As with the rest of the great state of Massachusetts, cider houses prove that the further West you go, the more farms you will find. The more people connected to the earth, and the more dedication to keeping things simple, pure and close to home. As I ventured into the ‘here thar be dragons’ part of the Commonwealth, I found myself walking through more fields, visiting more barns, and spending one particularly lovely afternoon on a hand-built front porch amongst the family orchards.

Things run a little slower here in Western Mass – especially when it comes to the cider making. This leads to a cider that may be very different from the Boston ciders, but one that is also really good.

Bear Meadow Farm – Drink Local

Localized consuming is a concept that has gained popularity throughout the country, from restaurants to small batch products to – hell, even your seltzer preference (Polar or Death!). But while the concept is not necessarily required in modern agriculture, it is one that that affects the quality of the products. And that extends to your spirits.

“So there is this idea in the world of wine called terroir – it is your patch of ground that makes a specific unique product and you get to apply your personal agricultural stamp on that,” Rick Intres, owner and head cider maker of Bear Meadow Farm tells me. “I agree that that’s important… [and] being a local grower, taking care of apple trees and making a product with fruit that you grow, I think that’s important.”

It’s this concern for land and fruit that makes Bear Meadow stand out from the pack. Crisp and clean, it has a light honey sweetness from Intres’ own on-site apiary, and a ‘secret ingredient’ that accentuates the apples flavors perfectly – making the cider from Bear Meadow an apple purists dream. These very slight additions to the fruit complement the rich blend of English cider and wild apples, creating an aromatic, rich drink that treads the line somewhere neatly between dessert wine and cider.

But a quality product like this doesn’t happen overnight. And for Intres, reaching his perfect cider took a little while. A geneticist by trade, Intres had spent years as a cider hobbyist. But it wasn’t until he was laid off from his work at the local hospital that he decided it was time to make a change.

“We love living here… So [rather than move to Boston] we decided to try and turn our hobbies, bee-keeping and cider-making, into a living.” Intres told me as we looked out onto the rolling hills of his land. “I’ve been a home cider maker for 20 years. I think at that level, it really takes five years for you to become competent... You make some bad cider along the way, you learn and you get better. If you pay attention, you can get better quicker.”

Wise words, Mr. Intres.

West County Cider knows their apples!
Andrea Wolanin

West County Cider – The Work of Generations

Remember that front porch I told you about? That was the setting of my interview with Field Maloney, head cider maker for West County Cider, one of the longest running orchards in New England. A second generation cider maker, Field remembers helping his parents plant the trees in his front yard for their first orchard as a child – the trees that would go on to be the basis for a burgeoning business.

“They had made wine in Carneros, in the South of Napa in the late 60’s.” Field recounts. “They were really interested in fermentation… and interested in, when [they] got out here, and bought a piece of land, how they could make something from that land… Up until the 30’s or 40’s, I think, cider was still vibrant in these hills. And some of the old farmers around here were still making cider [in the 70’s]... just like in California, where you have these great grapes, here you have these incredible apples.”

As Field and I chatted about his family’s work in the New England cider community, we shared a bottle of West County’s Pura Vida – a 100% Macintosh cider that surpasses all expectations for this common orchard apple. Rich, semi-dry and encapsulating the pure taste of the Mac, this cider showcases the attention to detail and creativity is the trademark of West County.

“With cider I feel generally there are no hard, fast rules… I think we’re in this really neat creative period where anything is possible.” Field tells me. “Really delicious apples are probably gonna make really delicious cider, but it’s much harder than many people realize to find really delicious apples and handle them at the perfect point.”

But that’s not all that Field and his team do at West County – not by a long shot. With a rotating roster of blends and single strains, the cider house is constantly coming up with creative new cider’s for the public. A public that will soon be able to join them at a new tasting room – with a spectacular view – in Shelburne. Get down their quick, but be sure to keep an eye out for Snowball Jr., their highly [fluffy and not at all] vicious attack dog.

Bear Swamp is all about historical ciders (and adorable labels).
Andrea Wolanin

Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery – Pride of Place

While most of the cideries in Western MA are rooted in the tradition of farming and orchards of New England, the majority of them look forward new ways to set their process and drink apart – from the apples they use, to the herbs and spices they add to accentuate and enhance the fruit. But at Bear Swamp in Ashfield, they forgo some of the more popular trends to set their cider apart by sticking with tradition.

“A big piece of that is the urban versus rural… because we grow the apples and everything, it’s very connected to here, what we do.” Steve Gougeon, co-owner and head cider maker told me when I visited the orchard. “We feel very grounded with what we do and… sort of defined by where we are and what’s happened here.”

And that connectivity with the land and culture brilliantly shows through in their cider. Their flagship, the Farmhouse blend is a clear, earthy cider that is apple-forward and pleasantly tart – the perfect crisp cider for a summer day. Shying off that baseline is their Hopped, a nod to the burgeoning market for hoppier drinks – which comes across as richer, with a faintly bitter back, thanks to the hops that are grown on site.

But while both the Farmhouse and Hopped are great ciders, it’s their New England Style Cider that takes the cake, and truly taps into the history of the area. Fermented with raisins and brown sugar, the New England is barrel-aged, delivering a cider that is rich and oaky, and a bit sweet. But this isn’t just a delightfully creative recipe for a sweet cider – it’s one that is based in the history of cider-making and traditional orchard recipes from the area. And while apples and cider might be synonymous with all of New England, Ashfield has reason to stand out in the region:

“This area of Ashfield is called apple valley… back in the late 1860’s there were 2 or 3 licensed stills.” says Jen Williams, co-owner of the orchard. “Culturally… [people] see it as part of what we do.”

Headwater Cider comes in three very different flavors.
Andrea Wolanin

Headwater Cider Company – Lively DIY

It’s a cloudy morning when I roll-up to Headwater Cider Company, but that doesn’t deter the mood of owner Peter Mitchell, who greets me with an infectious warmth. Taking me on a tour of the pressing area and fermentation space, Peter drops cheerful facts left and right, from the PSI of the machinery, to lessons on the ups and downs of cider after Prohibition. It’s this depth of knowledge and – shall we call it joie de travaille? – that’s an instant hint that the cider here is gonna be good. Well, that and the acres of apples surrounding their workspace.

“We grow all our own apples…. ‘Grow what you press, press what you grow’. That’s sort of become our motto around here,” Owner Peter Mitchell tells me as we settle in to taste their cider varieties. “We do everything here. Growing, pressing, fermenting, bottling, labeling…”

And that motto and lifestyle has paid off. With three variations on a theme, each cider is fresh, clear and delicious. Their flagship is a classic New England dry, tart and crisp, with a little bit of a bite and the inherent apple sweetness showing through at the top. Their barrel-aged goes by Quercus, and was the stand out for me with its gently rich, caramely taste and slightly oaky aftertaste. And finally is their Clesson, a gold-medal winner at the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition. It’s dry but orchard fresh, with a subtle yeast tone at the bottom.

“I think the fact that if you use all the apples you grow yourself, and you don’t add anything else, it’s gonna be that orchard,” Mitchell says. “It’s going to be that growing season… and that’s what’s going to come through and make it unique.”

Mitchell’s not wrong. As with each of the farm wineries in this area, his cider is pure New England – sweet, apple forward with a touch of nostalgia for those who grew up in the area. A sip instantly transports you to the fields around his orchard – and lucky for us, he has a cider for every taste, and every mood.

A cider house with a view.
Andrea Wolanin

Wheel-View Farm – Keeping Farming Public

While John and Carolyn Wheeler’s families owned neighboring farms for years, it wasn’t until they met in college – on individual trips to Germany, no less – that they realized they shared a dream to farm in Shelburne, MA. Ten years after that fateful trip, they took over Wheel-View, a farm that has been in Carolyn’s family since 1896. And while they tried their hand with different types of agriculture and livestock – including grass-fed beef – cider wasn’t in their plans until a neighbor put his orchards up for sale. After buying it to preserve the land (and view) they began the classic farmer’s journey down the cider path.

“Every farm [has] apple trees, and every farmer [has] a keg of hard cider in the basement,” Carolyn laughs as we taste their ciders in their farm store.

Thankfully, Wheel-View has more than one ‘keg’ – they have three. Their Farm Dry is a tart, dry and crisp cider that drinks more like a white wine than anything else. The Semi-Dry has a little more apple in it’s body, but still preserves the crisp tartness of the Farm Dry. But for me, it was the Sweet that really caught my attention – made with Golden Delicious, it’s a delicious sweet hard cider, with a really compelling spicy aftertaste that keeps you drinking. In addition to the hard ciders, Wheel-View also offers a fresh cider, maple-apple syrup, maple cream (omgyum), and a huge selection of grass-fed beef cuts.

But for the Wheelers, cider and beef isn’t their only work. They have a grander ambition – to preserve the land and to keep farming public.

“We’ve seen neighboring farms that are purchased, and the ‘Posted’ signs go up. I think that’s made us more diligent that we want our farm to stay open to the public.” Carolyn tells me as we sit in their farmstand-slash-farming antiquities museum. “We want it to be preserved in such a way that people can walk on the trails and in the pasture… [so] everyone can enjoy it, not just one tiny family.”

It’s a wonderful ambition, and something they’re achieving well. Among Carolyn’s collection is a handmade carpenter’s square dating back to 1793, and a harness closet that has foaling records dating back to 1919 carved in the back – right above the bottles of Wheel-View’s finest.

Cider AND cider donuts? It doesn't get better than this.
Andrea Wolanin

Hilltop Orchards, home to Furnace Brook Winery – An Unexpected Journey

The only orchard on this list that you actually have to drive into New York to get to (if you’re taking the 'Pike), Hilltop Orchards is most definitely worthy of that drive. Beside the orchard, farmstand and cozy-by-the-fire tasting room, Hilltop also has cross-country skiing on the grounds, and a sister-inn nearby. All of this is owned by the Vittori’s – a family who came to the area by a slightly different path than most of the generational farmers and cider makers in the region.

“It sorted of started as an unexpected journey when my sister said to me, ‘What do you think of buying an old family farm?’” John Vittori, co-owner of the orchard, says. “And that was 1986.”

Originally a restaurateur in Gloucester, Vittori saw the opportunity to try something new and jumped at it, joining his sister in buying what they call a “sleepy, overgrown orchard,” and seeking to make is something more. And while they’ve succeeded, it wasn’t always sunshine and cider – there were plenty hard work and growth on the way.

“Considering I grew up 5 miles from Fenway Park, being out in the country was totally different for me. I had never driven a tractor - I didn’t really know anything.” Vittori laughs. “The change [from the city] was more long term fulfillment – you plant a tree, but you don’t really know what’s going to happen to that tree. At best you’re going to get fruit in 4 or 5 years... My appreciation for food, as a restaurateur and a chef, [has] grown.”

That appreciation for food and process is clear in the cider that comes from Hilltop 30 years later. Their Dry Gold is a sessionable cider that is clear, very dry and tastes oh-so-faintly of the apples and white oak used in its production – perfect for those more in the mood for a crisp, refreshing drink. Their Cidre is creative, with Northern Spy and Golden Russet Apples being partially fermented still in skin before being pressed and French oak aged, resulting a smooth, delicious cider similar to a wine. And their original, the Johnny Mash? Orchard fresh with the faintest hint of oak-aging, this cider is sweet and pure. Coming soon is their Ice Cider, due out in December, and Vittori is already making plans for a future Calvados – so be sure keep an eye on this ambitious family!

The Cider Houses:

Bear Meadow Farm – 926 Watson-Spruce Corner Rd., Ashfield // Open Sundays 1–4p.

West County Cider – Find where their ciders are carried on their website, or visit them at their new tasting room (with a breathtaking view) at 208 Peckville Rd., Shelburne

Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery – 1209 B Hawley Rd., Ashfield, 413-625-2849. Ciders are carried on their website.

Headwater Cider Company– Find where their ciders are carried on their website.

Wheel-View Farm – 212 Reynolds Rd., Shelburne. 413-625-2900

Hilltop Orchards & Furnace Brooke Winery – 508 Canaan Rd. / Route 295 Richmond, 800-833-6274