Peter Yi, cider maker and co-founder, Brooklyn Cider House
On his path to the industry, making wild ciders, and working with rare apple varieties.
Thanks for reading! This independent newsletter is fueled by likes and shares, so if you're into it, here's how you can help: Head to the bottom of the page and like or comment on this post. You can also share with friends far and wide. I cannot thank you enough!
Peter Yi is a 25 year veteran of the wine industry who, along with his sister, co-founded Brooklyn Cider House. After working around the world in wine, Peter turned his sites to making wild, natural ciders and has jumped full force into crafting a new wave of an oft misunderstood beverage.
With a focus on wild yeast and minimal intervention, Peter makes ciders that strive for balance, have a depth of structure, and are lively and acidic. He uses heirloom and rare hard cider apple varieties, and in 2015, they took over Twin Star Orchards to fully own the growing and processing of the apples they use. Since then, they’ve planted over 8,000 trees of rare hard cider apple varieties, and have built a tasting room and farm store.
I chatted with Peter on a very rainy fall day about his path to the industry, making wild ciders, and working with rare apple varieties.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to cider making?
Peter Yi: This is my second career, my first career was in the wine industry. I was there for 25 happy years, and I was mostly involved with retail. I traveled throughout wine regions doing the barrel samples. Then, I got involved with blending, and as I got closer to winemakers, they have allowed me to make my own blends. I got involved with a vineyard and now I have a vineyard in Argentina. I dabbled in wine making, and I love fermentation. I'm also Korean, and I make kimchi or have watched my family make kimchi throughout my life. Fermentation is part of my life and I really love it.
I discovered cider in my 25th year of being in the wine industry. I happened to traveled to a region where they make wine and cider, in the Basque region of northern Spain in San Sebastián. I would visit the Basque region for wine, but also it happens to be one of my favorite regions because the food is outstanding. A friend of mine said, let's go check out some cider. This is going back, 10, 11 years — back then I didn't know anything about cider except that I knew I didn't like it. And it's like, "Let's go and check out some really good cider." I was hesitant, because I didn't like it, but he convinced me, and I went and tried the cider. And it was so different than what I was exposed to. And that is what really started my love affair with cider.
I like cider because it can be dry. It works really well with food and doesn't fight food. It’s actually one of the most versatile alcoholic beverage to drink with food. It's a clear beverage, so you would think fish. But most people wouldn't think of pairing it with pork, beef, lamb, and it works well with all of that. You can pair it with the juiciest steak, and it works really well. Cider works to cleanse and reset your palette.
Brianna Plaza: How did you learn how to make cider? That seems like quite a career shift.
Peter Yi: Well, I have made wine from start to finish, so it definitely allowed me to have an easier learning curve in cider because it's very, very similar to making white wine. I would say that most of it is really the same. Most of wine making and cider making is really about cleaning. You have to just make sure that everything is clean.
After that, it's just very few things. You let Mother Nature take its course, and you need to understand what's happening. I don't make a cider that is very hands-on. I don't manipulate the cider. I don't try to make a very specific style with a formula. It's a more natural approach. I love natural wines too, there's definitely a little bit of a natural wine element to all of our ciders.
Brianna Plaza: Tell me about this orchard and how you work with the apples on the property.
Peter Yi: We try to farm it as naturally as possible and it's a sustainable farming practice. We don't irrigate and we don't look for large apples. Our apples are going to be fraction of the size of a typical apple, but when you bite into it, it's going to be intense. That's what you need to make a really full-flavored cider. Cider is made with a different type of apple. Most people don't know that there are cider apples out there.
Think of Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Chenin Blanc. These are grapes for making wine. It's not like Thompson's Seedless or Concord grape — those are for eating. You have the same thing for hard cider. You have Kingston Black, Porter's Perfection, Dabinett, Ellis Bitter, Manchurian Crab. These varieties are hard cider varieties. They're called bittersharp or bittersweet. Kingston Black is a bittersharp apple, so it's bitter but also really tart at the same time. Whereas Dabinett is a bittersweet. So, it's going to be bitter and sweet, not tart.
As a cider maker, you need to understand the flavor and the profile of these apples, and then you're able to blend them and have a harmonious flavor that's going to integrate well, because you don't want a cider that is too high in acid and you don't want it to be too low in acid. Too low in acid and it's not stable. So, you have to add lots of different agents or preservatives to keep the cider stable. It's better to always lean towards the higher acid side, because it's just a more stable product. Then you don't need to use the preservatives to protect the cider.
But for me, just naturally, I tend to gear towards high acid wines and high acid foods and cider. What you will see throughout all the ciders, whether it's bone dry or off-dry, is that they’re going to have that incredible acidity. And if you don't like acidity, you're probably not going to like my ciders. That's something that we really look for, and that's what you need to pair with food. Our ciders are designed to have with food.
Every time I eat something, I'm always thinking about which wine should I pair with it. And also vice versa. When I'm drinking a wine, I'm thinking, "Which food should I pair with this?" So, it's always about food and wine, and it’s the same thing in the cider industry. Whenever I'm drinking a cider, I'm like, "Oh, wouldn't it be great with that.”
Brianna Plaza: I read that you are introducing rare apples to the property. Is there a particular reason you're seeking those out? Is it for fun? Is it a business decision? Is it both?
Peter Yi: It's both. I am looking for specific flavors of apples, and so some of the flavors that I'm really looking for are very desirable in cider. You will find desirable flavors that are really intense, and some have exotic flavors, but are also really high acid. It’s something that you would never see in table apples.
I also like tannins. Typical cider that you get in the supermarket won't have tannins because it's made with eating apples. When you make a cider with eating apple, there are no tannins and there's not going to be a whole lot of acidity. I like the more extreme high tannins, high acid, high phenolics. Typically, the smaller the apple, the more flavor it's going to have. I have some apples that are size of a cherry called Manchurian Crab.
Brianna Plaza: Cider has played a big role in American history, but it's not really consumed now as much as beer and wine. Why do you think that is?
Peter Yi: I think it’s generally that there aren't many cider apples. So, most of the time, when you drink cider, it's going to be made with eating apples. Eating apples are sweet, not really acidic. Some can be okay, like Granny Smith is pretty good with acid, but it's not going to have any tannins. So typically, when you make a cider with eating apples, it's not very dry because once the sugar is converted to alcohol, there's really not much there. So, most of the ciders are made with eating apples, therefore it has to be sweet, or else it's not going to be very flavorful.
So if you have to make wine out of Concord grapes, chances are you're going to make a sweet wine because it's not going to taste great if it's dry. If most wine drinkers taste a typical sweet cider, they're probably never going to go back and drink cider, just like I didn't want to taste cider when I was first introduced. But I think that if the wine drinkers are given a chance to taste dry cider, you will taste some really good ciders. These ciders are complex, they're dry, food-friendly, and age-worthy. Everything that you want in a complex wine is there in cider.
I think in time, more and more cider makers will plant cider apple trees. We're kind of unique in a way — not everyone has the ability or space to plant the varieties they want. We have the luxury of planting these incredible varieties and using them. So in the future, I think there'll be a lot more cider apples and more people will appreciate cider. It's going to be a long journey though.
Brianna Plaza: These are lower in alcohol like beer. Why do grapes have such a high alcohol content vs something like cider, which is produced in a similar manner?
Peter Yi: It's really the sugar content. I could make a cider to have 11 or 12% alcohol, if I use only the sweetest apples. But most of the apples, I would say on the average, would come out to about 7% alcohol.
Sometimes I don't want all the alcohol. I want to have an incredible dinner, but I don't want to feel bad the next day — I have to work. If I have cider, then I would feel wonderful. The lower alcohol absolutely makes a difference. Something like this, it would actually make you feel better the next day because of the probiotics. It’s kind of like kimchi with alcohol, kimchi juice with alcohol. There's no salt and there's nothing bad for you. If there is anything bad for you, it would only just be the alcohol. But it's full of vitamin C and probiotics.
Brianna Plaza: Fall in New York is pretty rainy, but this fall has felt like an excessive amount of rain. How as a business owner do you think about dealing with the effects of climate change to your apples and your orchards?
Peter Yi: Well, certainly it affects us because we're depending on beautiful fall weekends. So, I know that if today was 65 and sunny, it would be packed. And this year it's kind of been awful just about every weekend, but it is what it is. We have to focus and make great ciders and focus on selling to distributors instead of to the pick-your-own crowd. But we're also blessed that we have a space that people can come and enjoy these great ciders, they can pick apples, and have food.
Brianna Plaza: There are not a lot of Asian makers in this space, at least in the US. How has your experience been in this industry as a cider maker and in the wine industry?
Peter Yi: I think there might be a few, but there's definitely not a lot of Asian cider makers. . But I'd say in some ways, it's no different. Many people taste the cider, and if they like it, they carry it. If they don't, they don't. We're super passionate about what we do, and if you don't like the fact that it's made from an Asian person, we move on. So, I don't think it's hurt us, but yeah, I think in the future, there'll be more and more Asian makers. I know that there are definitely a lot more Asian winemakers. And my son is also a winemaker.
Brianna Plaza: You’ve spoken about pairing cider with food, and you said you’re Korean. I’d be curious what Korean dishes you would pair with these ciders.
Peter Yi: Our Raw Cider is the cider that I fell in love with in Spain. It happens to be the least popular cider because it's not understood by many people. Raw in this case means something that I have not changed. It’s as if the apple fell from the tree and fermented in its own skin, that’s what raw would taste like. Old historic ciders were raw because there were no preservatives you could purchase. It's the truest form of cider.
It's completely dry, and it's also a bit pickled at the same time. So, think of it as a natural white wine meets sauerkraut. It's definitely easier to understand when you have it with rich food. So, if you had either a short rib, or you had porterhouse, or you had a sausage, you would see, "Oh yeah, it's kind of like sauerkraut." If you had sauerkraut on its own, you'd be like, "Oh, it's not so interesting." But when you have it with rich food, it really comes to life.
I think that the dish that comes to my mind to pair with the Raw Cider is Galbitang, which is a short rib stew. It's very rich and flavorful, but very clean as well. And I think the cider can go well with spicy food, but you'll lose a lot of nuance with spicy food. So, I want to pair the cider with more non-spicy or non-sweet flavors.
Another Korean dish that would pair well with our ciders is Samgyetang, which is a ginseng chicken stew. It’s a traditional dish, and typically in Korea at places where they specialize in this, they have their own chickens in the backyard. They stuff the chicken with different ingredients like chestnut, and sweet rice, and a mini plum kind of thing. It's clear broth but also rich and savory. Our ciders would be a perfect with that.
I also use Raw Cider not with a Korean dish, but to make paella. They’re fantastic together. I cook paella fairly often because I spent a lot of time in Spain. I’d also pair these ciders with chicken, fish, pork, veal. I would go with roasted chicken. I would do with garlic, rosemary, maybe fennel.