To create our hard cider kit, we partnered with Elizabeth Ryan, who grows more than 100 apple varieties in her New York orchards, Breezy Hill Orchard and Stone Ridge Orchard. Every fall, the fruits of her Hudson Valley harvests and the cider she makes from them are some of the most sought-after items at local farmers’ markets. We asked Elizabeth how she began her career in agriculture, about her farming philosophy and how she uses the apples that she grows.
How did you become involved in apple orchards? What drew you to apples specifically?
I went to Cornell University to study agriculture and fell into the garden of Eden. Cornell is the repository of tens of thousands of varieties of fruit and nut trees, so it was love at first sight. Initially, I wanted to grow rare and heirloom varieties exclusively, but I bought a heritage farm in the Hudson Valley that was mostly apples.
What varieties of apples do you grow? Are apples the only thing you grow?
We grow about 100 varieties and seek to double that number. We also grow pears, including Asian pears, and stone fruits like peaches, cherries, plums and nectarines. Additionally, we grow blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.
How did you start your apple cider/mead-making kit business?
I made my first barrel of cider in 1980. I was mentored by a traditional cider maker near Ithaca–we fermented the cider right in the 55 gallon oak barrel. I also studied traditional cider making methods in England and France. I’ve always thought about developing a simple DIY kit for new home fermenters, something that could be done at an apartment-level scale. So when Williams-Sonoma invited us to submit one we already had it in the pipeline.
I’ve been terribly concerned about the decline in bee populations–we are actually starting a bee conservancy here in the Hudson Valley. Making mead was a delicious way to celebrate the bees. So many people have bees now and mead is certainly the oldest fermented beverage on the planet. It’s quite easy to make
Tell us about the Hudson Valley. What is special about the area? What drew you to it? What do you like most about it?
The Hudson Valley is a very old and beautiful region. The landscape and wide deep river have been celebrated by artists for 400 years. The views are ever present and a joy on a daily basis. Because of the river and soils, there is a unique microclimate here that allows us to grow highly-flavored fruit. I love it here.
What is your favorite part about running your orchards/business? What is the most challenging part?
The weather makes it an emotional roller coaster. Changing climate patterns have resulted in extreme frosts and hail. This is a huge challenge that we simply cope with–that’s why I farm in two locations. The generous and loyal customers make it worth it; we have been selling to the same families for generations. We welcome visitors to our U-Pick at Stone Ridge Orchard, where they can also taste the apples and buy our ciders and meads.
Tell us about your relationship with your local farmers’ markets.
Our farm is a founder of New York City’s famous Greenmarket program. We sell at the flagship Union Square market, and have also founded a number of upstate markets including Cold Spring, Mill Brook and Rhinebeck. These markets provide our local communities with an incredible array of very fresh produce.
What are your favorite apples for cooking?
I am always looking for robust flavor and a dense, meaty texture. I love the heirloom varieties especially Russets, Spys, Baldwins and Winesaps. Grab them whenever you can. Some of the newer varieties like Jonagold are also wonderful. I never use Delicious or Honeycrisp. Honeycrisps break down too fast and are better for munching
Describe a typical day at Breezy Hill.
Our days start early and end early. It’s pretty much sun up to sundown for me in the peak season. During the harvest, the farm is an explosion of aromas and activities. The orchard is redolent of ripening fruit for months–you can’t bottle that. Our farm kitchen bakes pies in a butter crust daily. No fillers, just fruit and a pinch of sugar. We press cider every other day, then we ferment thousands of gallons of cider from our field-selected tree ripened fruit.
Every minute we have to make decisions about what to pick and when to pick, and second guess the weather. Sometimes things ripen dramatically and all at once. Then it’s a scramble!
What is your cooking and farming philosophy?
Minimalist. Let the fruit speak for itself. Grow and harvest it well and then don’t interfere too much. Our orchards are sprayed minimally and certified in the Eco Apple and Fair Trade programs. The home farm has been managed exclusively with certified organic materials for 5 years and will certify next year. We consider biodynamic the holy grail but are not quite there yet.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
I can’t imagine doing anything else, but I would work as an advocate for farmers, farms and the bees.
What’s for dinner tonight?
We live on great fruit, great local cheese, great bread and cider in the fall ( good strong coffee and yogurt too.) We only shop in the farmers markets; we literally live there and know everyone personally who makes our food. We pretty much don’t eat anything else.
We love to cook but that’s more of a winter activity