Monday, May 29, 2023

Hard-Earned Success: It’s a family affair among the orchards at 814 Cider Works, on J.L. Farm and Cidery

Over the past couple of years, it seems that at least 20 people have told me: “You have to check out 814 Cider Works. It is such a fun time.”

These friends and acquaintances go on and on about how good the hard cider is and how I would love the atmosphere – sitting outside around a bonfire surrounded by an orchard, with views of the mountains and valley below, drinking fresh, hard cider produced from apples right there on the farm.

I have to admit, it does sound about as sweet as a glass of cider, so I decided to check it out.

Brothers Matt and Andrew LeClair took some time out of their busy day in the orchards to show me what I had been missing. Everything I had been told is true; the space is awesome and these guys know what they are doing when it comes to cider.

The cider house is located at J.L. Farm and Cidery, the farm at 3392 Shingletown Road where Matt and Andrew grew up along with siblings Jennifer and Pierre. The farm was purchased by their father, John, in 1982, and through the years the family built a barn and a house on the property and used it to produce a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and other plants that were available at a stand.

About eight years ago, the family came up with an idea to delve into the hard cider game, eventually opening the popular cider house that provides a family friendly, party-like atmosphere every weekend (hours are Friday, 3-9 p.m.; Saturday, noon-9 p.m.; and Sunday, noon-7 p.m.).

When I stopped by to catch up with the brothers, they were in the midst of preparing for the two-year anniversary party the weekend of June 11-13, at which they had bands lined up all weekend long and the Maine Bay & Berry food truck on the premises to complement the ciders.

Matt and Andrew say they can’t believe how fast those two years have gone by and how much the business has grown, even during a pandemic. It helps that they have such a beautiful location, where outdoor seating is prevalent.

Maintaining that beauty takes a lot of work. John is still the owner of the farm and is involved in the operation. But it is Matt and Andrew who are busy there seven days a week, maintaining nearly 7,000 apple trees, producing the cider, and then keeping the place hopping on the weekends with their team. Pierre and Jennifer help with marketing and managing the finances, and they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty when needed.

“It is a truly a family business,” says Andrew.

Growing up on the farm, Andrew and Matt had a good understanding of the agricultural side of things. When they moved back to the farm in 2018 after college and working in the service industry, they had a month-long crash course in the hard-cider-making process. Then they got to work making cider, using friends and family as taste-testers.

“We just really focused on it, did everything small-batch, and kind of worked our way up. I think our biggest asset was utilizing friends and family and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think? Give us positive, negative, I don’t care, just let us know what you think,’” says Andrew.

But all that hard work is worth it when they see people enjoying their cider at the farm, which Andrew says “has a little bit of Finger Lakes vibe to it.”

“At the end of the day, we want to produce a quality product with a fun atmosphere that is open to everybody – families, adults, whoever wants to appreciate the setting and place that we have come to grow up with and love,” says Andrew.

“It is awesome to see just the support we get from all the local people,” Matt says. “We never knew it would be like this. We are kind of shocked about the outcome of it all, and it just keeps coming. The business has only been growing.

“Two years into it and we are still learning. We don’t know what the perfect cider is, but to us, a good cider has a good clean, crisp taste, is refreshing, with a nice strong apple flavor, or whatever flavor you are trying to go into it with.”

Matt says they never use extracts or concentrates. “We use real juice. Yes, it is going to cost more, but it is going to make a better cider.”

“And I think balance is huge with a cider. I think it can go one way or the other,” Andrew adds. “There are so many varieties or different options to go with cider, whether it is a funky, a farmhouse, a clean, a more still, a little more carbonated, I think everybody has their own little niche in what they like as a cider.”

A flight is the perfect way to try all six varieties on tap at 814, to find the style that suits your palate, he says. His favorite is Habby Valley, a semi-sweet cider infused with habanero peppers.

“It is pretty popular. We weren’t sure how it would be received, but it has taken flight for sure,” says Andrew.

Matt’s favorite is the Sweet Caroline, a semi-sweet blend of farm-fresh apples with the addition of cranberries.

“Something about it is just perfect with the cranberry flavor, but you still get the apple in there,” Matt says.

White Out (I’m catching a theme with the names), a semi-sweet fusion of apples and white grapes, is one of their most popular blends and is available at some bars throughout town.

The family hopes to add some more covered space to the outside and perhaps find room to hold weddings, as they work to produce more cider to meet the growing demand. They hope the farm will continue to grow in the future, just like the family itself.

“We have been doing this for two years, Andrew and I, and yeah, we still butt heads sometimes,” says Matt, who laughs along with his brother. “But we are still able to get the job done. It is awesome to see how our brother and sister have full-time jobs, but yet they are still able to find time to help us. … Hopefully, someday their little ones will keep the family going and take over for whatever we have started here.”

Staff writer Vincent Corso enjoys drinking local and meeting new people at central Pennsylvania’s many interesting establishments.