If you’ve ever sampled any of the craft cider from Wydridge Farm then you know about cider master Scott Topel’s taste for the tart drink, but maybe you don’t know so much about Topel’s taste in music. After Topel is done picking apples for his cider, he grabs his guitar and picks out some tasty notes.
Topel taught himself to play guitar at age 13. Like most teenagers, he gravitated to the power chords of bands like Led Zeppelin. A chance meeting with a Leo Kottke record happened while Topel was helping a friend move and changed his musical tastes.
“I thought I was hot stuff on the electric guitar at 16,” says Topel. “Then I heard [Kottke] and I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know what I’m doing.'”
Also, like most teenagers, Topel began experimenting with alcohol. But not just drinking it – Topel was making it. The same year he discovered Leo Kottke, he discovered cider. During a family party, Topel’s uncle slipped him a recipe for homemade cider.
“It took me until I was 17 to have the guts to try to get away with making it,” says Topel. “I ended up getting caught after about six months of doing it. I always threw the breather on the carboy right away. I was impetuous. I didn’t wait like it said in the instructions. I threw it on and we went on a family vacation. We got back and the carboy had exploded in my closet. A raisin got stuck in the breather. The whole house smelled like vinegar and there were fruit flies everywhere.”
His parents may have been angry then, but they must be proud now. Topel is the cider master at Wyndridge Farm in Dallastown – home to some of Central PA’s best craft cider.
After spending a few years traveling the globe, Topel landed at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he studied classical guitar. He also continued to make cider and even won a homebrewing contest. Soon, Topel began to combine his two interests and started hosting small house concerts where people could mingle and taste ciders and then sit down and listen to music. It became a great platform to test out his latest songs and his latest batches of cider.
“Back then, I’d get stage fright before I would play, and it would take a couple songs before I’d get in the groove,” Topel recalls. “I don’t think it was necessarily the alcohol, but just having a social cider with someone and talking about cider, which was something totally different than the music I was about to play, would kind of ease me into it. I’d be way more excited to play for all these people that I just met because I felt like I knew them. I’d sell some CDs, I’d sell some cider and I’d make some new friends. It was a blast.”
After starting a cider business in Santa Cruz and eventually selling his shares to his partner, Topel got the chance to attend a Master’s program with Kottke – the man who changed Topel’s musical direction as a teenager. Topel was suffering from tendonitis at the time – a condition that Kottke himself struggled to overcome. Eventually, Topel’s tendonitis became so bad that he had to withdraw from the program.
He headed back to his home state of New York where he resumed teaching as well as doing some consulting for local cideries on the side. When Topel tried to apply for a cider-making job on Probrewer.com (an excellent resource for those looking to break into the brewing business) he accidentally blogged his resume for everyone to see. Soon he was being inundated with phone calls and job offers. Topel found a home at Wyndridge Farm – though he almost didn’t take the job because of the state’s laws regarding cider. Pennsylvania law requires cider makers to make a product at 5.5% ABV or lower, which according to Topel is not natural. (On tap at Wyndridge, you can usually find ciders ranging from 7-10% ABV) Currently, Topel is on the Pennsylvania Cider Guild where he is engaged in trying to get the cider laws reformed.
When he’s not working to create fresh flavors for his cider, Topel continues making music. In fact, he brought along his idea for tasting parties to Wyndridge and is available for events and house concerts featuring an evening of cider and music.
Like some of the complex music that Topel plays and arranges (check out his arrangement of Michael Hedges’ “Chavos Song”), he seeks to create complexity in his cider. Part of that challenge is finding apples that work in harmony to create the flavors he is searching for. That includes working with the seasons and what’s available in Central PA as well as finding other kinds of apples with the tannins and astringency he wants to use in his blends.
“Right now, we are at the end of cold-storage season. We keep apples in a small room at 33-34 degrees and compress the whole room with nitrogen so the apples don’t age,” says Topel. “But after they are sitting there, the acid starts to degrade a little bit, so that tart crispness – which is the taste I try to put forward in my cider – is gone, so you have to blend different apples to bring that acidity back up. It’s definitely a challenge.”
Whether it’s his deliberate approach to crafting new songs or finding distinct flavors for a new cider, Topel begins his work early each morning by listening to a soulful song and planning his next steps.
“I’ve made too many mistakes with music and cider by rushing into things,” he says.
There’s a definite rhythm to cider-making. During his long days at Wyndridge, Topel may listen to anything from John Frusciante or Omar Rodriguez-Lopez to Led Zeppelin or Los Cubanos Postizos. Early mornings and late nights, he often finds himself listening to Sylvan Esso or Radiohead. Here, Topel shares some of his favorite songs that inspire him to create new ciders.
Beggar’s Oil – Kelly Joe Phelps
“This tune is often played in the early mornings – as in 6 a.m. No one gets here until 8 a.m. and this is a great tune to wake up to, get my plans for the day straight and work on cider blends.”
Sleep with One Eye Open – Chris Thile and Michael Daves
“A couple of my favorite musicians by far. This tune – the title track to their 2011 album – will get anyone up on their feet and ready to work.”
Never Learn – Devil Makes Three
“I have a personal attachment to this band, having watched them grow as a group in Santa Cruz back in ’02. This is one of my favorite tunes to crank out loud and drown out the pumps and bottling machines.”
Random Name Generator – Wilco
“A great new track that I can’t get out of my head. My cider loves this song. All my fermentations are rolling on to fine futures with this in their ears.”
Getaway – Dr. John
“I’ve been finishing many Fridays off with all of Dr. John’s Locked Down album, but this is one of my favorites off of it and it reminds me how lucky I am to be making my favorite beverage day after day while listening to the music I’m into.”
Wild Mountain Thyme – Scott Topel
“For anyone interested in hearing some of the tunes I play and what you might hear at a house concert of mine, here is a short clip of “Wild Mountain Thyme” – an old Scottish traditional tune.”