Frecon Farms leads PA’s cider revolution

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In Pennsylvania, as in the nation, the demand for craft hard cider has skyrocketed in recent years. In Colonial America, the making (and drinking) of hard cider was a popular tradition — as it still is in Europe and Canada — but the tipple eventually fell out of favor in the U.S. Now, following in the wake of the craft beer boom (and with an assist from the growing market for gluten-free options), this refreshing drink is again on-trend and makers are scrambling to keep up with demand.

One of those makers is Boyertown’s Frecon’s Cidery, located in the basement of a barn at Frecon Farms, an orchard owned by three generations of Frecons since 1944.

Cider production at Frecon Farms
Cider production at Frecon Farms

This Berks County operation began its life as Frecon Orchards; the family grew apples and peaches. Now the hilly landscape also contains plums, apricots, cherries and blueberries. And on one hill, there are rows of very young trees that will, in three or four years, bear the specific heirloom apples needed to make the very best hard ciders.

According to Hank Frecon, president of Frecon’s Cidery and the grandson of Frecon Farms founder Richard S. Frecon, there were two inspirations behind venturing into this boozy business.

“My brother Steve and I needed to keep adding ‘value-added layers’ around the business that can work off the farm but can add value to the revenue and product lines,” explains Hank. “The other thing was that I got my first exposure to hard cider on a high school trip to England. At that age [18, the drinking age in England], it was a nice alternative to beer.” 

An image from the long history of Frecon Farms
An image from the long history of Frecon Farms

Back in 2008, not many people were crafting hard cider. (Steve Wood, whose Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, N.H. grew heirloom apples, did launch Farnum Hill Ciders in the 1980s.)

“No one was really doing this here,” says Hank. “We had all this fruit. The trick was to find out what fruit to use.”

Fortunately, there were a few trees left from the early years of the orchard that bore appropriate apples such as Gravenstein and Maltese. The brothers also learned how some more modern apples, like Jonagolds and Winesaps, could be used. Hank and cidermaker Jamie Bock started to experiment.

Cider tends to be consumed in places where craft beer is served, and many people think it’s related to beer. But, in fact, the techniques used to make it are the same ones used for wine. It’s fermented, not brewed.

As in wine, the quality of the fruit is paramount, as is the blend. Heirloom apples, which are often no good for eating, are perfect for making high-quality cider, which has no sugar added, and can be quite dry in flavor.

Over the years, Frecon’s Cidery has developed two lines: everyday varieties such as Crabby Granny (a blend of crabapples, Granny Smiths, winesaps and others) or Early Man (McIntosh and Gravenstein); and estate ciders — higher-end products like Golden Russet and Farmhouse Sour.

Apples

According to Hank, it takes at least a year to make cider, so the development of new varieties takes longer than it does for craft beers. He and Bock collaborate on recipes, with lots of trial and error and “sometimes a great accident happens.”

Beyond the challenges of making a fine product is the problem of consumer education. Americans have come to think of cider as the sweet, unprocessed apple juice they find in the farmer’s market and the hard “cider” sold commercially is more like a sweet wine cooler.

But people came around, and the business grew “exponentially” in the early years.

“Now we’re running about a 30-percent growth rate,” says Hank. “We have a bigger sales market than we can serve, and our long-range expectation is that the growth will continue.”

Frecon’s Cidery sells about 60 percent of its product in bottles, and the rest in kegs. They sell hard cider at their own retail outlet in Boyertown and at local farmers’ markets, and have distribution in Lancaster, Scranton and Philadelphia, where they have a big customer base.

Cider

The biggest challenge, explains Frecon, is Pennsylvania’s convoluted liquor laws. Because hard cider is technically a fruit wine — but is sold and consumed similarly to beer — makers can hold two different types of licenses: a limited winery license and/or a brewers’ license (Frecon’s has both).

If you opt for a winery license, you can sell your product through PLCB “state” stores, farmers’ markets or your own retail outlet. The cider sold this way can have any ABV (alcohol content), but you can’t sell it on tap in a pub.

For that, you need the brewers’ license. The catch here is that the hard cider cannot exceed an ABV of 5.5 percent, which is far below the natural fermentation range of apples like the golden russet (8 to 8.5 percent). So you’d have to water it down, thus killing the quality of the product.

The other complication has to do with carbonation.

“The tax structure is based on carbonation thresholds,” explains Hank. “They tax champagne-type wines heavily. Sparkling ciders can be taxed the same as champagne. You have to find the right balance — it’s a big issue, and it’s not being addressed.”

While federal standards for cider have been changed to reflect the evolving market, the bill that’s currently on the table in the Pennsylvania Legislature — which would bring the Commonwealth closer to those standards — is mired, like so many other bills, in political squabbling.

Because of these policy challenges, PA cideries have banded together to form the Pennsylvania Cider Guild; Hank Frecon, who helped found the organization in 2014, is president.

“You need an advocate in an industry with the issues we face,” he explains. “These include finding money for research on finding the right fruit to grow here, marketing strategies, and consumer education. Most importantly, we can help put pressure on our government. 

Working the fields at Frecon Farms
Working the fields at Frecon Farms

“Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest apple producer in the United States,” he continues. “We need to embrace this industry so we’re not falling behind the rest of the country in hard cider production when we have such an amazing opportunity…We have to get simple changes to archaic laws.”

There’s a lot at stake.

“Currently hard cider sales in cities throughout Pennsylvania rank third, sixth and seventh as the highest-selling cider markets in the nation, when compared to percent of beer market sales,” says Carla Snyder, Hard Cider Program Lead at the Penn State University Extension in Gettysburg. “This burgeoning market, which saw sales skyrocket 71 percent in 2014, is continuing a steady and sustainable growth trend for 2015 and 2016.”

For the past three years, as part of its outreach to customers, Frecon’s Cidery has held an annual Wassail in the orchard. This year’s party will be held on Saturday, May 7 from noon to 6 p.m. and feature live American roots music, cider tasting, demos, lectures and food. 

Frecon Orchards Outlet in late '60s
Frecon Orchards Outlet in late ’60s

Wassailing is based on a tradition from western England, in which the growing season is toasted in early spring, and visitors help awaken the apple trees by singing carols and sipping cider.

Hank says the event has been growing in popularity each year.

“It’s a fun industry,” he adds.

SUSAN L. PENA is a freelance writer living in Berks County. She writes regularly on arts and business for the Reading Eagle and has contributed to several other publications including the Eastern Pennsylvania Business Journal.

Region: South Central

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