Old World Cider in Mt. Vernon
Chris Sheldon discovered his calling while studying philosophy at Boston College. The revelation didn't come in a classroom or from a textbook. It was in his roommate's closet. Repurposing an underused home-brew kit, the soon-to-be 21-year-old gathered ingredients from a farmers' market and set to work on his first batch of cider. It was love at first taste.
After graduation and a brief, unsatisfying stint with financial firms, the New Rochelle native was soon making cider full time, using local ingredients, traditional methods, and old family recipes tweaked for the modern pallet.
In early October, Chris opened the Diner Brew Co. in Mount Vernon. The friendly, come-as-you-are vibe is meant to emulate an unpretentious diner (thus the name). What's being served, however, is world's away from sloppy joes. Forget the cloying treacle next to the hard lemonade at the liquor store. Diner Brew Co.'s products are cider forward but not sweet – usually less than one gram of sugar per liter. It's dry and nuanced and is almost exactly like what you might find in a French village a century or more ago.
Although Chris' parents were not brewers, both sets of grandparents were active home alcohol makers. His Italian maternal grandfather, having grown up stomping grapes, made wine in his Brooklyn basement.
“And then on my dad's side, his parents made hard cider back in France,” said Chris, who still has some of the old family bottles.
“They had a mobile distiller come and make L'Eau De Vie, which is kind of like a French version of moonshine made from fruit, so it would be technically called a fruit brandy,” he said. “It's something that, when I became passionate about it, I was able to go back and find in my family history and even emulate some of the stuff they were doing. I actually produce my own L'Eau De Vie now with the help of the distillery Gristmill. I try to keep it as verifiably to-the-process of what they were doing as I can. So, we have something close to what they were drinking 50 to 100 years ago.”
The Diner Brew Co.'s Lady Bug L'Eau De Vie is aged one year in custom-cut Adirondack oak barrels.
“It is oaky, with hazelnut and caramel flavors,” he said. “I wanted to make something like this because it's something that's a kind of oral tradition.”
At 28, Chris is an accomplished cider maker eager to venture deep into the finer points of various fermentation processes: the difficulties of natural fermentation, cold fermentation, wild fermentation, and the unpredictability of yeast. He uses native, New York-grown yeast in a sterile environment to avoid vinegar-creating bacteria.
His products include another old-world inspired cider, the French farmhouse style Cidre De Huguenots, and Checkmate Sour Cider, which is twice fermented with German and Japanese yeast.
Chris is also experimenting with newer concoctions, including a coffee infused cider in partnership with Coffee Labs Roasters in Tarrytown and BPM Roasters in Yonkers. The Herbalist's Cider benefits from lavender and coriander in-part grown by friends and neighbors.
“I like to make my ciders cider-forward, that is to say, there are a lot of cider makers who are using the adjuncts that I'm doing but they sort of take over the drink. I like my ciders, if I ever do a flavor pairing, to hint at that flavor but let you know you are tasting a hard cider first. I want to invoke the terroir of the Hudson Valley, Rockland, West Chester, Putnam County. Those are the places where I'm getting my apples and those are the places I want you to taste. I want you to taste, if I do a wild fermentation, the multi-culture that went into it. I want it to taste clean and dry, but I also want you to get a sense that spontaneously fermented. It's like a natural wine that came from the area you are in.It harkens to the terroir of Lower New York, but it also harkens to a cider-first processing that makes people aware that cider can be excellent. Wine is kind of king in the alcohol worlds. And, I'm very aware of that. But I elevate my ciders to the point where they are not only comparable to wines but in some circumstances, pairing with foods, better than wines.”
As passionate as his is about cider, he's equally so about his community.
“Instead of trying to get people out of their area and up to Westchester, I'm trying to get that feeling and sensibility to the Bronx, to Fordham, to New Rochelle. I think it's important because we're talking about a lot of areas where the sense of farm-to-table, the sense of the importance of food, craft beverage, it's important and it's sort of lost in some areas, and I want to tie that together and fill in the gaps.”
2 Cortlandt St, Mt Vernon