Valley Bounty: Headwater Cider
In toasting a new year that’s hopefully brighter than the one we’re leaving behind, it’s a time to reflect that our region is home to an abundance of artisans making beer, wine, spirits and hard ciders that display flavors as unique and complex as the people and land that formed them. That taste like they’re from somewhere, and tell a story with every sip.
Headwater Cider’s hand-crafted cider checks all those boxes. The heart of this business is a 25-acre orchard with more than 2,000 apple trees perched on a hillside in Hawley. Owner Peter Mitchell has been making and selling hard cider there since 2005, but his journey began a few years before.
“In the late ’90s, I went to the Franklin County CiderDays festival, and I tasted some cider made by Terry Maloney of West County Cider in Colrain. It was absolutely delicious,” Mitchell says. “After learning more and visiting other orchards around western Mass., I decided I really wanted to do this.’”
After some homebrew experimentation, he connected with researchers from UMass to learn more about the trade. “Then this orchard in Hawley came up for sale,” Mitchell recalls. “I went up there in late February, and I kid you not, it was nine below zero and the wind was screaming … and the place just looked gorgeous. I thought, if you don’t do this, you’ll kick yourself forever thinking ‘what if?’”
Before Mitchell took over, the orchard grew only Cortland, Macintosh and Empire apples for wholesale. After new planting and grafting projects, they now have dozens of varieties. The real changing point, Mitchell says: “I put up a cider mill, my wife, who’s a carpenter, built a barn, and it’s been a wild ride ever since.”
Headwater makes “estate” cider, meaning it’s pressed, fermented and bottled on the same farm that grew the apples. Other cider makers might truck in apples from elsewhere or purchase juice futures from a wholesale orchard before the growing season. Meanwhile, estate cider makers enjoy the freedom — and shoulder the risks — of crafting the best cider from whatever apples their trees yield.
Cider apples can be split into four types: sweets, sharps, bittersweets and bittersharps. Sweets provide the most sugar for fermentation, sharps are acidic, and bitters introduce tannins that add complexity and a drier finish.
“Anyone can make alcohol,” Mitchell says. “All you need is yeast and some sugar. But if you want it to be delicious and really taste like the orchard it came from, you want to get as much flavor from the apples as possible.” To that end, most estate ciders are blends where every apple has a role.
“It’s all about balance,” he shares. “You want little things from each variety.”
The farm still grows mostly Cortland, Macintosh and Empire varieties, which makes a good base juice, Mitchell explains. On top of that, he embellishes: “Golden russets (sweets) have a lot of sugar, they’ll increase your alcohol content. Medaille d’Or (bittersweets) are little brown golf balls, and oh man they taste horrible on their own. But they have so much tannin that’s useful in a blend.”
After pressing the fall harvest, they ferment using a mix of commercial yeasts tailored to complement each juice blend. Before bottling, the cider is clarified to remove yeast and particles that might continue fermenting and cause the flavor to drift. “The more pure the cider is, the longer the shelf life,” Mitchell notes. “Ours lasts four or five years.”
Every vintage is a bit different, and Mitchell is always experimenting. Their one flavored cider (he is a bit of a purist) is “Cassidy,” a dry-hopped cider. “We don’t heat the hops, so they don’t taste bitter. All you get are the floral notes,” he explains. They also used a Harold Grinspoon Foundation grant to buy a bright tank, and recently brewed their first bubbly cider, “Hey 19.” Both are on shelves now.
Headwater’s cider, usually in 750ml bottles, can be found at stores throughout the Valley as noted on their website (headwatercider.com/buy). They also sell kegs for cider on tap at local restaurants.
“There’s a really tight community here, especially among those who grow their own apples,” Mitchell explains, adding: “Spread the love to my friends who grow and make true estate cider.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) To learn where you can find local food and support local businesses this holiday season, visit CISA’s searchable online guide at buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally/.