Garbage Plates and Ditching Law School: Drinking with Ryan Burk of Angry Orchard

New York City is known as The Big Apple, but cider isn’t the most popular drink in the city that never sleeps. About 1.5 hours north, at Angry Orchard, in Walden, NY, it’s cider all day, every day. There, Head Cider Maker Ryan Burk leads the industry’s largest barrel-aging program.

You know what they say: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away…” so, we were determined to find out if the same was true for sipping fermented fruit. We caught up with the Williamson, NY, native at the brand’s new orchard home for a tasting (and some chicken fingers, too).

Drinking With Ryan Burk, Head Cider Maker at Angry Orchard

Favorite NYC place to hang out for a drink?

Wassail, Lower East Side. For me, the lines between drinking and working can get a little blurry, so its nice have a place to taste what my friends and colleagues are up to. Wassail Cider Director Dan Pucci’s list is global and well curated. The vibe is great, the food is top notch and it’s always good to dial back the meat a bit. We did a four-course cider dinner there last month with Tom Oliver of Oliver’s Cider and Perry  in Hereford, UK, and it was a pretty special night.

Go-to drink order?

If I’m not having cider, I gravitate toward wines from the Jura, a region in France. There are so many interesting grape varietals that aren’t really being grown elsewhere like Trousseau and Poulsard. And while I enjoy the reds, it’s the oxidative wines made of Savagnin that I really love. The range of aromatics and flavors – earthy, nutty, smoky and so on – generally sync up to what’s on my table and keep me wanting to explore the region’s wine makers.

I also like a palate brightening aperitif cocktail – like the White Negroni Sbagliato at The Long Island Bar –  and something warming and stirred after dinner, preferably a Manhattan or just a Calvados neat.

First job in the industry?

My hometown of Williamson, NY is one of the great apple growing regions of the world – as well as one of the last hold outs from prohibition: totally dry until 1996. No bars until 2004. Bit of a Footloose vibe. Home brewing equipment wasn’t even a consideration, but there were a ton of apples around, and cider was a natural progression. My interest in fermentation led me to home brewing in college and my interest in agriculture led me to SlowFood where I met the people that would give me my first shot at making cider professionally. I helped start a cidery in Michigan where I spent four seasons making cider before joining Angry Orchard as head cider maker.

What ingredients or techniques are you most excited about right now?

Wild fermentation: a process where we allow fermentation to occur naturally with yeast that exists on the apple and in the air continues to amaze me, and I spend a lot of my time trying to get it right. I find it intriguing to work on defining what it means to be “of a place” and creating something that can’t be replicated elsewhere. The 2015 wild fermentations we did at the Angry Orchard Innovation Cider House yielded some pretty special ciders, and I’m looking forward to what’s in store for this vintage. I’ve been nerd-ing pretty hard on Sherry lately and recently built a solera system out of used Sauternes and Muscat barrels to apply the technique to cider. We’ve packaged one cider out of it so far called Orchard Cuvee #1.  I’m really happy with it and will continue push the idea forward.

Coffee or tea?

My wife Eva loves tea, so I have my fair share and generally gravitate toward green and black tea. Experiencing tannin in a drink that doesn’t have alcohol always gets my mind thinking in new ways about cider. However, coffee is my speed of choice. I find origin stories interesting and enjoy tasting coffee from around the world – not only are the actual coffee beans different from place to place, but individual roasters have their own methodology, meaning there are endless opportunities for new flavors and aromas. My favorite roaster is MadCap, they always hit the high mark in terms of complexity.

Do you have a guilty “drink” pleasure?

In my early 20s, I tended bar at this beach joint in Sodus Point, NY near where I grew up. We used to pull piña colada mix from the machine and douse it with dark rum. I’ve never grown up from that.

Best eats when you are drinking or late night?

Dishes that pair with what I like to drink: Gamey meats like duck and venison, pork everything, muscles, clams, etc. Late night? A Garbage Plate, maybe two – hard to find outside Rochester, but worth the six-hour drive north.

Where is your fave spot for a super chill night out or date night recommendation?

Hands down, Battersby in Brooklyn. It’s intimate, cocktails are unique and well executed, wine list is super thoughtful and the tasting menu is bang up. The Carolina Gold Rice may be one of my favorite dishes of all time.

Favorite NYC gems that might not be on everyone’s radar?

I keep finding myself at Amor y Amargo; I really dig the bittersweet nature of Amaro, alone or in cocktails. They make a drink called C.I.A.: Cynar, Punt y Mes, Apple Brandy, Apple bitters. That has become a favorite. I snagged the recipe and make it at home all the time, too.

I had dinner at Le Turtle the other night – front of house service was off the charts, 8 or more Jura wines to choose from and every dish was spot on – highly recommended.

What are you most proud of in your career thus far?

I’m proud that every day I get to work towards the goal of raising awareness of hard cider and its connection to agriculture. Many people don’t understand the importance of quality fruit and the effect it has on cider. We source apples from around the world – the best apples for the specific ciders we’re working on. For example, Angry Orchard Crisp Apple uses bittersweet apples from France and culinary apples from Italy, giving it a perfect balance of acidity and tannin.

Do you have mentors or someone you look up to in the industry? Who can we thank (besides yourself) for your delicious work?

My favorite part of craft is the people I’ve met along the way and the ability to learn from folks all over the world. Both Tom Oliver of Oliver’s Cider and Perry in the UK and Kevin Zielinski of E.Z. Orchards in Oregon have been guiding lights for me for many years and have helped me relax into my own style of cider making.  Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead continues to remind me to work with purpose and create with intention.

What are some interesting things that people may not know about you?

I spent most my 20s playing in Rochester Hardcore bands. I was a vegetarian for 20 years; I gave it up for pork and cider at the Publican in Chicago 3 years ago and haven’t looked back.

Similarly, I gave up law school for cider – no looking back there either.

Straight update & shameless plug time: what are you working on these days? Let’s hear it!

I’ve been super busy at the Angry Orchard. We recently finished and started selling a new cider at the Innovation Cider House called Edu, inspired by Spanish cider. It’s made with a blend of bittersweet apples, like Dabinett, and sharp apples – like Rhode Island Greening. We used wild fermentation, and it was aged in oak for one year, and packaged as a dry, still, and unfiltered cider. Folks should come check us out to see the orchard and taste what we’ve been working on. We’re only about an hour and a half from the city in Walden, NY.


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