HIRAM, Maine — Three hundred thirty gallons of cider pressed from Macouns, Cortlands and Macintosh sit in Bill Johnson’s pickup truck.
It’s Monday afternoon, and clusters of families stop at his pick-your-own orchard, Apple Acres Farm, for shiny, crisp fruit. In the store, apple cider doughnuts and chocolate-covered apples satisfy hungry leaf peepers. The shelves are loaded with apple wine, and a refrigerator is filled with hard cider. But his batch is on its way to an alchemist who will turn it into a thick, golden syrup — a value-added potion that just might rock apple lovers to the core.
“We think it might be our liquid gold,” Johnson, who released a limited amount of apple cider syrup six months ago, said. Mixologists in Portland went gaga, and it sold out fast.
This fall, he’s upping production from 500 bottles to 8,000.
Just as blueberry growers in Maine are creating new products such as tea to stretch the short season and gain extra income, inventive orchardists such as Johnson are looking for ways to keep the fruits of his labor flush.
“It’s an old product. They were doing it back in the 1800s and called it boiled cider syrup,” said Johnson, whose sister Johanna Corman uses this secret weapon at Vena’s Fizz House, a cocktail bar and boutique in Portland, where the syrup is sold and laced with alcohol in popular drinks, such as the Lumber Sexual.
Thick like honey and more tart than maple syrup, it’s neither nor.
“It’s more puckery than maple syrup,” said Apple Acres farm manager Molly McKenna, who is sworn to secrecy on its origins. Yes, other orchards make and bottle apple cider syrup, but the version from Carr’s Ciderhouse in Massachusetts, for instance, is dark and molasseslike. The Hiram product is lighter, silky on the palate and more versatile.
Johnson, who took over his grandfather’s rambling orchard in Ossipee Valley four years ago, and a food scientist brainstormed a way to turn cider into syrup without caramelization.
His friend, who lives in Oxford and prefers to remain anonymous, removes water from cider at a lower heat. The result is a translucent syrup with a tangy bite.
“It’s new technology on an old product,” said Johnson, who turns 8 gallons of raw cider into 1 gallon of cider syrup. “It’s very difficult and expensive to make. That’s why you don’t see it out there a lot.”
But in these handcrafted, artisan food times, this sophisticated syrup should take the market by storm when the new batch is released throughout Maine this week.
In the kitchen, McKenna demonstrates its flexibility. She perks up roasted pork chops and delicata squash with a marinade of apple cider syrup, ginger, soy sauce, red wine and black pepper. Pulling the feast from the oven, an autumn aroma engulfs us.
Apple cider syrup can replace honey in a cornbread recipe, in your favorite mixed drink — Dark and Stormys are recommended with bitters — on yogurt with fruit or in tea for a twist.
“It’s a great sugar substitute — better than high-fructose corn syrup,” said Johnson, who is proud of his listed ingredients: “Maine apples.”
“Maple syrup is a sugary, sweet dream,” Johnson said. “This is a much more complex flavor.”