Cornell University: Online course makes hard cider easier 

When the pandemic shut down in-person learning in 2020, Cornell AgriTech took those lemons and turned them into hard apple cider.

AgriTech began offering a cider-making course at its Geneva, New York, campus in 2009 – one of few such courses offered in North America. The weeklong, intensive course, officially titled Cider and Perry Production: A Foundation, teaches producers microbiological and chemical strategies to ensure food safety, provides guidance on production processes and technologies, and enables hands-on learning and taste-testing.

Losing those hands-on activities was Chris Gerling’s biggest concern when planning to move the course online. Gerling ‘99, M.S, ‘06, leads the cider production course and is a senior extension associate at Cornell AgriTech.

“In person, we go into the lab and measure sugar and acid,” Gerling said. “We make blends and do cider tastings. So we were afraid an online course would be a pale imitation of the course we’ve been offering.”

But with some creative brainstorming, Gerling and his colleagues overcame those challenges. They began partnering with New York cidery Angry Orchard to ship ciders around the country and the world, so online participants can still taste and discuss ciders together. They also ship yeast, airlocks (devices that enable fermentation while keeping out bugs) and little pill capsules filled with substances that help cidermakers learn to identify “faults” – things that can go wrong in cidermaking.

“We have participants pour prepared capsules into their cider and it makes it smell terrible. One smells like rotten eggs, another smells like old Band-Aids,” Gerling said. Then the class discusses what would make cider smell like that, and how to avoid it.

Students have flocked to the more-accessible online format: 236 cider producers in 37 states, nine provinces and six countries have now taken the online course. Rather than an intensive, one-week course, the online version is eight to 15 weeks, with weekly video uploads and synchronous class discussions. Because the online course doesn’t require travel or taking a week off work, it has enabled more participants and more diversity, Gerling said.

“The real paradigm shift that we didn’t appreciate until we got online was that in a given week, we could bring in somebody virtually from Seattle, somebody from Michigan, somebody from the Hudson Valley, and they could show us how they do things in their cidery or their orchard,” Gerling said. “We’ve been able to make a really rich and deep course with lots of perspectives.”

In the past five years, the course has evolved into a partnership with the Cornell Craft Beverage Institute; the Cider Institute of North America (CINA), a nonprofit trade association formed to support the cider industry; and two other universities: Washington State University and Brock University in Ontario, Canada. CINA has created a scholarship for current or aspiring cidermakers of color, which covers the full tuition of the course.

Brighid O’Keane, executive director of CINA, said the training is the most extensive hard cider-specific education in North America.

“We are the go-to resource for people who want to professionalize their cidermaking and learn what it takes to produce cider commercially,” O’Keane said. “One of our strengths is the partnership we’ve built between academia and industry partners. The science-based knowledge from Cornell and the experience and industry knowledge of commercial cidermakers makes for a really robust course.”

Cortni Stahl ’12 is co-owner of Star Cider in Canandaigua, NY. She and her husband, Adam Stahl, founded the cidery in 2014 and in that first year, they crafted 110 gallons. This fall, they produced 15,000 gallons, most of which they sell in their new tasting room and retail location. Stahl is also a program/extension aide with Cornell AgriTech; She prepares and ships the lab chemicals and other course materials, and she lectures on the business side of cidermaking.

“I hope that we are sparking inspiration and joy in education around cider making and I hope that in turn that continues to improve cider quality and the cider industry as a whole,” Stahl said. “We have so many apple growers in New York; this is a wonderful place to make and enjoy cider. And the cider course is a great backbone and a reliable source of information for cider makers.”