Deep within Green-Wood Cemetery, a hulking apple tree curves over Samuel Morse’s grave like a crooked arm. Morse, who died in 1872, is one of the most famous residents laid to rest in the Brooklyn cemetery. Yet the storied inventor of the telegraph also unwittingly gave life to something else: Boozy cider.
In 2015, Jeremy Hammond, a local resident, “stopped going to work.” During a mind-clearing walk through the cemetery, he found a mysterious pile of apples. “Not an apple tree in sight, it was odd,” he says. “So I kind of looked up the hill, and I saw an apple. Another apple. I followed it up like an Easter egg hunt, and it was the biggest fucking tree filled with apples. And that’s where Samuel Morse’s grave is.”
Soon enough, Hammond and Joy Doumis, his girlfriend, were making hard cider from several of Green-Wood’s apple trees. The two have partnered with the cemetery for a series of events including cemetery walks and an appearance at Atlas Obscura’s Into The Veil. Each event mixes history with hard cider—they aim to teach visitors the role of cider-making in American history, as well as the drink’s infinite possibilities.
“That’s part of our story with the cemetery,” Doumis says. “The place can connect with people who are interred there … While they drink the cider, [people] can think, ‘Holy shit, this is the same stuff that people from the 1700s drank.’”
“Have you ever had a proper cider?” Hammond asks me. It’s a sunny, brisk day in late October, and I’ve just arrived to Hammond and Doumis’s apartment, a hop away from Green-Wood, where they’re in full cider-making mode. I’m not entirely sure what he means. I’m fairly certain that the ciders I’ve had in bars have been “proper” in that they contain alcohol and apples.
Hammond smiles and hands me a glass. “So, a proper cider by our definition uses apples,” he deadpans. “A lot of commercial cideries will use malic acid, citric acid, sugar … they’re making a candy, an alco-pop.” By contrast, the pair’s cider resembles wine. This becomes especially clear when Hammond pours a bit of cider into my glass, and nods for me to have a taste. It’s bubbly and light, hardly sweet, with a slight bite towards the end—a far cry from the cider I’ve always known.
The couple’s cider-making process is rooted in Hammond’s past as a winemaker. He studied variations of wine in France’s Loire Valley, from rosé to dry whites, which influenced how they ferment cider in their yard and apartment. It’s most evident in how they pair yeasts to certain cider variations depending on what best suits the flavor of the apple, much like how certain yeasts go along with grapes. They also bottle-condition their cider, meaning that the yeast stays in the bottle, eating up all the sugars. The process produces natural carbonation and unique flavors.
Cider-making started as a homemade fascination at their diminutive last apartment. As Doumis recounts it, “we slept with apples next to our bed, sometimes we’d get worms in the bed. Washed the apples in the bathtub, ground ‘em in a little Juiceman Jr. type thing.” It’s still not a commercial enterprise for the two, though they’ve established cult appeal around their rare, unusual cider. Neither of them make cider full-time—Hammond works at MTV, and Doumis works for a Cops-esque crime show on A&E. They still regard it as a hobby, but, as Doumis puts it, “we just took it to a stupid level.”
In the late fall, Doumis and Hammond pick hundreds of apples, then seal them in bins to sweat for several weeks (or until they have time to get to them). Inside, the apples’ starches convert into sugars. It turns out the old adage “it takes one apple to spoil the whole bunch” isn’t entirely true of cider apples: I watch as Doumis sanitizes and cuts out the “boo-boos” from dozens of apples before before putting them through the grinder and the DIY press they have out back. Surprisingly, what might seem like a distasteful apple to eat—ones they call “spitters”—do extraordinarily well in cider. The Morse tree spitters made an especially unconventional cider whose taste Hammond describes as “mezcal eucalyptus.”
“It’s not us,” Doumis says. “We didn’t add eucalyptus or mint or dog shampoo flavor to it. It just did that! And I think that that’s cool, to redefine cider constantly by seeing what the apple will do.”
Doumis and Hammond use old techniques for cider-making that have their roots in centuries of experimentation. In fact, cider-making has been a pivotal part of American history, and even had a hand in the Prohibition movement.
“It’s part of the reason why the Temperance movement existed, because everybody had seedling apple trees in their backyard,” Doumis says. “The cider they made was safer than water at the time.” Back then, every family not only made their own cider, but given that each tree was unique, everyone’s cider tasted distinct. “Everybody has seedling trees of stuff that they would never eat, so they pressed it and drank it,” Doumis adds. “Everybody’s cider [was] a mix of wild apples.”
The two have a mutant apple tree in their yard, with grafted parts of other trees. The proper cider the two are making, with apples from Green-Wood’s Baldwin tree, is not unlike what someone would have made in the 19th century.
They’re not the only ones making cider this way. Proper cider has experienced a resurgence in recent years, something Doumis attributes to the natural beer and wine movement. “Maybe it’s a backlash to how sterilized things have been for a long time,” Hammond says. “My grandma loves shit in a can—whenever it’s in a can, it’s safe, right?”
Yet cider’s transient nature has also inhibited its popularity. People want to drink cider in the fall, but it’s not ready until May. Apples can be capricious, too. A drought last year stymied any cider production, and Doumis says unseasonably warm weather has pushed the cider-making a month earlier than usual. That’s why we’re picking apples in October.
“There are so many people here!” Doumis says as we pull into Green-Wood. (It’s Halloween weekend.) “Well, most of them are dead,” Hammond replies. Yet when we arrive to the Baldwin tree, we find ourselves in a pickle: Several people are already picking the tree’s apples. Doumis and Hammond talk to the pickers, explaining their intent with the tree and their partnership with the cemetery. The other pickers stand down.
Doumis and Hammond unfold a tarp, and start shaking and picking the tree with long fruit picker baskets. These apples are sick with something called “apple scab,” and thus won’t make a particularly great cider. But it’s part of the process. “There’s something nice about being in cemetery and learning how to let go of precious things,” Hammond concludes.
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