Traveling south from my small college town of Carlisle, PA through Biglerville, the trees begin to blend together in hues of orange, yellow, and red. Roads ebb and flow through stretches of farmland and smokestacks which remain as reminders of the former industrial havens once located along bends of the rivers. Biglerville is home to hundreds of thousands of teeming apple trees that line the roads and travel up and down the countryside. Around a quick corner appears Big Hill Ciderworks, an orchard that lives on top of a steep hill and cascades down the sides. Before arriving I had seen Ben Kishbaugh, co-owner of Big Hill, at local farmers markets, easily identifiable with his tall stature and seen the easily recognizable tap handles made from old orchard ladders with the words Big Hill Ciderworks carved across them showcased at local pubs, bars, and breweries. Although nascent in his involvement in the cider industry, you would never know it. He is teeming with knowledge and passion, and it shows with the dirt on his pants and the pep in his step. Upon arrival, Ben quickly maps out the orchard with his hands, his energy and enthusiasm for apples is magnified by the storm that rages in the distance. Ben turns to me, "Time to take a walk through the orchard, and see where it all begins." Big Hill is bringing people closer to their local agriculture, but at their core they simply want to provide the best experience they can through their cider. Their identity isn't simply farm-to-glass cider making, they are making cider that speaks to their community and connects to the identity of Adams County Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania is a part of a cultural and social transformation that occurred around the founding of our country. Apples were becoming recognized as an important fruit, culturally, spiritually, and especially out in the orchards. This transformation influenced literary icons like Henry David Thoreau, remarking in his piece Wild Apples, "It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple-tree is connected with that of man." In many ways, Thoreau recognized similarities between the apple and colonial America's relationship to the earth, "Our apple is wild only like myself, perchance, who belong not to the aboriginal race here, but have strayed into the woods from the cultivated stock." More importantly, apples were being grown for cider. Cider was quickly becoming the most widely drank alcoholic drink during the colonial period of America because it provided the perfect post harvest activity and ensured something clean and drinkable for many farmers in the fields. Pennsylvania, like New York State, become one of the major areas of expansion for the apple industry. Today, Adams County has over 20,000 acres of apple orchards making it the fifth largest county for production of apples in the country. This drives jobs and the economy in the area, not only by growing the fruit, but through processing, storing, and production of apple based products. Most of these orchards now consist of fresh "dessert apples" or apples destined for applesauce, supermarkets for eating, and fresh apple juice produced by the like of Mott's, Knouse Foods, and Musselman's.
Co-owners Ben Kishbaugh and Troy Lehman are the opposite of this new norm and are bringing back the tradition of cider making; using apples to create hard cider, fermenting cider in barrels, and growing specific apple varieties just for cider making reminiscent of how it was made pre-Prohibition. Located only three miles from a Knouse Foods production facility, they are changing the practice of apple production by planting rows of heirloom apple varieties in an area used predominantly for dessert apples for over 50 years. These varietals were prominent throughout the US colonies until Prohibition when laws pushed the apple market to pull these trees out of the ground, focusing solely on dessert apple production. You won't find these apples at supermarkets because their texture, appearance, and tartness makes them unappealing to consumers today. These cider apple varieties feature tannins and acidity that makes them uniquely qualified for hard cider. Upon Ben's suggestion, I tried a bite of a cider apple which brought with it an uncomfortable mouth coating and puckering. Big Hill is going all in on cider by dedicating the majority of their farm to producing these varieties. Ben has planted hundreds of new trees teeming with new cider varietals, such as Kingston Black, Dabinett, Ashmead's Kernel, Brown Snout, Spitzenberg, and Golden Russet. He hopes these new varieties will allow him to ferment more unique creative ciders down the road.
Ben greeted me at the top of the property overlooking the rest of the orchard and began walking me through rows of trees stretching into the air, branches curling out towards the pathway worn down by foot traffic. Ben shared how important it is to control the entire production process from the seed all the way to the bottle. Farming can play major roles in creating terroir, a term suggesting that soil can affect flavor and exhibit character directly. Big Hill works to create terroir, by listening to the orchard, making fine adjustments to their pruning and soil management year to year. By optimizing the health of each tree Ben hopes to produce flavorful fruit and distinct flavors directly linked to their location. It is key to a goal Ben keeps reiterating throughout my visit, "when you taste our cider, we want you to know you are drinking something from Big Hill," and I believe you can. Terroir is elusive, and not everyone can achieve this character, but Troy and Ben provide that character and bring it even further; I can taste not just where they are but who they are.
At the beginning of their careers, not all paths lead to cider making in Adams County, PA. Ben and Troy always had a love for fixing things. When Troy hired Ben in the service department of an auto dealer they were finally able to connect. Although they are no longer in the auto industry, Ben's love for cars has not gone away. His blue Dodge sits in the driveway like a portrait on a night stand; a reminder of where he came from. Like many with a love for working on cars, Ben and Troy like to fiddle. They love producing, fixing, or making things with their hands. Early on, cider making in their homes gave them an outlet for tinkering, doing what they loved in an entirely different field. They realized they wanted to create cider professionally with their own fruit and what better place to go than to Adams County in the area called the "fruit belt" where growing conditions are ideal for apple growing.
Besides the land needed for an orchard, one of the biggest investments at a cidery is the apple press equipment. The entire apple is macerated into a pulpy mess, called pomace, which is then pressed to optimize the amount of juice taken from each apple. When a cheaper bladder press became available to Ben and Troy they knew the final piece was in place. It was time to start Big Hill. The bladder press presses the apple pomace using a giant bag at the center of a horizontal hydraulic cylinder. Like any growing business there is always more production equipment being added, but Ben and Troy use their ability to fiddle to their advantage. Several years in, they have built their own bottling line from scratch, planted 30 acres of cider apples, and are in the midst of designing the build out of an on-site tasting room.
Ben and Troy are now neighbors and have two thriving fruit farms, not only growing cider apples for cider making, but also selling some dessert apples, the commonly known Honeycrisp, Fuji, and Gala apples for local markets and some goliath companies in the area. Ben reminds me, "there is no one else I could have done this with." Troy and Ben's relationship is collaborative, forward-thinking, and respectfully critical. It is their passion to overcome roadblocks together that makes them a powerful force. Together they have found their roles, Ben is focused on much of the cider making and sales, while Troy is focused on the fruit side, thinking about the next harvest, the next cider, and the next business direction. Yet they have created a working relationship that is dynamic and doesn't have distinct lines. Together they have laser focus, relentless work ethic, and take the time to laugh and smile. They are a Dodge Charger firing on all cylinders headed towards one singular goal: they want to turn a hope and a dream into a reality.
Hidden behind the apple trees at bird's eye view of the property is Ben's house that is adjacent to the production facility. At the top of the hill sits two large barns which are the epicenter of production at Big Hill. One is used for pressing, bottling, and fermenting. The press covers one wall and leads out to the back of the building where sorting takes place. The rest of the space is filled with large square totes stacked on each other to maximize the space - a premium for any farm of their size. Opposite, across a gravel driveway is another barn used for apple sweating (a process that helps develop flavors through open air ripening) and storage. There are plans for this space to become a retail and event space. The barn looks over the whole property down a steep hill that leads down to where the original orchard stands tall against the horizon. Further on down the hill small trees sit popping with different colors, shades, and shapes of different cider apple varieties. With hard-work and a modest piece of barn space, Big Hill has been able to grow, growing from 10,000 gallons last year to somewhere around 15,000 gallons this year. This amount of production has allowed them to become a recognized brand in Pennsylvania, while still allowing them to capture the character of terroir.
Despite this, growth mostly comes from their main brands Standard, Little Round Hop, and Summer Scrumpy, but what they really want to focus on in the coming years is utilizing as many of the ingredients from their farms as possible. They have already began building out their core brands in capacity, while branching out into other single-apple varietal releases - such as Kingston Black, Dabinett, and Chisel Jersey - similar to wines that focus on specific grape varieties, ciders using additional non-apple fruits from their farm and cultivating a house yeast strain. Ben explained, "We want to play with real fruits and real fruit juices... I am really excited to play around with a lot of other fruit juices, the raspberries, the strawberries, and blueberries." They even want to venture into cysers, or a blend of fermented apples (cider) and fermented honey (commonly known as mead). In their new product Farmhouse, they were able to utilize native yeast to ferment their cider. This means isolating the yeast strain naturally found on their fruit, "We'd really like to see that carried throughout every line," and it is something that can again distinguish Big Hill from other cideries and other hills. Their new cider, Marmalade is a cider blended with peaches that were fermented using apple skin contact. The cider sits on skins providing direct contact with wild yeast that lives on apple skins. This cider features the body and yeasty complexity of a witbier, but has the acid backbone of a tart saison. To back up the yeast focus, barrels are being utilized as vessels not only to acquire an oak presence, but as homes for the wild yeast. The Barrel Reserve cider highlights this presence of oak, but is not overwhelming - oak teems in the aroma and at the crisp edges of the palate. The cider reminds you of the apples, but reminds the palate of the whole aromatics of the farm. All of these factors push this character of terroir forward, adding new complex layers and relationships to Big Hill.
Like many of the other cideries popping up in Pennsylvania, some of Big Hill's biggest challenges come from government representatives in Washington, DC and Harrisburg, PA. Pre-Prohibition laws are in place nationally that limit and control cider to specific alcohol percentages, ingredient uses, and even production processes for taxation purposes. Alcohol by volume (ABV) is closely related to sugar content of these apple crops which change yearly depending on crop yield and quality of fruit in a given year. These laws do not take into consideration variability of different yearly temperature changes and possible future impacts of climate change that may affect the sugar content of each apple produced from Big Hill's orchard.
Cider when naturally fermented to dryness, without any sweetening or watering down, finishes fermenting with a residual ABV between 6.5-9%. Until recently, "hard cider" had been defined by the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) as a subset of wine containing less than 7% of alcohol. Depending on the ABV, a cider can be placed into different alcohol subsets that get taxed differently (sometimes exponentially more) and in Pennsylvania even get distributed by completely different channels. Meaning that two different products from the same cidery can be found at a local beer store, but may not be allowed in the local liquor store. If a cider is over the limit of 7% alcohol it can be taxed nationally nearly 200 times more than a lower alcohol cider. This means that Big Hill has had to build two different product lines to fit within these standards making the development of a new brand even more difficult. They must navigate which type of store to sell their product in taking into consideration what each store is licensed to carry; an additional headache that a two person operation must take on.
To add to the antiquated national laws, Pennsylvania had their own laws that overlap with these national laws and make the sale and production of cider even more more difficult and confusing. If a cider is less than 5.5% alcohol in Pennsylvania, it can be considered a malt beverage, which can confuse consumers into thinking that ciders actually use malted barley. This has affected Big Hill at a production level, as well as adds additional complications and ultimately confusion for a small business owner who doesn't have daily access to lawmakers and politicians. "Standard, Little Round Hop, and Summer Scrumpy, are great, but we made them to conform to PA state law. They are 5.5%, they can be sold to go. I am not saying we wouldn't have made them otherwise, but we probably wouldn't have made three ciders that are sweetened back and lower alcohol." Opportunities are limited and ability to show their own personality through their cider making has been hindered by these laws. Big Hill's core brands finish at about 5.5% alcohol, while newer barrel aged dry ciders stretch from 7.5% to 8.2% alcohol, like their single varietal dry cider Kingston Black, that uses the esteemed english cider apple variety. Ben wants creativity to be at the core of Big Hill, "We really want to expand on our 750s and large format bottles... Maybe do something like a farm cellar series, kind of like a scratch series." Yet to date, some of these ciders cannot be on the same shelf together or in some cases cannot even go through the same distributor.
Change is on its way, The Cider Act, a brain child of the United States Association of Cider Makers, is looking to unravel and expand laws to allow for innovation and ultimately push growth of this newly blossoming industry. In early 2017, when this law comes into effect, carbonation in cider can be doubled without tax hikes, pears can now be considered an ingredient used in cider, and the ABV will be lifted to 7%-8.5% alcohol. Yet, as the law gets utilized, questions still arise around how each state will integrate and adjust to these new laws. State and national governments are still working through the logistics and some cider producers are left with crickets on the other end of the line. As Big Hill has always done, they will adjust and push forward tweaking and improving on each iteration of their cider. Ultimately, these constraints have forced Big Hill to learn and change their product to fit their market, and Troy & Ben have persevered and come out stronger on the other side.
By understanding what it takes to produce a cider from tree to glass, Ben has learned that understanding his environment is a key component of creating a balanced complex product. This type of knowledge is cultivated over time and he knows that this recognition can suddenly creep up on you in instinctual and serendipitous ways. "The way we were raised, our sisters and I as kids, we were always playing out in the fields and in the woods... I certainly appreciate it. There is, to me, almost a religious aspect to it." The attention to details, and the slow & patient process of devotion to the land is essential and can be described as religious. Getting to know the environment around you can have a long-term impact on how to go about farming, which can achieve this idea of terroir in new ways. It is something that in the short term may be hard to see but stands out as a differentiator in the long-term.
The orchard that Big Hill sits on today has a long history of cultivating and nurturing the land. You can tell, by seeing the health and overall ecosystem development in the orchard, that Big Hill has continued to renew and support the natural world. They have planted native plants and allowed wild plants to take over part of their orchard to help foster a more coherent transition from the organized row of orchard trees to the preserved strips of forest that weave in between the abundant orchards of Adams County. "I want to do my part... Pollinators, good pests, good bugs, I want to bring that stuff in." Apple trees change and grow slowly and it takes an attention to detail to understand how the tress may act. It is a balance of nurturing, while letting trees mature and grow into their own. It is an obsession, and a devotion, that taken out of context may be considered parenting, "Every morning I have a habit of making a pot of coffee, while that is brewing, I take the dog and walk the orchard, take a look at things and what is going on. Just the alone time with the dog, you know, nobody is bothering me, and my phone is in the house... [I] get out and experience it." The moments of quiet out in the orchard is where some of the unheard and unseen work takes place. The devotion is a key aspect to what makes cider truly farm-to-glass and builds the foundation for terroir.
They have built a community out of their devotion to local agriculture and through the complex flavors they produce for Central PA. They have garnered respect from local craft breweries and bars, recently working with Troegs Brewing to develop a Belgian Saison for their Scratch Series using Winchester and Fuji apples. This identity as a key community member became even more apparent this past spring. In early April 2016, during a critical moment of budding and flowering, a 19 degree Fahrenheit night threatened to burn the tips of these buds with frostbite. This type of weather can deem an entire crop for a year unviable. Ben explained that "most models show over a 90% kill rate for buds" with those temperatures. That night, with the help of friends and family, Ben and Troy lit over 100 fires throughout their orchard to raise the temperature on the farm. Community members spread out staggered across the fields keeping fires lit for over eight hours throughout the night keeping the average temperature around the orchard at 24 degrees Fahrenheit. They are still unsure how this may have affected the overall crop, but Ben explains "overall we had fruit on the trees so we're happy with that." It is this type of community that bolsters Big Hill's determination to represent Biglerville in the national cider making community.
Ben and Troy want people to know where their cider comes from and that it comes from the small apple growing town of Biglerville. They are just getting started, "It's not even a struggle, it's just busy... from paperwork, to the pressing, to the harvesting, to the pruning of trees, to building physical elements... Some days you just want to take a break but you can't you've got too much shit to do. To see that bottle in your hand, full, with a label on it, and a cap, then be able to crack it open and drink it... That was one of the coolest feelings I have ever had. We worked hard to get that first bottle and we are going to work hard to get every bottle from now on." One apple at a time, to one glass at a time, it takes dedication and devotion. What felt like a nascent hope and a dream at first has now turned into a full-blown adventure and mission - to bring people to Biglerville, PA one glass at a time.
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