I first visited Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner, Maine, back when I lived nearby in Lewiston. Ricker is a pretty unassuming place, a standard New England farm on a hill in rural Maine, but its only a few minutes outside the state’s second-largest city, and that made it a frequent spot to bring family and friends who came up to visit.
That first visit involved a close friend who, like me, is not a small man. He and I – who first met in college – have a history of hearty drinking and a fondness for hard cider. So we’d jumped at the chance to check out Ricker back in 2015 during a fall event that included tours of the cider operation.
It also included a flight of ten (ten!) four ounce ciders. We took a break three-quarters of the way through our flight to check out the tour, both of us a little stunned at how much alcohol we had consumed in so little time.
Three years later and now living in New Hampshire, I journeyed up to Ricker Hill yet again, now accompanied by a group of friends from the Portland area. We had heard that Ricker had added a disc golf course (we later learned that the disc golf course had opened back in 2004) and wanted to check it out.
So with five adults in a Toyota RAV4, we took the drive north, beyond Lewiston-Auburn and into the wilds of Turner, where a crack of thunder heralded the arrival of a sudden aggressive downpour. Once we arrived at the tasting room, we waited in the car for five minutes or so before it let up enough that we sprinted to the door. Between the five of us we had just one umbrella and I had left it in the trunk.
Even in New Hampshire, we can get Ricker Hill hard cider. It is quickly becoming a popular brand in stores, but its hard to find on tap anywhere. That alone makes the tasting room worth the rain: they have fourteen varieties on tap plus four wines, and at just $1 per glass for most of the ciders you can try them all without making a big dent in the ol’ wallet.
Mindful of the dent trying them all made in my liver a few years ago, however, I went for an arguably conservative flight of just eight.
Not including our resident wino, we all had pretty similar picks. I had some experience with the Tropical Vacation, which I remembered as tasting like a glass of vinegar with a pineapple candy slowly dissolving in it, so I passed. Bad choice me: I remembered a kind of proto-Tropical Vacation, and the new pour has a pleasant coconut vibe instead.
“Let me know when you get to the Wicked Rickers,” our barkeep urged. “There’s something special about it, and I want to know if you can figure it out.”
We were alone for most of our tasting experience, occasionally joined by a couple for a few moments. Quite a few people came in just for a taste or two before leaving with a growler, something I’m used to from city breweries but didn’t expect out here in the hills.
The Maniac CranGold had a nice cranberry flavor. The cranberries come from a bog right at the orchard, which is a cool feature and which would later be a significant disc golf hazard. I fell in love – unexpectedly – with the Mac Blueberry, which had a pleasant blueberry taste and a slightly thicker consistency than normal, reminiscent of a dessert wine. The Black Select was dry (our barkeep called it the “driest,” but it wasn’t quite as dry as the New England Bittersweet and it was certainly less dry than ciders from other orchards; nothing Ricker has is particularly dry) and I had it back-to-back with the sweet Hopped Honey, which struck me as a good summer choice.
I didn’t get the peppermint on purpose, friends. Another member of our group picked it out and I went along with it without thinking.
But we shouldn’t berate Ricker Hill for innovation. For every peppermint war crime there’s a Wicked Rickers, the pour our barkeep told us he was “sure you guys can figure out.”
I’m not sure what he was thinking, either. I’m also, to be honest, not clear what Ricker Hill was thinking. The Maniac Strawberry has a kind of artificial flavor to it and it isn’t great on its own, but its easy to see how it could compliment another drink really well, or perhaps be a component in a decent sangria. The peppermint tastes like the experience of drinking apple cider after you’ve brushed your teeth. It tastes like a cocktail made from apple pie filling and mouthwash. It tastes like a menthol cigarette wrapped in fruit leather. I wouldn’t have thought apples and peppermint would go well together and I would have been absolutely correct to think that.
But we shouldn’t berate Ricker Hill for innovation. For every peppermint war crime there’s a Wicked Rickers, the pour our barkeep told us he was “sure you guys can figure out.” Made from peppers and agave, it has a southwest kind of flavor, hot and smokey but still refreshing. One of us ordered a pint of it after our tasting.
The tasting room closes at 6pm; we left around 6:15 with a few bottles for home and set out across the field for disc golf. Let me tell you, we were not in any condition for disc golf.
Which is too bad, because Cranberry Valley Disc Golf, which starts at Ricker Hill’s farmstand just down the street from the tasting room, is a pretty nice course. It starts innocently with a few baskets in the field before veering into the woods, crossing a brook into an almost fantastic (as in “fantasty-like”) Maine forest.
“Where can we pee?” asked one of us, her voice full of urgency. No where, came the answer. Although Cranberry Valley is open after the farmstand closes – with an honor box to slip your cash dollars into – there aren’t a lot of amenities for after-hours players (not unusual, especially for rural courses). But with a flight of ciders sitting low in our stomachs, we each took turns ducking behind a particularly large bush before starting on the first hole.
Hole 1 at Cranberry Valley is pretty pleasant, and while we aren’t experts we were able to get it done only a toss or two above par. Nice.
But scoring a seven on the second hole was a warning that we weren’t going to be great at this after all.
We struggled with the terrain, especially once we crossed into the woods. The first third of the course is in rolling meadow but then you come to a long winding path and a bridge over a wide brook. That’s when you enter the Narnia that is Cranberry Valley.
It was here that we began to suspect the course was older than initially thought. Wooden signs adorn this part of Cranberry Valley and the forested holes are tighter and occasionally absolutely bullshit. The course quickly becomes unforgiving for beginners, with more than one basket hiding around a corner and no possible shortcut due to dense forest. Many a disc exited our less-than-steady grip to fly mercilessly into as many trees as it could find, and, again, we were kind of intoxicated.
But we weren’t idiots. We bypassed two holes which were deep in the muck. That’s not exactly the course’s fault – we came after a rainstorm, remember – but it didn’t seem like those two holes were ever truly dry. At 17, a disc flew out of bounds and into some low-lying bushes. I darted in to grab it like you do and earned myself an instant rash thanks to what was either stinging nettle or poison ivy. You know, plants you might want to keep off the edges of a playing green.
With the sun beginning to set (“You’ll probably want to be out by nightfall,” a Ricker Hill employee had told us by phone), we made our way back towards Lewiston, stopping at the New Mandarin Buffet – a personal favorite – before continuing on home. Over dinner we tried to answer what felt like an elusive question: would we have done better at Cranberry Valley if we were sober? At hole eighteen, everyone except our most plucky player called it quits. The game plan at eighteen is to throw directly over a small pond. There is a small narrow path you could toss your disc up instead, but any slight breeze could pull it into the pond on one side or the smaller pond on the other side. Like I said: unforgiving for beginners.
We’re no strangers to this tradition, either, and while we certainly took it to the extreme for this experience, we were struck by just how unforgiving Cranberry Valley is.
Disc golf, like its ball-oriented ancestor, is famous as a drinking sport. Courses across New England are littered with discarded craft brew cans and bottles of mass-produced lagers. There’s a lot of time to take a quick break in golf as your fellow players tee up and you pop open another drink. We’re no strangers to this tradition, either, and while we certainly took it to the extreme for this experience, we were struck by just how unforgiving Cranberry Valley is. At a lot of our standard haunts – like Scarborough’s Pleasant Hill – you might end up in the small pond or in an overgrown bush. At Cranberry Valley, an errant disc can easily end up in the middle of the bog, lost in the thick Maine forest, or, well, in the small pond.
Maybe we would have done just as poorly. Maybe not. Maybe we’ll have to find out before the summer’s over.
A reminder about alcohol:
We used a designated driver and we had the course to ourselves for the evening.
Do not drive or disc golf while intoxicated.