip was grown, bred, or foraged from a nearby patch of land, complete with a story behind it. They’ve got some good land—and stories—in this part of the world, too.

[Editor’s note: Shacksbury provided our writer with a ride from the airport, a warm bed, and a bunch of delicious food and drink on this trip. We're grateful for their help in making our growing cider coverage possible.]

Fresh off the plane, I hop into Luke's car. He's a partner in the company, but based in Newport Beach, CA. Luke had flown in the day prior when the Champlain Valley had just gotten eight inches of snow, a common spring in Vermont. Related: I’d learn soon enough why boots were suggested attire. Spring is mud season.

After a short drive, we meet up with one of Shacksbury’s founders, David, and two of his friends who’d flown in from Kansas City. We arrive at Misery Loves Co. just in time to try some of their fried fish spine. As far as fried aquatic skeletons go, it was tasty. It’s made from a whole fish—Lubina—that’s taken back into the kitchen once it’s eaten as an entree and repurposed as a salty, crunchy, post-dinner treat.

Luke and David have a close relationship with this Winooski hotspot. They sampled two new blends of Lost and Found, their wild fermentation cider made from local, foraged apples. The restaurant always has at least one of their ciders available at all times.

We make a quick stop in Middlebury for provisions followed by a short trip down the road and we’ve arrived at our home for the next few days—a 300-acre farm in Cornwall that’s home to Sunrise Orchards.

After throwing my bag in my room, I head back downstairs to see Luke pouring the remnants of a bottle from their 2015 vintage of Lost and Found, one of his favorite batches. It’s a beautiful blend with noticeable tannins, funky farmhouse notes, and ripe apple undertones—and the whole thing finishes fairly dry. I wasn’t expecting something so nuanced and wonderful, and it really set the tone for the weekend.

To no one’s surprise, in the light of day, the orchard is lousy with apple trees—we’re positively surrounded on all sides. The sun’s out and the temperature’s rising early enough to begin a quick thaw of the snow that’s coated the ground. Large chunks of snow fall from the roof of the house and hit the ground in loud splats.

Luke and I have a quick cup of coffee at the house before heading to Middlebury to meet David and pick up food for the rest of the crew’s arrival. We stop at Middlebury Bagel and Deli to grab a breakfast sandwich and more coffee. After indulging in a glazed donut covered in cake frosting (!!!) and a quick stop at the Middlebury Co-op next door, we head back to the house to unpack endless cases of Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist, and a variety of ciders and wines. Then we wait for camp to officially kick off in the afternoon.

A few campers arrive from Boston—a couple beer program managers and an illustrator—and two others—a pair of sommeliers—come from NYC. Everyone walks into the kitchen with an armful of their own goodies: beer, wine, cheese, some homemade wares. No one’s going hungry or thirsty during this camp.

Colin also makes his entrance. He prefers to hang out in their storage facility where they’ve been temporarily storing their inventory, pressing apples, overseeing fermentation and aging processes, and focusing on overall operations with a few other staff members. Once everyone has something in their glass, Colin gets to talking about the culture of cider and their approach to cider making.

“The thing that’s really exciting to us is exploring the depth and breadth of apples that have, so far, been narrowly exposed,” he says. “There are so many variables you can play with in making cider. You can get really interesting flavors from the apples alone.”

“And there’s confusion in the process when we talk to people,” Luke chimes in. “When you add too many things to it, it’s just difficult. We’re not so dogmatic to say we’ll never use additional ingredients. It’s more a focus on…”

“…we talk about this a lot,” Colin finishes his sentence.

“The thing that hit me was at a beer and cheese fest,” he elaborates. “When the brewer was present, they would always qualify the tasting: ‘We make this beer because it sells a lot, but this is the one you should try.’ That brought up another consideration in building your brand. If we did something like a pineapple cider, would that damage our brand?”

Shacksbury’s lineup is ever changing as Colin, David, and Luke’s palates evolve and as they come to grips of the reality of the marketplace and their own ambitions. For now, the latter has shifted to leading us on a short tour of the new trees Shacksbury recently planted on the orchard.

We head outside and follow a path that wraps around a barn and into rows of crazy-looking apple trees and a breathtaking view of the Adirondack Mountains. After a short walk, we stop at a patch of several baby apple trees, trellised to wooden supports and twine. 

David gives us a short orientation—which varietals are growing where, where the babies are located, and what it all means to Shackbury’s future.

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“We began Shacksbury in 2013 with the Lost Apple Project, finding sustainably grown apples and turning them into cider,” he explains. “These 500 trees, plus a few hundred more kicking around total nearly 1,000 containing 12 varieties that we’ve found. We’re growing! We have trees in the ground that are going to produce fruit this year.”

We return to the house and a kitchen occupied by Cara Chigazola-Tobin, a former James Beard Award-winning chef de cuisine at Oleana in Massachusetts, not to mention head chef of the forthcoming Honey Road Restaurant in Burlington. Cara and her assistant are hard at work preparing dinner—a preview of the Middle Eastern-inspired food she’ll serve at her new place. 

Boots off, glasses full, we’re treated to small bites of spanakopita, pita chips, fresh veggies, hummus, and an incredible almond dip that was demolished in short order. It’s a nice primer for the main course of fried rice, chicken thighs, collard greens, and pan-fried cabbage wedges drenched in tahini. 

“When her restaurant opens, she’ll be one of the top chefs in Vermont,” David nudges me as we’re plating our food. 

He’s decidedly not shitting me.

Dinner’s packed up and everyone has a can of Shacksbury’s newest experiment, a cider spritzer made from apple juice, maple water, grapefruit oil, and red currants. It’s a 3.5% ABV effervescent, all-natural cider with a rosé appearance. I could drink a ton of these. So that’s what we do. While playing Fuck the Dealer and eventually devolving into dramatic readings of bad (good?) 1980s and ‘90s songs before crashing. We have a full schedule of grafting the next day, after all.

Everyone packs up after a light breakfast and heads a few miles down the road to Windfall Orchards. I take a quick detour with Luke, who needs to make a stop at their storage facility to pick up cider for the evening. 

We pull up to a large, refrigerated warehouse where Colin’s busy checking on fermentation of a few barrels. Slow fermentation is Shacksbury’s game, using ambient temperatures to help bring out the more interesting and delicate volatiles from the apple juice. Opting for slower fermentation comes at a risk of getting reductive characteristics, but time usually irons out any off-flavors and preserves a lot of the aromatics.

I try some of Shacksbury’s upcoming barrel projects, including a new fermentation of a gin cider. This batch is still a bit fizzy, some CO2 is still lingering, but it’s just as incredible as the gin variant I had the previous evening. Gin-aged cider is my new jam, as it turns out.

Brad Koehler is giving the group a tour of Windfall when we arrive. The snow is gone, the sun’s shining, and the mercury will nearly hits 60 today. Clear skies and good vibes go well with an amazing view of the Green Mountains on the horizon. It’s time to graft.

Grafting is the process of changing an apple tree into a different varietal by attaching new buds to the old branches. This is what gives most apple trees that unique, demented, crazy-armed look. They’re like Frankenstein’s monster trees. 

We’ll all try our hand at cleft grafting. The process starts with a chest-height branch—sometimes higher, called “top work”—that gets cut an inch or so behind a knot or bud. Once it’s cut, you grab a sharp tool that looks like a raptor talon (awesome) and wedge it just beneath the dead zone in the center of the cut end of the branch with a hammer, creating a cleft. 

Next, two new buds of a different apple varietal are trimmed with a razor on both sides to make a flat tab-like surface to be inserted on the outer edges of the cleft. Once inserted, a super pliable wax is placed over the entire end of the cut branch, the split sides of the cleft, and the very tips of the new buds. In 3-6 weeks, if you do it right, they should be fully bonded.

Everybody tries out the grafting. I find it to be a completely Zen task. Or at least Zen enough for me to put down my camera, which is rare. After watching our handy work for a while, Brad explains why grafting is so beneficial.

“See this old Macintosh tree here?” he asks the group. “We started grafting this tree the same year we planted this dwarf tree. In the same amount of time, I’ve gotten fives bushels from the grafted tree and five total fruits from the dwarf tree.”

But there’s a tradeoff. “The most limiting factor to grafting is time and labor. There’s such a short window to do the work and you need a whole team to graft an entire orchard.”

It’s a tradeoff Brad is willing to make in place of the expense of planting an acre of new trees on a trellis system with a $10,000 price tag.

Lunchtime. And wouldn’t you know it, Brad used to be a professional chef. Watching him cook in his outdoor kitchen is a photographer’s dream. Striped bass, razor clams, roasted asparagus, and tarragon cauliflower are plated, straight from the stone-fired oven, and washed down with Brad’s Farmhouse Perry Cider. It’s also the official opening of Windfall Orchard’s tasting room, an inaugural meal toasted with chocolates and a small vertical of ice ciders post-feast. We are so spoiled. 

After all that, it’s time to head to Shacksbury’s future facility and taproom in Vergennes.

The new facility was repurposed from a creamery built in 1909. It’s a huge white barn with ample space for Shacksbury to produce, package, serve, entertain, and grow. Construction is in its early stages, with plans to slowly rehab the entire building. For now, they’re aiming to move production out of the warehouse and to the Vergennes facility while they get a small taproom functional.

We indulge in a bit of relaxation and libations back at Sunrise, and are excited to learn that Cara’s making us dinner yet again. This time it’s skewered beef made from Colin’s nearby cattle farm, pita bread, roasted asparagus, chickpeas stewed in tomato, and a tabbouleh salad. 

After dinner, I sample Shacksbury’s Pét Nat (pétillant naturel) cider, a style that's still a bit of a rarity in the U.S. Typically, Pét Nat is used to describe natural wines that are bottled before primary fermentation and finished without secondary additions of yeast or sugar. Shacksbury’s is made in the same fashion, using native yeast that ferments out, leaving no residual sugar. Another funky, champagne-like pour with subtle tart apple and yeasty notes. Yum.

By some great stroke of luck, the on-premise sugar shack is making some fresh Vermont maple syrup tonight. We all grab our coats and boots and walk back to a small shed. Inside we find Bernie Hodges, whose family owns Sunrise Orchards, boiling off some maple water and reducing it into what we know as maple syrup.  

Drowning in this fresh, still-warm maple syrup would be an honorable death. Instead, we spend the rest of the evening trying to empty all of the bottles and cans in the house. 

Time to pack up and ship out for our final stop, Twig Farm, where one of Shacksbury’s close friends and recovering artist Michael Lee raises goats for their milk and creates some seriously amazing cheeses.

Michael’s heard totals 43 Alpine goats. We happen to arrive on a day where two had been born earlier that morning, still shaking on their legs as a few others born earlier in the week rambunctiously hop around an adjacent pen in Michael’s garage. We fawn over the kids before it’s time for another tasting.

Twig Farm’s Mixed Drum, Goat Tomme, and Fuzzy are cut up and displayed on a cheese board. We waste no time digging in to these beautifully rustic wheels. Each are either made from all-goat milk or a blend of cow and goat milk, aged in Michael’s cellar with rinds formed from the ambient mold present in storage. My favorite is Fuzzy, a cow/goat milk blend that’s extremely Earthy, with a creamy texture and tangy bite. I bought a half pound that didn’t make it out of Burlington’s airport. 

BTV is my next stop, actually. I’m happy to see Twig Farms has an online store once I’m through security, sitting on a bar stool, and getting ready to pour through hundreds of photos. Once I’m done editing, it’ll be time to have some cheese shipped to my home back in Chicago.

Words and Photos
by Stephanie Byce