A Chat with Ian Merwin of Black Diamond Cider...

A Preview for Saturday's Cider Maker Afternoon.  More info...

Black Diamond Farm and Cider owner Ian Merwin, with a basket of Calville blanc.

Black Diamond Farm and Cider owner Ian Merwin, with a basket of Calville blanc.

The farm

Black Diamond Farm takes its name from a famous old locomotive—The Black Diamond Express—that once rumbled through our farm. For almost 30 years we have been growing rare and antique apple varieties, including American heirlooms like Golden Russet, Black Oxford, Hudson’s Gem, and Newtown Pippin, and European bittersweet apples like Kingston Black, Porter’s Perfection, Dabinett, Hereford Redstreak and Chisel Jersey.  I started making hard cider in 1985 when we moved to the Finger Lakes from San Francisco, and I began research on cider apples at Cornell in 1994, focusing on the nutrition and culture of traditional cider varieties under NY growing conditions. Over the decades Black Diamond’s cider orchards have evolved into high density trellised plantings, with tall slender trees where every apple basks in abundant sunlight and air circulation.  This tree form minimizes pest and disease problems, creates a safer workplace for pruning and picking, and produces fruit with concentrated colors, aromas, tannins and sugars for cider-making.  Our soils are typical Finger Lakes glacial tills—mostly Honeoye and Lima—that are deep, well-drained, and high in Calcium and other base cations. These soils are so fertile that our trees do not require any additional fertilizers after the year of planting, though we do provide trickle irrigation for young trees during the occasional summer drought.

Ian is topworking Margil (a French bittersweet) onto another tree (switching varieties by grafting on a new scion piece to a mature trunk).

Ian is topworking Margil (a French bittersweet) onto another tree (switching varieties by grafting on a new scion piece to a mature trunk).

The Ciders

The Black Diamond Farm terroir creates ciders with a firm foundation of acid and tannins, interlaced with aromas and textures created by the interplay of yeast and fruit, with minimal intervention by us as cider makers.  I don’t consider myself an especially skilled cider maker. The quality of our ciders is determined almost entirely by the quality of our apples, and we are one of the few NY cideries using only homegrown fruit in our blends. We grow about 130 different apple varieties, including many superb cider apples, so we have a great diversity to work with in the cidery. Each of our four ciders—SlateStone, RabbleRouser, Hickster, and ShinHollow—is a blend of at least a dozen different apple varieties.  Some provide crisp acidity (like Golden Russet, Ashmead’s Kernal, GoldRush); others contribute tannins that range from bitter (like Chisel Jersey or Tremletts Bitter) to velvet astringency (like Porter’s Perfection or Dabinett). Other apples are blended into the cider to provide rich aromatics (like Cox Orange Pippin, St. Edmond Pippin, or Chestnut Crab).  Most of our ciders are about 40% bittersweets, 40% sharps, and 20% aromatic apples.  Yeast selection also contributes substantially and characteristically to our finished ciders. Certain yeast strains impart exotic tropical fruit aromas (such as Alchemy I, and R-2) to the cider, while other yeasts are prized for their “neutrality” or tendency to just ferment the natural sugars and let the intrinsic fruit flavors of each blend come through with distinctive clarity. 

All but one of our ciders—Hickster—are completely dry. And even our Hickster blend is at the low end of perceived sweetness, with only 1.5% residual sugar.  We also grow several heirloom apples that usually have high sorbitol content—Tompkins King, Pound Sweet, and Cox Orange Pippin.  Sorbitol in apples is sometimes called “watercore”, and was a prized trait in historical cider apples because it increased their juice yields. It has another useful effect for ciders: Sorbitol is a non-fermentable sugar-alcohol that tastes sweet but can’t be converted to ethanol by yeast, so it adds a slight sweetness to finished ciders.  Humans also do not metabolize sorbitol like sugar, so it does not increase the caloric content of ciders like sugar does.  So even our bone dry ciders often have a slight fruity sweetness on the palette.

We will taste SlateStone, RabbleRouser, and Hickster at the FLCH this weekend.  Please see our event page for the menu and more information.

  • SlateStone was our first cider release in 2014, and is a complex blend of 36 different apples that is dominated by Golden Russet and GoldRush, which are both noted for intense sharpness and sweetness, with aromatics resembling citrus.  SlateStone is unfiltered and has negligible free sulfite, so it is a rustic style cider.  People often say it reminds them of a dry prosecco.
  • RabbleRouser was our second release this year.  It is also very dry, but has a touch of sorbitol and was fermented with R-2 and Alchemy yeasts, which imparted tropical fruits and melon aromas to this cider.  RabbleRouser is a blend of 22 apple varieties, mostly bittersweet (high tannin content) apples like Dabinett, Tremlett’s Bitter, and Ellis Bitter.  We also blended several red fleshed apples—Pink Pearl and Thornberry—into this cider, which gave it a light rosé hue. 
  • Hickster (our made-up word for Hipsters who live in the country) is a cider blend of more than a dozen apples, selected by Chris Negronida and Alexis Self—our two resident hicksters at Black Diamond Farm.  It contains late ripening bittersweets like Porter’s Perfection and Chisel Jersey, mixed with Golden Russet, Calville blanc, Newtown Pippin, and other sharps. Hickster’s tannins are soft and velvety, it has aromatics of vanilla, ginger, and ripe pears.