Descendant Cider is New York City’s first cider making business for over a century. Founded by husband-and-wife team Alex Fisk and Jahil Maplestone, the team operate out of a 600 sq ft second floor industrial unit on the borders of East Williamsburg and Queens.
Founded in early 2014, the company currently offers three different bottlings: Succession, Pom Pomme and their latest eponymous cider Descendant Dry. Their products are inspired by a wealth of cider making traditions. Indeed Descendant’s first offering, Succession, is designed to be a draft “session cider” that can be enjoyed at any time of the day. Pom Pomme is a semi dry offering that fuses floral overtones of hibiscus flowers and pomegranates with 10-11 varieties of tart cider apples. It is the most American of their trio, designed to appeal to consumers with a sweeter palate, and also works as the perfect replacement to a summer rosé wine. Descendant Dry takes its lead from the world of cider- and wine-making, with the cider being matured for almost a year to accentuate the crisp, dry mouth-feel.
Fisk and Maplestone decided to name their brand “Descendant” in celebration of the drink’s Johnny Appleseed heritage but also take the lineage in a new direction. Apples are not a native species to the Americas. Their origins lie along the far Eastern reaches of the Silk Road of antiquity. As settlers moved West to the Americas, they brought apples with them. Cider often provided a safer source of drinking water than the water itself. However following the Temperance and Prohibition movements, demand dwindled for over a century. Trees were regrafted to produce edible varieties. Hard cider apples are largely inedible thanks to higher tannins and sugars for fermentation. However as each individual apple tree yields genetically unique fruit, entire varieties were lost as trees were turned over to producing eating apples.
The British and Australian duo, who have called New York their home for almost a decade, know a thing or two about heading in new directions. Despite backgrounds in business, it was husband Jahil’s homebrewing experiments that originally led to experiments with cider. With wife Alex professing less of a passion for beer than her partner, they settled on a drink they both could enjoy. Despite the cider-making process having more in common with winemaking than brewing, he was adept at mastering the science and quickly set to work testing out small batches in their Brooklyn apartment. Receiving rave reviews from friends at a cider-themed Super Bowl party and after winning a national competition after entering it mostly for fun, the couple knew they had found their “passion”. Embarking on a course of self-education mostly via online forums, exploring cider making facilities at home and abroad as well as meeting industry professionals, they learned the craft. The pair were quickly embraced by the US cider making community, whose friendliness and openness to sharing best practice was a huge source of help.
Then five years ago, Fisk set to work creating a business plan for launching a cider business as part of a Master’s capstone project at NYU. The project led her to find a suitable production space in Queens. Seizing the opportunity the soon-to-be full-time cider makers secured the necessary lease and licenses in December 2013. Less than a year later, they were launching Succession at nearby restaurant thanks to NYC restaurateurs Ben Sandler and Jennifer Lim, co-owners of the Queens Kickshaw. Fisk and Maplestone had learned of the restaurant’s work with local cider makers at that year’s inaugural Cider Con, the first nationwide conference dedicated to all things cider and founded by the United States Association for Cider Makers. Their connection to the fellow husband-and-wife team has continued to bear fruit. Descendant launched its latest offering Descendant Dry at the Queens Kickshaw team’s new and already globally-renowned cider-centric establishment Wassail in August.
Despite the benefits of being close to cider purveyors in the city, producing Descendant in the city is no easy task. The team had to learn everything from scratch, including the do’s and don’ts of configuration. Despite purchasing a cider tank to fit the dimensions of the small production space, they ended up having to dismantle the building’s loading bay door to get it inside. Simple business operations such as receiving deliveries prove a challenge. Fisk cites one day when the arrival of a pallet of bottles became a mission. Descendant, located on the second floor without a loading bay, first had to wait for other businesses in the complex to receive goods and clear space for the delivery. Inside their production space, every spare inch of vertical or horizontal space is put to good use. Even water proved a problem, with the couple having to negotiate for a bigger sink and water outlet for the space.
Similarly being miles from the nearest cider apple tree the pair had to rely on deliveries of apples from local vendors or drive upstate themselves to pick and deliver produce back to Queens. A single bottle of hard cider, as in the case of Pom Pomme, can contain as many as 10-11 different varieties of apple to create the full flavor profile. With local apples a seasonal crop, Descendant need to source enough by March to support production into the Fall. However finding apples is no easy task. With demand for hard cider growing steadily in the US, the recent tripling in hard cider production and dearth of resources thanks to Prohibition’s legacy on the tree count makes resources scarce on the ground. Despite Fisk and Maplestone turning land on Long Island and most recently in upstate New York’s Sullivan County over to hard apple farming, it takes 3-4 years for an apple sapling to mature and bear fruit.
Thankfully they encountered some helpful advice and support from farmers based in New York’s Hudson Valley farming region, who were eager to put their old apple trees to good use. These farmers also provided help with containers and equipment.
When it came to branding, the couple settled on their own NYC-skyline theme after sage advice from Brooklyn Winery and a run of uninspiring online pitches from freelance designers. Descendant’s resulting homespun logo is simple yet distinctive. The same goes for their flip-top bottles. Initially a consideration to preserve the freshness of the cider for drinkers who didn’t want to tackle a full bottle at once, the swing-tops are unusual. The caps also accentuate the artisanal aspect of Descendant’s brand.
Another big challenge is educating the consumer. Descendant equate the state of the US cider industry to that of the beer industry ten years ago. Fisk notes, “Beer has laid out the path to make it easier for cider makers but it’s taken over a decade for the industry to really establish its prowess.” Just as American consumers have learned to rediscover “real” beer thanks to efforts by local micro breweries and homebrewers, so “education is the key to helping the cider industry grow”. With every apple tree producing different fruit and each apple potentially yielding a different flavor profile, the key is to help consumers embrace a lack of standardisation. Industrial cider production, like industrial food production, engineers for consistency. Not so artisanal beers and ciders, where local “terroir”, produce and production conditions can influence changes in taste from one batch to the next.
Descendant’s story so far is one of perseverance and dedication to the cause. Reaching an eager audience of consumers from their small production space in Queens, the team already have their sights set on the next chapter. Eager to help grow the movement and their own apples to boot, Fisk and Maplestone plan to grow heritage varieties on their own orchards. With saplings planted in Long Island and Sullivan County, Descendant and the cider market in general is brimming with potential.
Descendant Cider is based in Queens, New York. Their ciders are sold in bars and restaurants around the city.
52-05 Flushing Ave
Queens, NY 11378
Follow Descendant Cider!
Cider Con Annual Conference: http://ciderconference.com/
United States Association for Cider Makers: http://www.ciderassociation.org/cidercon
Wassail Cider Bar: http://www.wassailnyc.com/
Cider Production and Consumption Statistics: http://www.statista.com/
New York Economic Development Corporation: http://www.nycedc.com/