Modern-day Johnny Appleseed has intoxicating plan

The aroma coming from Richard Read’s basement is intriguing. Amidst the big metal tanks, tangles of hose and plastic kegs, the scent—reminiscent of rising bread dough, only more biting, with whiffs of fruitiness—is evidence of magic at work.

I’m in Westlake at Griffin Cider Works and the sweet, pungent, yeasty smell comes from Ohio apples in various stages of fermentation. Read’s company, founded in 2010 and located beneath J. W. Dover, a beer- and wine-making supply store, is one of only a handful of artisanal cideries in the United States and the only one producing a true English-style, alcoholic version of this centuries-old drink. He’s got 7,000 gallons of the hard stuff that he’ll soon be bottling and barreling for stores and taps around Northeast Ohio.

A 32-year-old British transplant, Read is a scientist who works part time in the medical lab at Fairview Hospital. He founded Griffin Cider Works because he missed the cider from his native Herefordshire and couldn’t find anything like it here. He started brewing just for himself, trying to recreate the taste of home, but it quickly became an obsession that morphed into a full-fledged business.

These days, Americans view cider as a fresh juice suitable for all ages. But where Read comes from the word conjures up a mildly carbonated alcoholic beverage. It used to be the same in this country.

“Hard cider was very popular in Colonial days in part because it was safer than water,” explains Read. It continued to be our national drink of choice until the late 19th century, when the Temperance movement began to gain traction. After the repeal of Prohibition it was overshadowed by beer and virtually forgotten. “Unfortunately,” Read says, “the best imports are rarely available and the few mass-produced domestic brands currently on the market are more like soda— overly sweet and fizzy and made from diluted concentrates. They range from merely OK to bad and are more likely to turn people off than win new fans.” Read’s now on a mission to revive our national enthusiasm for hard cider, one pour at a time.

He’s succeeding. Demand for his cider has doubled in the past year and his products are now available at more than 25 area stores, restaurants and bars. Griffin Original is the line’s mainstay, a pale gold medium bodied brew with an alcohol content of 7%. A single sip and I was a convert. It was crisp, balanced and dry with just a whisper of effervescence. Burly Man, a newer creation in the farmhouse tradition, is even dryer and more full-bodied, with a slightly higher ABV (7.5%). The color is cloudy, a sign that it’s not been fine filtered. Specialty and seasonal ciders come and go. Lolo Romy, a cider infused with mangoes, is reminiscent of a dessert wine. This summer he’s releasing Lemon Blues, distinguished by citrus notes and the kiss of local honey. All Griffin ciders begin in the orchards of Northeast Ohio. “I start with a selection of principal apples— the specifics are a company secret, of course—for the main flavor,” Read explains. “Then I select other varieties for their juiciness, sweetness and secondary flavors.”

He brings the same meticulousness that characterizes his medical work to the craft of cider making. Early on he devoted 18 months to eating apples and recording their particular characteristics in a logbook. “The types we used back in the West Midlands are not available here. You grow mostly culinary apples in America now. I needed to really understand what each had to offer and then figure out how to combine them to get the profile I was looking for.” It took him a year to get the formula right and then many long nights and some bad batches to iron out the kinks in his brewing and bottling processes.

The apples are blended to his specifications and pressed on an Elyria farm, Read’s primary, though not his only, fruit source and working partner. The juice is brought in by truck. It’s naturally “alive” with wild yeast, but Read also inoculates with specific strains of commercial yeast because, he says, “it helps develop a better more complex flavor.” Then the cider ferments, one to two weeks depending on the type he’s making. The final step is adding carbon dioxide for a bit of bubbles—“we Brits use the term petillant”—which is why it can be an excellent stand-in for Champagne in a mimosa.

This hard cider has more in common with beer and wine—in terms of how it’s made and drunk—than its distilled cousin apple brandy, aka applejack. That means it’s suitable for what Read calls “sociable sipping.” Cider’s also a food-friendly beverage and his bottles pair especially well, according to Read, with curries, Tex-Mex cuisine, cheese, pork of all kinds, fish and burgers.

Read came to the Buckeye State in 2005 by way of an American wife. The couple landed in Steubenville, where her parents lived, and the first of their two sons was born there. In retrospect, Read finds his personal connection to this particular town significant because, he informs me, “Johnny Appleseed was in Steubenville too.” A quick check of the historical record confirms that in the early 1800s the man, whose given name was John Chapman, started his first known tree nursery in a nearby valley. Since most apples were grown back then for fermenting, not eating, it’s impossible not to see a certain synchronicity between the two men’s paths. Pondering this, Read takes another swallow of Burly Man, smacks his lips with obvious delight and shares a thought that’s part pipedream, part plan.

“One day I’d like to see big signs at the Ohio border announcing ‘Now entering cider country.’ It could happen. Why not?”