Dublin - “By God, I think we’re lost,” said my guide, Brian Kennedy. Daylight had yet to pierce the thick, humid cloud cover, but we had already been driving south more than two hours since I landed at 4am in Dublin.
Slowly, as we drove on, the Irish countryside awoke to a foggy, dreamlike autumn morning.
I was sleepy, but it wasn’t coffee I was craving; it was a tall glass of hard apple cider, deliciously fermented apple juice. Ever since I heard from my friend Gay Howard, co-founder of United States of Cider, that Ireland was in the midst of a craft cider swell, I vowed to hop over and sip my way through the apple orchards.
Just the thought of crisp, tangy apple cider transported me back to my childhood summer vacations in Brittany, where my French cousins thought nothing of pouring sparkly (fermented) cider to accompany the crepes oozing salted butter that we devoured at snack time. Even in New York, where I live, hard apple cider is gaining traction since the opening last year of Wassail, a restaurant and cider bar that features more than 100 ciders on draft and by the bottle. But the love story between apples and Ireland is far from a hipster fad.
“Apples have been linked to Ireland since Celtic times,” said Daniel Emerson, who, with his wife Geraldine, runs Stonewell Cider, one of more than 15 new “cider start-ups”.
Historians agree that the first written mention of apple cider in Ireland dates to 1155. Since then, many litres have been gulped down, most of it in recent years made by Bulmers, a commercial brand that controls about 94 percent of the market.
But commercial anything was the furthest thing from my mind when we finally spotted a sign for Longueville House on a windy lane near Mallow in the Blackwater Valley. On our right, two gold-rimmed pheasants ran along a meadow. We drove to the pink Georgian mansion at the top of the hill.
“Welcome! Hope you’re hungry,” called Aisling O’Callahan, the vivacious blonde proprietor, standing on the porch. In the O’Callahan family since 1938, the stately home has been turned into a cozy inn.
“Why don’t you join the group that’s touring the garden? That way you’ll see the trees,” O’Callahan said. It was unseasonably warm, and the earth smelled of sweet summer rain. Of the 180 hectares that make up the property, 25 are planted with apple trees from which the family produces what I had heard was one of the best craft apple ciders in Ireland.
We were in the middle of harvest time and there were apples everywhere: on the trees, on the ground and in the hands of William O’Callahan, tan sweater and pants tucked into knee-high wellies, his eyeglasses high on his head.
“Our cider is a blend of Michelin and Dabinett varieties,” he announced as the press crunched behind him, before introducing Dan Duggan, the rugged resident brandy and cider maker.
“What’s your secret?” I asked.
“There’s no recipe,” Duggan said. “Cider just happens.”
Finally, it was tasting time. Amber-coloured and slightly carbonated, Longueville House struck a fine balance between dry and sweet.
The next day, we drove about an hour north toward Tipperary, pausing in Cahir to take in the quiet, fully restored 12th-century castle that belied the violent history of the area.
But during this busy season, there was nothing quiet at the Apple Farm, where owner Con (short for Cornelius) Traas cultivates 16ha of apples, among other fruit trees.
“We got to cider because we wanted to make cider vinegar,” he said.
Con’s Irish Cider is “a blend of four different kinds of Irish apples, without added sugar or water”.
We sat in his tiny office away from the frenetic bottling machinery and I tasted the sharp, tannic drink, enjoying a slightly bitter bite. “Real cider,” Traas said proudly.
Real? It was time to dig deeper, so I called Emma Tyrrell, who works with Cider Ireland, an association that represents 13 apple growers and craft cider makers.
“You see, apple juice wants to be cider, but cider wants to be vinegar,” she said. “That’s where the cider maker steps in.”
James O’Donoghue, the Longways Cider maker and a beekeeper in South Tipperary, studied for years until he was confident he had a recipe he could replicate. Waiting served him well, as he’s been winning all kinds of awards this past year. “We make wine with apples,” he said.
From the Apple Farm, we took the back roads through sleepy villages and ancient walled fields towards Kilkenny, but suddenly, at the entrance of Grangemockler, a fuchsia door beckoned.
“Stop!” I yelled, making my friend jump first and then brake.
“What? Everything’s closed,” he said.
But it wasn’t, and I was hungry. From inside the Auld Mill Bakery, a sweet, yeasty aroma wafted into the street. I bought black pudding, thickly packed and slightly gamy, and (how could I pass?) a whole apple pie.
It wasn’t easy, but Highbank Orchards was well worth seeking out. Located just outside Kilkenny, the 22ha domain is the largest organic apple orchard in Ireland. The whole experience felt like a dip into history: a long lane toward the 17th-century stone courtyard, the low farm buildings and even the cozy farm shop spoke of tradition and know-how.
“In the last 1 500 years,” said Rod Calder-Potts, who owns the property with his wife, Julie, “the farm has belonged to only four families.”
The estate produces gin, brandy and vodka all from apples, as well as sweet apple syrup, but I was there for cider. All three - Highbank Proper, Highbank Medieval with honey and the Dessert Cider - were developed to go with food, not as summer drinks or an aperitif.
“We recommend serving the Proper chilled, with a fish course,” said Julie Calder-Potts. “The Medieval with pork, maybe.”
The couple are creative in attracting visitors and as they told the story of their land, I learnt they present performances at the farm and welcome overnight visitors in search of peaceful agritourism.
Dinner at Zuni in the centre of medieval Kilkenny, after strolling along the castle and the cathedral, was a delicious exercise in Irish farm-to-table.
But the next day, I was craving some seaside action, so we bypassed Dublin and drove to Howth along the water.
I wanted to meet Donal Skehan, the bubbly celebrity chef.
“Meet me at the house,” he had said, but when we arrived in the postcard-pretty fishing town, famished, we spotted a restaurant called “The House.”
“Craft Irish cider?” the young chef asked. “Well, that’s what we served at our wedding a few months ago, instead of champagne.”
That did it. Craft Irish cider was hot.
For our last meal, Brian and I chose the epitome of the gastropub, L Mulligan Grocer in Stoneybatter. Under black pudding on the menu, the recommended beer was - Dan Kelly’s craft cider.
“If you don’t see cider on a menu,” confided Kristin Jensen, co-author of SlÃ¡inte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer and Cider, “ask for it. Chances are there are bottles hidden under the counter.”