Surrounded by more than 500 trees that bear a variety of apples, from the McIntosh-style Macoun to the cold-hardy Honey Crisp, the unusual-sounding Seek-no-further and the nutty-flavored Hudson’s Golden Gem, Geoff Thompson, is clearly at home in this serene environment.
Every fall for the past 35 years, Thompson, owner of the Croton-on-Hudson-based Thompson’s Cider Mill, has made the kind of old-fashioned cider that locals have come to love.
A partner in the public relations, marketing and advertising firm Thompson & Bender, an apple orchard might seem like an unusual place to find Thompson. However, he is as comfortable driving a tractor (followed by Teddy, his aging Australian Shepherd) and tending to his apple trees as he is running a full-service agency and doing business with Westchester’s corporate elite.
Thompson took over the cider mill and orchard in 1975 while working as a newspaper reporter at Gannett newspapers (now The Journal News). Before buying the orchard, which was once part of the old Rickert Fruit Farm, a business established in the late 1800s, Thompson worked as a part-time assistant at the nearby Teatown Lake Reservation. While there, he learned how to use an antique apple cider press, part of a weekend program that Teatown offered to visitors interested in the art of cider making.
Despite growing up in one of the country’s best-known apple growing regions, Thompson had never tasted pure apple cider until he started making it himself, first from a hand-operated grinder and juice press and later from cider-making equipment he bought in 1977. For three years, he made cider in an old barn at Teatown, but in 1980, the mill moved with his family to a home he built on nearby Blinn Road, where both Thompson and his wife, Liz, live today.
Thompson described those first taste-testing experiences as “unbelievable, like drinking the nectar of the Gods.” Soon, friends and family were eager for a taste, and it was then that Thompson decided to turn his hobby into a part-time business and somehow blend his fascination with apples and cider making into the rest of his hectic life.
“When I first started, if I made 50 gallons in a weekend, that was unbelievable,” Thompson said. “These days, we produce about 250 to 300 gallons in a weekend.”
When he acquired the land, Rickert’s original trees were still standing, but then Thompson began the slow, painstaking process of planting new ones. Today, he has over 30 different types of apples, many of them heirloom varieties in addition to the three original trees he planted in 1977.
To make good apple cider one has to have an intimate knowledge of apples and how they grow, in addition to the ripening process of each. Cutting off slices from various types, Thompson effortlessly names each of them, describing their unique characteristics and his penchant for certain ones, including those that might be sweet and luscious, tart or exceptionally crisp.
For example, the Arlet (also known as the Swiss Gourmet) is rarely found in a supermarket these days, Thompson noted. The Macoun is probably the most popular variety among his customers, a cross between the McIntosh and the Jersey Black Twig, a late-ripening apple, and the Honey Crisp is very sweet and juicy, but a finicky grower.
Thompson also likes to talk about the fruit tree propagation of new apple varieties, including the work that Cornell University and other universities around the country are doing. Indeed, customers who visit Thompson’s Cider Mill will likely leave having acquired a genuine education in apple growing and the making of cider.
“My customers love reading about the different varieties we offer,” said Thompson. “They pay real attention to it.”
Cider making is also a fascinating process that Thompson has become well acquainted with. Thompson said his cider is made from a variety of different apples, which gives his product a unique taste. Every Saturday, from about 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., visitors watch him go through the entire process in the Victorian-style red barn that serves as his mill.
Apples are usually available for sale in four-quart baskets. Thompson charges $14.99 for all types. Baked goods, including homemade pies and muffins are also on sale, but come from another local orchard owner. Then, of course, is the apple cider, which comes in half-gallon containers.
Acknowledging that he’ll continue to make cider well into old age, Thompson said it’s a hobby that has become a social outlet for him.
“It’s definitely a huge amount of work, but it’s also very interesting and rewarding,” he said.
Thompson’s Cider Mill is located at 355 Blinn Road in Croton and is open 10 weekends each fall, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., on both Saturdays and Sundays. Thompson also opens during Thanksgiving week, offering delicious holiday pies, including apple crumb, apple-blueberry, apple-cherry, pumpkin and pecan.
For more information, visit http://www.thompsonscidermill.com/.