Oona Davis can’t sit still. That might be because she’s two, it’s a perfect fall day in northwest Vermont, and she’s just been plopped down on a blanket in the grass surrounded by acres of apple trees. Oh, and there’s also a tire swing.
As Oona runs off with her mom, Katie Flagg, chasing her, a group of friends lounge under one of the trees, chatting over puff pastry tarts, kale salad, and local hard cider. You may have guessed that this picnic isn’t your typical basket-in-the-park affair. For one, the hosts are the founders of Shacksbury, a cider company in Vergennes, just south of Burlington, so there’s lots of tasty stuff to drink. And two, the location is Windfall Orchard, a gorgeous spot with stunning views of the Green Mountains. “When people come to visit us, they ask, ‘Is this really what your life is like?’ says Colin Davis, Oona’s dad and the cofounder of Shacksbury. “And the answer is, yeah, sometimes. It feels a little surreal, for sure.”
Colin and his fellow cofounder, David Dolginow, started making cider in Colin’s barn in 2013, focusing on local apples, particularly wild ones. When most people look at the tiny fruit with gnarled skin and blemishes, they think “deer snacks.” But David and Colin saw something different: liquid gold. They knew that once pressed, processed, and fermented, those little apples would make delicious cider.
“Cider apples tend to have high tannins and high acidity,” says David, and the tannins in wild apples work much like those in red wine grapes. Shacksbury’s ciders are dry, complex, and earthy, which means they end up tasting less like apple juice and more like, well, wine.
Windfall Orchard, one of the farms that Colin and David source fruit from, is run by their friend Brad Koehler, a chef who headed up some of Middlebury College’s dining halls before he decided to run the orchard full time. For the picnic, Brad picked some kale from his garden, grabbed a few apples, and took a trip to the co-op for local cheese and a few other ingredients. He sets a spread of homemade tarts and a big bowl of salad on the picnic blankets as the kids chase each other around the apple trees.
Those trees are an important link to the past—and are also a big part of Shacksbury’s present and future. After searching out and sampling thousands of apples, Colin and David started the Lost Apple Project, an effort to save heirloom varieties through grafting and planting. At Windfall, Brad grows 10 of their favorite wild varieties, like Sawmill Crab and Blueberry Hill Bitter, among the McIntoshes and Empires. The varieties that Colin and David aim to save are similar to the fruit that early Vermont cider makers used way back in the 1800s. Championing these old-school apples is good for Shacksbury’s business, but it’s also a win for future apple eaters.
“When we were kids, we had Granny Smith for baking and Red Delicious for eating,” says David. “We want our kids and our kids’ kids to know the apple as the incredibly diverse fruit that it is.” And we’ll drink to that.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Shacksbury cider-making process
Colin and David barrel-age some of their ciders to add complex flavors. The Vermonter, for instance, is aged in former gin barrels, where it picks up some botanical notes.
To make sure the flavors of the cider are where they should be, Colin needs to take a taste. Here, he grabs a little swig from a barrel using a special tool called a thief!
As with wine, you can tell a lot about a hard cider by the way it smells. To get a little more information, Colin takes a sniff to see what might need to be adjusted in this batch of cider.
Brad's Fall Picnic Menu
Kale Salad with Tahini Dressing, Pecans & Pears
Recipe: Try Brad Koehler's Kale Salad with Tahini Dressing, Pecans & Pears
Simple Tartlet Pastry Recipe
Recipe: Try Brad Koehler's Simple Tartlet Pastry Recipe
Autumn Tartlets Three Ways
Recipe: Try Brad Koehler's Autumn Tartlets Three Ways
This article and recipes originally appeared in our Harvest 2020 issue. Get the magazine here.