Even before I walked through the door of the Urban Farm Fermentory, I was already a little bit enamored with the company. It’s their cider, you see. UFF’s dry cider is like nothing I’ve ever tasted. It’s bubbly and light and alcoholic and crisp. It’s like drinking a sunny October day.
Naturally, I wanted to meet the people behind my new favorite beverage, so I asked Eli Cayer if I could come down and see the famous Fermentory, where he produces hundreds of gallons of cider, kombucha, and honey wine. The first thing that hit me when I walked in was the smell. It was strong, but not unpleasant, earthy and clean, with an odd sort of effervescence. The walls were painted with scenes of flora and fungi, fitting themes for the hyper-natural endeavor. Though there were people hard at work all around, the Fermentory still emitted a sense of calm. The most fitting analogy—and obvious, given Cayer’s past life as a beekeeper—would be to compare the UFF to a beehive. Bustling with activity, yet still somehow zen (or maybe that’s just the whiff of cider playing with my sensory memory).
Eli was kind enough to walk us through the building, showing off his fermentation stations and his small urban garden. He was particularly pumped about their upcoming expansion: In 2013, the UFF will be opening up a whole new space, complete with foodie tenants and a much larger garden. “It’s going to be a cool little food hub,” Cayer said, walking us through the now-empty rooms. Bomb Diggity bakery will be moving in, as will Knickerbocker Creamery, and an organic popsicle company. There will even be commercial kitchen space available for rent.
But for now, Cayer is pretty happy with his beehives on the roof and his cider down below. “We’re basically in all of the natural food stores and most of the specialty beer and wine stores between Kittery and Bangor,” Eli tells us. “We’re making a few hundred gallons of cider a week, and about two hundred gallons of kombucha.” Not bad for a new business.
In addition to providing a full tour of the facilities, Eli was also willing to answer some of my nosier questions. The full Q&A, below.
Can you walk us through the process of making cider?
Basically, the cider comes in fresh-pressed in the morning. We usually get around 300 gallons at a time. We roll them in and let them sit for three to four days. They naturally start to ferment. If we’re making a dry cider and we want it to be a hopped cider, we’ll put a barrel with a bunch of hops on the level below it, pump the cider down, leaving all of the sediment behind and then allowing the cider to condition on the hops for a couple weeks. Then it gets pumped out into kegs.
What makes different flavors in the cider?
There’s a lot of variables. Different apples, different yeast, and how you condition it. Whether you’re conditioning it with hops, or in oak barrels—whatever you do to it is going to change the flavor. We’re primarily just doing three things. We’re doing straight dry ciders, we do hopped ciders, and we do the Baby Jimmy, which is oaked.
I’m in love with the dry cider. I order it every time I’m at the Great Lost Bear. How do you make it dry instead of having that sweet, cloying flavor that so many commercial ciders have?
We just don’t add sugar to it. We straight ferment it. Do you know much about fermentation?
A little, but not a ton.
It’s real simple. Yeast eats sugar. That’s what it does. It floats around in this sweet solution, which is apple juice, and it eats the sugars. The byproduct of this is CO2 and alcohol. When the yeast runs out of food, it dies and drops down to the bottom. We pump everything above that bottom layer into the new vessels. And that’s it. Most places add sugar up front, which gives them higher alcohol content. They water it down, to bring the alcohol back down, then they add sugar again to make it sweeter. It’s this weird process to get this super sweet cider like Woodchuck. We’re really primitive about what we’re doing. It’s basically just fermented apple juice. There’s really nothing else to it. The biggest variables are temperature and the apples. We don’t have any control over the yeast—it’s basically whatever is already on the apples.
There’s yeast on you, there’s yeast on me… The reality is that we’re walking through a soup of yeast and bacteria right now.
You don’t have to add yeast yourself?
We don’t have to do anything. We just let it turn. If you add wine yeast, it will give it a specific taste, if you add ale yeast, it will give it a specific taste.
If you let it keep going, would it turn into applejack?
No. To make applejack, you take that hard cider and you put it in a freezer or you put it outside. What happens is the water freezes first and the alcohol settles down. When you freeze it more solid, what happens is the liquid left is more concentrated. Essentially, you take the ice out and you jack up your cider that way. The challenge with that is that it actually retains all of the alcohol, so there’s methanol in there as well as ethanol. Methanol is toxic to us. On bigger batches, this can get a bit risky.
So I shouldn’t do that at home?
In the volumes you would do it at home, it wont do anything to you. 10,000 gallon batches might be risky, but a five gallon bucket is fine.
How did you end up as a professional fermentor?
My background was beekeeping. I used to own a courier company, and I rebranded it as The Hive. I had been buying these honey straws that I put with our brochures as a promotional thing, and it was awesome, people were just snatching them up. So I knew this beekeeper, and he told me if I ever wanted to beekeep, he could hook me up with some hives. And I was like, “why wouldn’t I want to do that? That sounds awesome.” We tried it, and got 80 pounds of honey the first year. And shit, that’s a lot of honey. You can only eat so much honey. So we decided to make mead, and it was awesome. It was phenomenal. People were just freaking out—I used to throw a lot of art parties, and I would bring it to these parties, and it gave you this really great, uplifting sort of buzz (laughs). It was just really happy, and high energy. Long story short, I ended up opening a meadery in town. Eventually, things went a certain direction, and I found myself in the position where I needed to start over, so I opened this place.
What do you make by way of foodstuff? Do you make kimchi or anything like that?
We were experimenting with it. We were making some sauerkraut. The first few batches were really good, but then the kombucha culture started to infect everything, and we started getting kraut that tasted like booch. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what we wanted. Because we were in such a tight space, it didn’t make sense.
Wait, does the yeast just float around in the air?
There’s yeast on you, there’s yeast on me, it’s on everything. It’s everywhere. We just can’t see it. The reality is that we’re walking through a soup of yeast and bacteria right now. There was a point when we had a fishtank out front, but all the sudden a kombucha mother started forming on the surface. And then mushrooms started sprouting off of that. We had to strip it all back down, and get back to the core of the winery. For now, we decided to focus just on the beverages. But we’re in the process of expanding, so we will be able to have more of what were originally doing with mushrooms and fermented foods in the future.
For more info, visit The Urban Farm Fermentory website. They’ve got events, tastings, and all sorts of good stuff going on. Or just head to The Great Lost Bear and try their cider for yourself. If you don’t like it, it’s on me (sorry, I can’t actually do that. But you will like it!)
Photos by Robbie Kanner