Al & Denise Snape have big ideas. And whether they’re starting an alternative cider company in an already niche market or brewing out-there pumpkin sours, they don’t hesitate to act on these ideas.
The founders of Salem, MA’s Far From The Tree Cider set out on a lark about four years ago—the two quit their day jobs to move to Europe so that Al could study viticulture and oenology—and they’ve been following their guts ever since.
Before the move, Denise was a project manager for a pharmaceutical company (and living in Southie) while Al was in charge of radioactive waste management and disposal for MIT and then GE. “There were barrels, half lives, some similarities between that and all this,” Al said, gesturing towards his chilly cellar full of dozens of cider barrels at Far From The Tree’s headquarters. They operate out of the Ketchum Building on Jackson Street, just a few minutes from Salem’s spooky town center. Their space in the old brick building was previously unoccupied for several years, but before that housed a food packaging & distribution warehouse, a slaughterhouse, and a gym.
“It was a mess when we moved in,” Denise said, showing us around the unheated transitional space that is equal parts storage, cellar, tap room, and living room, “These lights were all falling off the ceiling.” The Snapes hand-scrubbed every concrete surface and wooden beam to reveal a beautiful industrial-antique space, and they’ve had the cooperation of the building owner (who runs a marine construction company) every step of the way.
“Everything we’ve wanted to do, he’s said sure,” Al remarked, sliding open a door between their space and the landlord’s to reveal a fairly huge boat undergoing repairs. “Can we knock that wall down, sure, can we build the first tasting room in Salem, sure.”
But before any of this was a reality, Al & Denise just knew that they both loved wine & beer. And one day, they decided a change of pace could be nice. “We thought, why not get a different perspective for a couple years,” Denise said about their move. So Al sought out the only European wine program taught in English and enrolled, while Denise worked for Novartis and eventually started her own clinical project management company. During the three year program, Al spent school breaks helping out at several wineries across the continent. After stints in Germany’s Mosel Valley and in Bordeaux (where he made a type of sparkling rosé wine with Bordeaux grapes), Al stayed with a family in Champagne who helped plant the seed for Far From The Tree.
“I did a vintage in Champagne where I stayed with a family, where the kids would help and taste the juice,” Al said, “it left a real impression on me. I wanted to go back to where I came from and create something.”
Al & Denise returned from Europe eager to create their own taste of place, though at first they weren’t sure where that place would be. The booming cider culture of Oregon & Washington tempted them toward the west coast, but after spending their first winter back at a beach rental on Plum Island, they became certain that theirs would be an east coast cider company.
The couple chose cider because Al knew he could make a better cider in Massachusetts than he could a wine—in fact, he wrote his dissertation on the uncertainty of growing Reisling grapes in New England. But they didn’t want to make just any cider. In an homage to the ciders they drank in England, the couple decided on a dry cider, fermented entirely in barrels, using 100% juice (apparently, “hard cider” on an ingredient label can mean as little as 49% juice, and it often does).
“We wanted to be different by doing what everyone thinks cider is,” Al said. “We wanted to do it really traditional, the way they would’ve done it 250 years ago.” This mentality is right in keeping with the terroir of Far From The Tree—sitting at the wooden bar in their dusky taproom-in-progress, you can just imagine residents of a much older Salem, sipping a cider a lot like the one Denise & Al are making today.
They also wanted to add something new and interesting to the increasingly crowded cider canon, which they felt was missing a really dry product. Their most basic cider, Roots, is made up of 100% local ingredients, from the Meadowbrook Orchard Cortland & McIntosh apples to the hint of maple syrup, which they source from a couple who do all of their own maple extracting.
“We met them at a Boston Expo,” Al said of this family, who tap every tree on their property in Shelburne Falls, MA themselves. “We buy about a quarter of the syrup they produce.”
Al & Denise had support from the local cider community while putting these pieces of their business in place—Downeast Cider was a huge help, setting Far From The Tree up with Tom, their apple presser. Tom has been pressing apples in Stow, MA for years, and his father pressed apples on the same land before him. To hear Al tell it, their property is impeccably picturesque, like stepping onto a charming rural New England film set.
And on top of their support from the cider community, Al & Denise had very fruitful Craigslist searches—it’s where they found their logo designer, and their super-important barrel sourcer, Bob the Barrel Man. Bob sells used bourbon barrels in Maine, and keeps Far From The Tree’s cellar stocked full of beautiful, flavorful bourbon barrels from Kentucky.
Al envisions using wine barrels for a later batch, but for now he has his hands full with experiments that use the barrels already in the cellar. At the top of the list is a sour cider, though what kind of sour really remains to be seen—he has mapped out the possibilities involving beer-friendly inoculators such as lactobacillus and brettanomyces, has considered using Flemish ale yeast, and even spoke of creating a solera system to facilitate the blending of different ages.
And that’s just the one project. Al also had an ice-cider experiment in the works when we dropped by, inconspicuously disguised as a pile of old pallets outside. Apparently, freezing the juice just until ice crystals start to form will remove some of the water content, giving the finished product a slightly darker color and higher sugar, alcohol, and acidity. They’re also working on something a little more off-dry, with more maple syrup and champagne-like characteristics.
A few of the things we got to taste in the cellar—the beginnings of a pumpkin cider on the left (with real threads of pumpkin in it) and a pectin substance on the right that’s leftover when Al lets the juice settle out of unfermented cider.
“We want to keep doing crazy new stuff with cider,” Al said. “People have done a lot of cool stuff with beer and I want to take that approach to cider, do some things that haven’t been done before.”
A common beer trend they’re cider-fying soon? Pumpkin, only they’re leaving out all the pumpkin pie spice flavors we typically associate with such brews. This summer, Al & Denise bought 150 organic pumpkins at a nearby farm and roasted them for a cider recipe that is pure squash. It’s fermenting in barrels now, and Al was kind enough to pour us a taste during our visit. Refreshingly original and unlike any fall pumpkin beer on the market, this stuff has more flavors of melon, peach, & apricot than nutmeg, clove, & cinnamon. It tasted, in a word, revolutionary.
With all this innovation within just the world of dry cider, it’s easy to see why Al & Denise are pushing for a more diversified cider portfolio at local craft bars. They’re not looking to be competitive and kick other draft lines out of bars, but rather to add to the selection.
“These places have four or more IPAs on tap, why can’t we have two ciders,” Denise posited, “one sweet, and one dry.”
Growing the Boston cider scene is but one dream of Al & Denise, who seem to be coming up with new ideas every minute. Owning their own orchard some day is a definite goal, or at least using part of an existing orchard to experiment with growing different heirloom apples. While we were standing there talking, Al hatched a plan to create a lower-alcohol cider using coconut water, a cider stout using the pectin drained out of their apple juice before fermentation, and a mock “Chinese” cider full of sake, cherry blossoms, and Szechuan peppercorns (a joke on Big Cider companies, who import most of their apple juice from China).
But all experimental ideas aside, at the core of Al & Denise’s dream is a true terroir of the lush New England landscape—from its forests full of maple sap and orchards flush with apples trees, to the community of small family businesses leaning on each other to succeed. With Far From The Tree, these two have let the land speak for itself. Standing in their chilly taproom, clutching Dunkin Donuts coffees to keep their hands warm and getting starry-eyed about changing the craft cider world, they embody that taste of place completely.
You can pick up any of their four ciders at AP, and stay tuned for new releases coming soon!