As Graft Cider launches into the UK with a six-month exclusive listing at Mitchells & Butlers, Miranda Fitzgerald caught up with co-founder Kyle Sherrer to discuss the producer’s unique approach to cidermaking and why the ‘bastardisation of cider’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing
Founded in Hudson Valley, New York, by brother and sister duo Sara and Kyle Sherrer, Graft Cider has yet to celebrate its second birthday, but it’s already making serious waves in the US. Freed by the country’s lack of cidermaking heritage, Kyle says Graft is able to ‘cherry pick’ the best from old-world traditions, while very much putting its own spin on things.
It is heavily influenced by traditional Spanish cider – using wild yeast, malolactic fermentation and producing full dry ciders with no residual sugars – but it is also closely aligned with the craft beer market, both in terms of flavours and branding.
A self-proclaimed craft-beer nerd, Sherrer says he looked to his favourite dry-hopped sours and goses when starting Graft, looking to emulate the flavour profiles.
‘I feel like berliner weisses and gose typically try to emulate fruity characteristics and with cider we start with the fruit,’ he says.
The lack of cidermaking tradition in the US means a dearth of high-tannin cider apples, so Graft uses East Coast dessert varieties to keep costs down. Its ciders are all unfiltered and gluten free, containing no sulphites, sorbates or added sugar, and produced using its own strain of wild Brett yeast.
‘Our ciders are fermented with wild yeast and also have the bacteria that’s on the skins of the apples, so it forces them to go through a malolactic fermentation, converting the malic acid tartness of the apples to that lactic acid you find in cheese or sour beers,’ says Sherrer.
‘It brings a softness to it, which then allows us to bring a full-dry product with no residual sugar and a nice acidity to the market.’
Feel the funk
Graft produces a number of lines, including its milkshake beer-inspired Cloud City range and Book of Nomad fruited ciders, on a monthly or quarterly rotation, equating to around 600,000 litres a year in cans and kegs.
Its rustic table cider Farm Flor, however, is a monthly mainstay. Pale and hazy in appearance with an earthy mustiness and gentle funk, it is made up of 70% young cider and the remainder is oak barrel-aged, through its solera programme.
‘We’re pulling out about a fifth of the cask each month, then replacing that lost volume with a new batch, so the average age is about six months, but it’s been running for a year and half, so some of it is that old,’ says Sherrer.
‘That provides a lot of the rustic, farmhouse characteristics – a little bit of funk, a little bit of oxidation – all those things that make a great farmhouse cider, but in nuanced quantities.’
Its other flagship cider Lost Tropic would likely raise a few more eyebrows with cider purists who believe cider should be apples all the way. Known as a cocktail-inspired ‘hop mimosa cider’, it is dry hopped with the ‘really tropical and citrusy hops’ Citra and Big Secret, and incorporates grapefruit ad orange zest over a crisp apple base.
‘Most people use one or two ingredients for cider, but for us it’s about layering, not only the flavours of the cider, but also the ingredients to make something that no one’s had before,’ says Sherrer.
Salt & Sand, Graft’s ‘gose margarita cider’, is perhaps even more of a departure. Unashamedly described by Sherrer as a ‘pool sipper’, it includes lemon and lime zest and smoked sea salt, which lends it a kind of light mezcal characteristic.
‘We found the salt goes really well with the acidity, helping to brighten up the characteristics and making the tropical and fruity flavours go pop,’ says Sherrer.
The Graft drinker fits firmly in the 25-to-35 year old bracket, and it’s also unintentionally picked up a firm following with the health-conscious brigade, due to its zero sugar and carbs. Its branding and can design by artist Caleb Luke Lin are very much in the ilk of Beavertown et al. Graft’s Book of Nomad line is based around the exploits of a mythical adventurer Nomad, in the vein of Don Quixote or the Iliad, offering a narrative and graphics as funky as its flavours.
‘If you want to get Millennials excited, then it’s all about the grab and go culture with cans,’ Sherrer says, ‘and moving from having a picture of a farmer or apple tree on the front makes it feel new and exciting, but it’s still distinctively cider.’
With a devoted following evidenced by gushing reviews on social media, Sherrer is unconcerned by the brand’s detractors who get worked up with Graft’s experimental approach.
‘They’re entitled to their opinions, but what’s important is getting cider to a broader audience and to do that you need a little bit of showmanship, strong branding on the cans and a little excitement on the flavours and ingredients,’ he says.
‘Is it a bastardisation of cider? A little bit, but I think the long-term goal justifies the means.’
Graft Cider is distributed in the UK by Hawkes and will be exclusively listed in M&B pubs for an initial six-month period.