We’ll Drink to That/Steampunk Cider
Photo courtesy of Leonard Oakes Estate Winery
Apple cider is a natural libation for this area: it showcases our bountiful apple crop, its spicy character makes it a perfect cold weather drink, and, best of all, it can be enjoyed all day long. In fact, hard cider can make just about every activity better, as I discovered a few weeks ago while doing some car maintenance in front of my apartment. My neighbors were out doing yard work, and, having just returned from the Leonard Oakes Winery I had the impulse to crack open a bottle of Leonard Oakes Steampunk Sparkling Hard Cider and share it. The round, complex apple flavors, delightful bubbles, and incredibly crisp, refreshing mouthfeel brought smiles to all of our faces and made our work infinitely more enjoyable.
Leonard Oakes winemaker Jonathan Oakes says he’s been “fooling around with cider” for years; his family owned an apple farm long before the winery opened and he was experimenting with cider-making long before he was crushing grapes. “We were already making soft cider and selling it in all the supermarkets,” explains Oakes. “We had planted a bunch of these experimental selections that became available to us, traditional English varieties, and Cornell had a bunch of material, so we put them underground and tested them out.”
Steampunk is made with thirteen varieties of apples, many of them sporting delightful monickers: Ellis Bitter, Binet Rouge, Chisel Jersey, Dabinette, Harry Master, Michelin, Medaille, Brown Snout, Somerset Red Streak, Tremlett’s, Bitter, Major, and finally the more recognizable Fuji and Braeburn. Oakes took a cider course at Cornell, where a consultant from England talked about the cider market across the pond and encouraged the class to experiment with introducing “more funky ciders” into the American market.
“It was a culmination of a lot of trial and error on my part and a lot of testing over minute details,” says Oakes. He says Steampunk’s remarkable success is a testament to the product’s unique niche. And it’s made a mark. In its first year, Steampunk took two gold medals at the 2011 New York Food & Wine Classic held in Watkins Glen. “We’re trying to capture that product that falls between the lines,” he says, “for that drinker who likes a little funk, likes a little tannin, and wants to see something a little different.”
Oakes says the Steampunk concept is an “infusion of Victorian-age aesthetics” and a nod to steam engine technology and its contribution to cider’s rich history: steam-driven cider mills, he says, “populated the East Coast during the industrial revolution—some of them are still in use today!” He adds, “During the industrial revolution, cider was a key beverage for the entire East Coast. At the turn of the century, people were using it as source of payment for the farm hands—it was part of their pay and they could drink it while they worked.” No wonder it’s such a natural partner for yard or car work.
Oakes continues, “That was what you drank for day-to-day living and there was a lot of history within that, and then with Prohibition, it was kind of lost. With Steampunk, we’re creating a marriage of the past and the future.”
Oakes hopes to begin kegging Steampunk so it can be offered on tap in restaurants and bars; for now, it’s surpassed hot chocolate as my new favorite snow-shoveling sipper. A little hard labor was never so much fun.
Julia Burke writes on food, drink, and a variety of other topics for Buffalo Spree.