New York City is known as the Big Apple, but until Jahil Maplestone opened Descendant Cider Co. late last year there was no one making hard cider within the five boroughs. Starting off as a homebrewer, Maplestone shifted to fermented apple juice and is now poised to capitalize on a boom in cider production, which has tripled between 2011 and 2013.
Maplestone built a lot of Descendant’s equipment himself, including the apple press and bottling line, and has been pounding the orchards, so to speak, to develop relationships with apple farmers throughout New York State. His goal is to create a “farm to table…via the subway” experience for his urban cidery. This year, Descendant will produce nearly 10,000 gallons of cider, and the company is already looking for new space to expand its capacity.
I caught up with Maplestone to find out what possesses a man to start a cidery.
Playboy: How did you arrive at the name Descendant?
Jahil Maplestone: Descendant came to us after a lot of brainstorming and it fit perfectly because of the style of ciders we produce and the state of the U.S. cider industry. We see its rebirth as a beverage, the descendant of America’s once-favorite drink. A lot of people in the U.S. know cider as sweet, cloying alco-pop drinks and so when they learn about real cider their eyes are open to something new. They don’t care if it’s not a traditional style or that it wasn’t made that way for centuries by a blind monk in a cave. They only care that it’s a great product.
Playboy: How did you first get into homebrewing? What caused the shift to cider making?
Maplestone: I started homebrewing straight out of high school and loved the scientific mixed with the creative aspect of it. I continued for years until I started to make cider for my wife because she didn’t like beer. I tend to jump into anything I do pretty heavy so after a few good batches of cider I was hooked. Within the year I’d planted a small orchard in my backyard and was doing regular trips upstate to get apples from anyone I could find growing something interesting.
Playboy: What were you doing before you got into brewing as a profession?
Maplestone: I was—and still am—a video editor and colorist. I worked in Australia as a live sports broadcast editor and producer before coming to NYC and working at various post production studios.
Maplestone: I’m an anything drinker. Firstly, I’d call myself a beer drinker. It’s my go-to everyday drink, and I love it. It’s what led me to cider making and I’m totally addicted to it. In a good way.
That said, I’m a massive whiskey drinker too. I love everything from a good single malt to a down and dirty bourbon. I love the small distillery craze that’s happened. Especially here in the city. Places like Breuckelen Distilling, Widow Jane, Van Brunt Stillhouse, Kings County and others are all doing some amazing things on a small scale with so much passion.
As for cider, it’s something that I’ve obviously been heavily into for a long time. It’s more than just a drink in a bottle though. I have a small orchard I started a few years ago and that’s a huge part of it too. I’ve planted trees, watched them grow, had them ravaged by deer. Then one day they deliver a crop that I can turn into a cider that’s so unique. That’s about as real as it gets.
Playboy: What made you want to open the first cidery in New York City?
Maplestone: It was born mostly out of wanting to buy great, real cider in the city. There is such a small amount of quality cider produced in this country it’s ridiculous. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago it was the most popular drink in the country. I just thought, why can’t I walk into that store and grab an awesome craft cider the way I can an awesome craft beer? No reason, so we’re going to make it happen.
Maplestone: That’s an interesting question in this country. Some of the apples used here would never make a cider blend elsewhere in the world. Here in America, where all the great cider producing fruit trees were removed during prohibition, we’ve had to get creative with what we have available now. There isn’t enough traditional cider fruit available for all the commercial production and what there is, isn’t cheap. There are great heirloom varieties like Northern Spy and Winesap being used as well as other desert and cooking varieties but they require new thinking from cider makers in order to find ways to use them.
Playboy: Cider is rising in popularity. What about the trend makes you think that it has staying power?
Maplestone: If you look at the world averages for cider consumption, even the low level countries are drinking more than here. If we just hit those very small percentages of the market that’s a huge increase. If it reaches the levels of some of the big cider drinking nations—and there is no reason why it can’t considering the history of the beverage in this country and the reception the resurgence is having—then look out. We’re going to be bloody busy keeping up!
Playboy: What’s one thing people who think that cider is not a “real drink” should know?
Maplestone: This is real cider! Craft cider! It’s why we’re called Descendant Cider Company! This new cider boom you’re seeing is the descendant of the cider your ancestors drank. Not the sugary, alco-pop that people think is cider today. I love it when I offer samples of our cider and get the response “I don’t like cider.” I tell them to forget everything they know and start over because this country is producing real, world class cider and it’s like nothing you’ve ever had before. That is usually followed by “I don’t normally like cider, but I like this”.
Maplestone: Succession is a bright, sparkling, acid forward cider with a low amount of residual sweetness so it goes great with pretty much any cheese and charcuterie. The stronger the better. I murder it with a good a Thai feast too. Oh, and BBQ! Pork especially!
Pom Pomme is a balanced, dry cider that’s pretty versatile. It works great with a raw bar especially oysters, The Queens Kickshaw, a local cider mecca here in NYC pairs it with an Endive and Pomegranate salad which is incredible.
Playboy: What was it like the first time you saw someone order your cider?
Maplestone: It was pretty cool. Seeing someone order a pint and take that first sip of something we’d worked really hard to get going made it all seem real and worthwhile. It’s nerve racking too. Anytime you put yourself out there for criticism there is the chance you’re not going to like what you hear. I approached making cider with a view to make quality product that I like to drink and that I can be proud of. That’s really all I can do.