The first craft cidery in New York City is tucked into an uninviting warehouse-sized building in that nebulous area on border between Bushwick and Maspeth. Alexandria Fisk, who founded Descendant Cider Company along with her husband Jahil Maplestone, escorts me into the building from a cement alleyway, through a bright clean hallways lined with studio spaces for dozens of other “tinkerers and toyers,” as Fisk puts it, and into a 600-square-foot room crammed with enormous plastic tanks, cardboard boxes, scientific-looking equpiment, and machinery of various designs where Maplestone is standing. “This is it,” he said.
Maplestone started making cider as a hobby in the Cobble Hill apartment he shares with Fisk. “I started as a homebrewer, but Alex doesn’t like beer,” Maplestone said. “So I thought, OK, what else can I make?” And as Maplestone continued his brewing process, he and Fisk got more into the culture of cider, and noticed that, in New York City, a good cider can be hard to find.
“You think about something like wine, it’s so accessible and you can find it everywhere,” Fisk said. “With cider, you still have to know where to look.” Fisk, who is British, and Maplestone, who is Australian, were surprised that the worldwide popularity of ciders hadn’t quite translated to Americans. “Sweeter things, basically alco-pops, that’s what people’s image was of cider if they even knew it exists,” Maplestone said. “And we’re big supporters of cider. We wanted to promote it here, if only so we could get the kinds of cider we like.”
So Maplestone and Fisk took advantage of a law that Andrew Cuomo passed in 2013 that granted licenses to cideries using produce from New York State. Since the state began issuing licenses, eight cideries have popped up, but Descendant is the only one in New York City. Being an urban cidery has some unique challenges, perhaps, most obviously, space. Maplestone and Fisk plan to expand their operations soon, but for now all the cider is made in one room, requiring them to constantly move and rearrange tanks and equipment for different stages of production. Many of the machines are of Maplestone’s own design: He showed off a bottling mechanism and a giant apple press that he had constructed himself. The cider company is clearly a labor of love, one that Fisk and Maplestone do on top of day jobs. And aside from that, it’s still a very young company: Descendant had just launched during New York’s Cider Week in late October. When I visited their space, they had been officially, publically operating for just 11 days.
“At a farm cidery, you can just pick your apples, bring them over to a shed, juice them, let them ferment right there,” Maplestone said. “In the city, it’s harder. You have to figure out how to bring in a huge volume of quality apples, find a way to press them, and then store the cider as it ferments and ages.” The couple source their apples from six different farms upstate, selecting the varietals that they need for each batch.
As of now Descendant has two cider offerings: the Succession, a crisp, dry cider meant for session drinking, and the Pom Pomme, one flavored with pomegranate and hibiscus. Both are bright and easy to drink, devoid of the cloying sweetness that forms the flavor base of most commercial ciders. Even the addition of fruit and floral notes to the Pom Pomme doesn’t up the sweetness factor; instead, it added a subtle tanginess. Maplestone has plans for brewing different styles of cider, barrel-aging batches in whiskey and wine barrels and adding seasonal ingredients to flavor the batches, like spruce tips and pear. “There are so many different kinds, from the English-style cider that’s got a lot of tannins to this sour one they make in Germany,” Maplestone said. “We’re definitely going to do some experimenting.”
Fisk thinks that cider is a good bet, business-wise, now that major breweries like Stella Artois and Anheuser-Busch are rolling out their seasonal cider offerings. “We’re hoping to ride that wave a little bit,” she said. And cider has some distinct advantages. For one, it’s naturally gluten-free. For another, it’s somewhere on the spectrum between beer and wine. It’s a drink that you can either sip all afternoon in your backyard, or substitute for a glass of wine with a meal. And it also pairs well with food, a fact that Fisk and Maplestone hope to emphasize by teaming up with chefs to do cider dinners.
As of now, Descendant’s distribution is in its early stages, though you can pick up bottles at either Stinky’s in Cobble Hill or Hops & Hocks in Williamsburg. But Maplestone and Fisk knew they had made it when they walked into a bar and could order a glass of their own cider on tap, at the Queens Kickshaw in Astoria. “That was the coolest thing,” Maplestone said, smiling. “It was like, ‘OK, this is real.'”