By Amy Weaver Quan
“Talk to Ian.” That’s what everyone told me when I told them I was going to be regularly writing about cider in the Finger Lakes.
So, on a cold, snowy Sunday in late January, I followed the advice and sat down with Ian and Jackie Merwin, orchardists and founders of Black Diamond Farm, just north of Trumansburg. Here’s but a small taste of what I learned that afternoon.
Ian and Jackie moved from the California Bay Area to the Finger Lakes in 1985 when he took a faculty position in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. Almost immediately thereafter, channeling his past wine-making experiences, Ian became interested in cider. He pressed his first batch that October in a friend’s backyard.
From then until the early 1990s, Ian made most of his cider using presses at Cornell and the former States Cider Mill near Odessa. While the apples were part of his research, the cider was still a hobby. The move from hobby to production began through the mid-90s: First, in buying the land that became Black Diamond Farm; Second, in spending a year in Europe visiting orchards and cider makers.
“The Finger Lakes area has a history of growing cider apples; and from day one, we had access to varieties that were very good for cider,” Ian says.
Ian’s work at Cornell and his trip to Europe added even more to his knowledge of cider, apples and cider apples. In fact, many local farmers and cider makers—all who told me to “Talk to Ian”— credit him with reintroducing and promoting both heirloom Northeast apples and old European varieties.
“In general,” says Ian, “it’s rare in North America to farm cider. But not in the Finger Lakes. The cider we make comes from the apples we grow. In most places, cider apples are a by-product of the fruit industry, of super sweet, less complex, ‘dessert apples.’ For good cider, you need a balance of acid, sugar, aromatics, and tannins. We have those apples.” Ian added that most of these apples are very good for both eating and cider. In most years, give or take ten percent, half the apples go to market and half go into the dozen or so ciders Black Diamond bottles.
Nearly thirty years ago, Ian and Jackie planted 50 chestnut, 50 walnut and 200 apple trees. The squirrels won the battle for the nuts and only one of the original nut trees, a towering walnut, remains in the old orchard.
Today, however, Ian and his crew nurture approximately 5,000 orchard trees and more than 150 varieties of apple. Cider fans everywhere are the winners.
I’ll be honest, I like all the ciders that come out of Black Diamond Farm, but my current favorite is one of their newest, Shin’s Hollow, a cloudy, “earthy” cider that goes through its full fermentation process in the bottle. Its complexity and depth of flavor—light apple, dark honey—are complimented by its delicate—but strong—bubbles. I know, contradictions abound; but it’s a great cider.
Black Diamond ciders are widely available at local markets throughout the Finger Lakes region and through their online Cider Store. However, if you are in the neighborhood and have a bit of time, go out to the farm and talk to Ian.
His “cider shack” is open by reservation only. All Covid protocols apply.
For more information on what’s new and exciting in cider research, as well as extensive archives of cider history, check out Cider Science at Cornell.
Amy Quan lives, writes and drinks cider in Covert, NY. When not outside with her husband planting food and trying to restore the old orchard on their farm land, she teaches writing at Ithaca College.