The Cider That Comes from Beyond the Grave
Malus Immortalis, a limited-edition cider, is made of apples foraged from an iconic Brooklyn cemetery.
Photo via Flickr user lostinbrooklyn
The apple: immortalized in myth and art, its alluring flesh credited with casting humanity out of paradise. It's hard to imagine another fruit inspiring the same combination of apprehension and veneration. Grapes are merely vines, after all.
When I heard that cidermakers Jeremy Hammond and his longtime girlfriend Joy Doumis had made cider from apple trees growing in Brooklyn in one of the largest and oldest rural cemeteries in America, a secret and liminal space between life and death seemed the perfect place to contemplate the life-cycle of this noble tree. So I met up with Hammond and Doumis at Green-Wood Cemetery in the South Slope on a perfect spring day in early May to walk the grounds and learn more about what they had dubbed their Malus Immortalis project.
Part of America's rural cemetery movement when burial grounds were moved out of crowded churchyards and designed to inspire reverence and contemplation, Green-Wood's 478 sylvan acres, sandwiched between the BQE and Prospect Expressway, are set on a terminal moraine deposited by receding glaciers that left behind a startling landscape of hills, dales, and glacial ponds. Created in 1838 and now a National Historic Landmark, Green-Wood's splendor inspired the creation of its better known neighbor Prospect Park and, in its heyday, was one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
We walked past a copse of newly planted crab apples and, under imposing Gothic gates at the cemetery's main entrance, toward apple trees Doumis wanted to catalog. There are close to 150 Malus species in the cemetery, which she is mapping and hopes to eventually research via the cemetery's tags. Finding them covered in tent caterpillar nests, a distraught Hammond batted the writhing mass off with a stick while Doumis entered notes into her phone.
For over a decade, Hammond and Doumis have been making Proper Cider in their South Slope basement from heirloom apples and abandoned trees foraged upstate that they press in their backyard. Hammond, who once worked on vineyards in the Loire, tackles fermentation, while Doumis gravitates to blending and varieties. Although they don't sell commercially, their cult bottles are coveted by the industry and on par with some of the best craft cider being made in America. Cider to them is not a commodity; it's a creative and communal outlet. "We share cider like street artists share their work. Love it or hate it, we made it," says Doumis.
Although they live only a few blocks from the cemetery, they didn't discover Green-Wood because of its apples. "I was here to collect stories, not apples," says Hammond. It was late summer in 2015 and, Hammond, a television producer at Viacom and VH1 for the past 16 years, was on an extended hiatus. After years of being immersed in the punishing intensity of television production, he was trying to recalibrate, and would go on long contemplative walks while listening to audiobooks on human consciousness. One day, he found himself wandering the paths among Green-Wood's hauntingly beautiful 19th- and 20th-century statuary and mausoleums.
With many famous and infamous figures laid to rest here—from Boss Tweed to Basquiat—the cemetery is full of tragic and beguiling tales.
One day Hammond literally stumbled into a pile of early season drops that had rolled down a hill. Curious, he followed a path up to find a 40-foot apple tree heavy with mysterious fruit that he and Doumis later nicknamed "Morse Code" near the grave of Samuel B. Morse. He took a bite and spat it out. A spitter is just the kind of apple you want for making cider.
This time Hammond brought home apples instead of stories, stuffing the pockets of his cargo shorts during each visit, eventually gathering enough to ferment a three-gallon test batch. The cider had zero acid and a smoky, mezcal-like quality that comes from bittersweet apples high in tannin and sugar with none of the sharpness found in bittersharps, the other classic cider apple. Although they were already at capacity from foraging upstate during a bumper crop year, they asked the cemetery for permission to collect apples for cider. To their surprise, the immediate response was yes.
Once they got the go-ahead, they drove their truck in and got to work. "You'd pull one apple with a picker and six would fall down. We had a truck full of Baldwin's in no time," said Doumis. They ended up with enough fruit from this tree, some Granny Smiths and a selection of Malus Floribunda Crabapples that they pressed, fermented, and blended to make 20 gallons they named Paradisus. They made another 20 gallons from a slightly different blend including the "Morse Code" apples, which they named ••➖ (dot dot dash). Both have been bottled for over a year and will be cellared in the cemetery's catacombs to age and be shared at collaborative events with the cemetery.
We walked up a rise toward the Baldwin tree and sat down to drink a bottle of Paradisus that Hammond poured into plastic Champagne flutes.
I asked Doumis how this cider differs from those made with apples foraged upstate. "We had never fermented Baldwin before, and right off the press, the juice was clear. Usually, the apples we press are cloudy," he said. "We also found more delicate flavors than anything else we had made: white flower, nectarine and peach stuff." A beekeeper who keep hives at the cemetery and makes honey called, The Sweet Hereafter, led Doumis to wonder if there are any similarities in terroir, since the bees are pollinating the apple trees.
Like most home cidermakers, Hammond and Doumis often deal with the implication that since they are not commercial, they aren't serious. But I've known them long enough to know they take what they do very seriously. They just don't care to turn it into a job.
Hammond shared a surfer analogy to illustrate: "Do you run up to surfer after they are done with a session and ask how much they made off the waves? Ask them why they don't go pro?" he asked rhetorically. "You're crushing waves and you're enjoying it. You're crushing apples and you're enjoying that."
Doumis, also a long time television producer, added: "Given what we both do for a living, it's very rare when something is created that someone doesn't tell you to change. With cider, we make it for us. It's an expression of our creativity no one else can change, not a distributor or a bartender or the market. Only nature."
Their sensibility allows them to go way beyond just making cool cider to sell. "I usually have ideas people want to stay no to, but so far the cemetery hasn't shown us any resistance," said Hammond. "When we identify a tree and tell them, they put a sign in front of it. When we bought a blight resistant variety, they planted it. When we suggested doing events, they asked us for ideas. No one is here to dominate the other, we are all working toward a good cause."
They finally found an ideal partner equally interested in history and cultivation who gave them the freedom to share their passion, which they did at Drinking Green-Wood, their first cemetery event in late May. Not your typical talk and tasting, the aim was to have people experience the convivial and spiritual dimensions that cider embodies. At first hesitant about how to behave in a cemetery, the group found themselves walking off the foot paths to meet trees, sitting together on blankets, and pouring cider for each other near the source. When someone asked to purchase a bottle, Hammond conveyed that it wasn't for sale, and should instead be enjoyed in the place where it came from.
"It makes the sense of place more impactful and gets across that cider is an agricultural product, not just something you drink at a bar," Doumis said.
Just as the event seemed to be wrapping up, they had an encore in store, and brought everyone up to the tree where Hammond first discovered the cemetery's apples. "Here is the tree where I lost myself and found the apple," he proclaimed, while opening bottles of dot dot dash they had stashed and chilled.
The cider had continued fermenting in the bottle thanks to yeast that was still alive; when the bottles were opened, it gushed forth and soaked the ground. Hammond didn't see it as a waste—he let it flow because for him it was a sacrificial offering to the tree, which gave its fruit for them to enjoy.
"The apple tree goes to sleep in the winter to be reborn again in the spring. Its fruits become picked for cider and the cider gives new life to the trees. There is no death, it's just a change in phase," he mused. The cycle had come full circle.