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Hicks Orchard: New beverages; planting dwarf trees by the thousands

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

Hicks Orchard in Granville is adding new craft beverages to its Slyboro Farm hard ciders line, plus a new distilled apple brandy to be launched with a party on Saturday, June 17, Father’s Day weekend.

The event will include food, craft beer tastings by Argyle Brewing Company as well as Slyboro products, a corn hole tournament and more.

Meanwhile, Hicks is planting apple trees by the thousands, says second-generation owner Dan Wilson, including new and heirloom varieties from the U.S. and England especially for hard cider, as well as unique eating apples for the U-Pick market.

He said the farm is transitioning to a vineyard-like trellised growing system that makes picking easier, and also allows trees to reach full productivity in as few as three years, rather than 10.

Hicks was completing a planting of 3,300 new saplings on Sunday, all in the former parking field across the road from the main house, cidery and farm store.

Mr. Wilson is also transitioning management of the farm since he and ex-wife Susan Knapp no longer run the operation together, as of last July.

Dan Wilson with his new apple brandy.

“We continue to move forward,” he said. “We are building a new team,” starting with a new orchard manager, Joe Nuciforo, formerly of Indian Ladder Farms in Voorheesville, outside Albany. “He’s got a lot of expertise to upgrade our orcharding skill set,” Mr. Wilson said.

(Ms. Knapp plans a new farm-brewery in downtown Granville; see separate article.)

Hicks’s new tree varieties come on new dwarf root stock that limits their growth. “We want the energy on branches, not roots,” Mr. Wilson says.

He said it’s a state-of-the-art approach they are incorporating in U-Pick orchards as well. “They look like vineyards, taller, he says. “It’s a nine-foot tall wall of fruit.” The investment is about $16,000 an acre, all told, with about 1,000 trees per acre.

“We were worried that people would miss the traditional kinds of standing trees,” but he says response is good in the one orchard already using the technique. “The trees are more compact, and closer together, the apples easier to get,” he says.

The compact plantings also make for easier and more efficient maintenance, Mr. Wilson says. To that end, he said he is hiring foreign workers for the first time ever: Three experienced orchard workers from Jamaica will start a little later this spring, in addition to the 50 or more seasonal workers and five full-time year-round staff.

The 3,300 new trees is “a lot,” Mr. Wilson said. He’d halted new plantings for several years because of deer eating all of the saplings. “I could handle one or two, but you’d look out and there would be 30 or 40 in the middle of the day and all of the trees would be destroyed.”

So, first, he installed about two miles of fencing around the entire 45-acre orchard, a several-year project, he says, at an investment of about $6 a foot.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wilson has developed an apple brandy, modeled on the French Pommeau. (“Pomme” means apple.) It’s made from the farm’s distilled hard cider that is further infused with their own naturally processed apple concentrate that they use to make the ice wine.

Tasting notes, from this reporter: The brandy starts with a strong apple aroma, but the flavor is barely appley at all, rather smooth and strong, with a warm, alcoholy finish

The new brandy, which they are calling Pommore — “more” because theirs has an alcohol content of about 22 percent, versus the 17 to 19 percent in traditional Pommeau that is sweetened with straight juice.

Later this summer, Slyboro will also introduce Slate Valley Ciders, a family of hard ciders in single serving bottles as well as kegs — versus the wine-style packaging of the Slyboro line.

These will include unique flavors, Mr. Wilson said, including a cherry flavored cider, a dry and semi-dry cider.

Yes, Slate Valley Ciders is a similar name to Ms. Knapp’s planned Slate Town Brewing Company, but Mr. Wilson says, “It all works together. That is the heritage of our town, Granville.”

He said he also aims to launch twice-weekly al fresco dinners in late June, offering cider by the glass, live music, their own wood-fired pizza and food by other area purveyors.

Hicks Orchard is entering its 111th season. Mr. Wilson’s parents purchased the farm and moved the family there in 1974.

“It was all U-Pick back then,” he says. “We added donuts and the cider mill, turned the packing house into a store.”

The Slyboro line of hard ciders and cider wines they introduced 10 years ago.

“We had a sense of, not entirely confident the U-Pick tradition would continue. You can’t rest on your laurels, there is always competition to do so much more during that time. You’re either keeping it fresh and doing more, or falling behind.”

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