Three Irishmen walk into a bar every Thursday evening, each of them holding a bottle of scrumpy.
This isn’t the intro of a joke, it’s how the journey of Jay Hildybrant cider maker at Chain Yard Cider begins. In the small village of Glendalough in County Wicklow, Hildybrant found himself working at the local pub. Every week, three elderly gentlemen would arrive with jugs of homemade scrumpy that they had each made and would sample each other’s jug, discussing each scrumpy’s intricacies and comparing them to the complexities of wine.
“They were real characters, and they basically let me into their inner circle,” Hildybrant says. “The main thing I took away from my interactions with them was that cider can be funky—it can have barnyard characteristics, it can be angular and heavy, but still be a well-crafted cider. I learned that the palate could be teased or persuaded with these unusual flavor sensations and prepare the taster for new cider experiences and perceptions.”
After talking with Hildybrant and sipping a few of his ferments, we definitely walked away cider converts. As we sat talking and sipping his bright, complex ciders at Chain Yard Cider in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia, we learned that there’s a whole expansive world of cider. As Hildybrant regaled us of the complexities of finely crafted cider, his passion and determination to change the perception of cider became obvious.
“What makes for a great cider is truly subjective,” he says. “Good cider has backbone with clean, big, upfront flavors. Personally, a great cider to me is one where the cider maker has listened to what the ferment wanted and [paid] attention to the small details.”
Returning to Canada after his travels in Ireland, Hildybrant knew he wanted to continue pursuing his passion for cider-making. He began by working as an orchardist in British Columbia, learning everything he could about apples before turning his interest to Nova Scotia—the land of endless apple varieties and potentially the best cider region. After researching and visiting a number of apple orchards in Nova Scotia, he decided it was the right place for a potential cider boom. He teamed up with Muwin Estate as the cider maker of Bulwark before moving on to Planters Ridge, then finally joining partners Michael Lim and Susan Downey Lim at Chain Yard Cider in 2016.
“Even though Nova Scotian’s have been making cider for generations, the commercial aspect is still very much in its infancy stage,” Hildybrant says. “There is no real benchmark or style that defines Nova Scotian cider. It’s good, though, because I think it allows cider makers to step in and create products without inhibitions.”
A walk around the Chain Yard production facility attests its passion and seriousness for making quality ciders. The facility has state-of-the-art equipment with stainless steel fermentation tanks equipped with glycol cooling pipes, allowing for the all-important controlled ferment.
“Having an urban cidery is unique because it allows us to educate the consumer on a larger scale,” Hildybrant says. “We’re able to engage people and introduce our techniques. One thing we’re proud of is that we use very little sugar, so our ciders are on the drier, more traditional side, and many of our products are arrested ferments, leaving only the endogenous residual sugar.”
Hildybrant thrives on challenges and experimenting, whether it’s engaging in wild yeast fermentation, small-batch cask cider, barrel aging or seeking out heirloom apple varieties grown in small orchards.
“I haven’t once turned down a collaboration or a challenge,” he says. “I work with small growers in an attempt to touch on diverse terroir dynamics and bring back the older heritage cider varieties.”
He flies the flag high for cider producers and believes there is a growing appreciation of craft, premium cider. As people begin to understand and appreciate the nuances and complexities, Chain Yard has gathered a loyal following for Hildybrant’s cider.