Family owned and operated since 1933, Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill is one of Cortland County’s hidden gems. It is a place locals remember fondly visiting as children and where people from out of state and even Germany have come to get pies and cider.
One year after purchasing the business from his cousin Bruce, Matt Hollenbeck continues to produce quality cider and look to the future. We sat down with Matt to learn more about his plans for Hollenbeck’s, learn the secrets of making apple cider, and is there such a thing as too much cider.
Experience Cortland: Hi Matt, and thanks again for sitting down with us. I know you’re busy…
Matt Hollenbeck: Of course. This is probably going to be the slowest day of the season so we’re good.
EC: So tell us a little bit about your background. How did you end up here at Hollenbeck’s? I mean your last name is Hollenbeck…
Matt: Yeah that’s certainly my main qualification.
EC: To be a Hollenbeck?
Matt: Exactly. You’ve got to tick that box first. I grew up in Chenango Forks. I am a cousin of Bruce’s, not a descendant. I’m part of the branch of the family that went down to the Binghamton area to work at IBM. I worked there during one summer during college and I was a fourth generation IBMer. I went to college for geology and was a practicing geologist for a few years. I worked and made maps for a utility company and then I was a field geologist for an oil company. And then to advance that career I was going to end up in an office and that was very distinctly not what I was looking for.
EC: Nightmares of cubical space…
Matt: Yeah, so not interested in doing that. I left the oil field and went to study for the GREs and apply to grad schools. In the mean time I worked at Greek Peak and made snow for them and then the next summer I started to do seasonal work. Then while I was doing seasonal work for Greek Peak I started hearing back from grad schools and came to the realization that I didn’t have 5 years of academia in me. And where that was going to lead was not going to provide me with the satisfaction and happiness that I wanted and needed out of my day to day life.
Then I got a summer job and started working here [Hollenbeck’s] for Bruce with the intent of learning more about having your own small business but with the idea that I was going to start a bike touring company. So, I was doing this [working at Hollenbeck’s] in the fall and winter and learning about small businesses. Then Bruce and I started talking about him retiring and me taking over.
EC: Which a lot of people didn’t think would ever happen!
Matt: Yes, it was certainly a fear of everyone here that we would come in one day and find him dead on the floor which I think was his desire but…
EC: Certainly discouraged!
Matt: He always joked that he wanted to go on a Saturday or Sunday pressing cider, go face down into the pumice and for us to pick him up, throw him in the pumice elevator and keep going.
EC: Now that is cider dedication!
Matt: Exactly. But for a little kid who’s come here watching the cider being pressed... and if that happened, those kids would not be coming back. So, we’re happy that that’s not how it went. But I grew up coming here and I understood the magic and wonder of this place. It was a dream come true to start pressing cider here. I remember standing by the chain by the cider press and watching Bruce press cider and wanting to grow up and do that. Now I had never had cider or pies that weren’t from here until I was like in my twenties. I didn’t understand the different between what we do and what you can get other places. It was sort of blissfully unaware, but I didn’t realize how good we have it compared to others.
EC: And this is now your second year?
Matt: I bought the business November 9th last year. This will be the first full year as an owner. I did Thanksgiving and the majority of the season the less busy portion of the season this year…
EC: I guess you also get through your first year and then think about the future. You have a website, Instagram feed… taking it to the 21st century.
Matt: It definitely helps a little bit. The website went live on November 9th.
EC: It’s a great site!
Matt: I was cybersquatting for two years thinking okay so this is eventually going to happen. I don’t want anybody to get these [domain names] so I bought them and just sat on them. Now it’s out there to answer some of those questions so you don’t have to call. But everybody still calls. My favorite phone calls this year was someone asking what our opening hours and I said we’re open 9 am to 8 pm seven days a week and their response was, Oh! Just like the website says.
EC: And talking about the future…
Matt: Yeah and I have thoughts and plans and hopes and dreams, you know like 1, 3, 5-year types of things. Last year I was able to implement some of the quick stuff… organizing picking up Thanksgiving pies that went a lot more smoothly and kept people from having to wait too long. The longest someone had to wait last year to pick up pies the weekend before Thanksgiving was like 20 minutes and those were the people who were waiting in line before we opened. And then there were people this past Thanksgiving picking up pies asking if business was okay because there was someone who came in and picked up their pies in under ten minutes who took the afternoon off of work to do it.
EC: So much more efficient.
Matt: Yes, and updated the baking counter… and the break room in the bakery. We have done the donuts differently so instead of just an open ended we have an actual time when we end making donuts. So just creating a set schedule so that people know what to expect and when. But I want to grow apples here and everyone asks me about hard cider…But right now there’s no space and so not something that can happen soon. Certainly, something we would do eventually but not something that we’re focused or rushing on. We’re not big enough for me to hire someone to do that and I don’t have the skills necessary to make a product that would be up to my standards. I’m more interested in what is within our skill set and wheelhouse that we can do a good job with. The bakery is something that I think we are good at and something that we have the infrastructure already to do other products or services we can work on. I think that we’re going to be open a little more than we have been.
EC: This past January you opened up again and were making donuts…
Matt: Yes, and were going to do that again. There are people in Virgil who don’t get donuts in the fall because of the crowds and so we had donuts in January and it worked great this past year. I think when more people know it’ll be better this year. So, something we’ll continue doing. We’ll close the same time at the end of February for a month or two and then come back and the plan right now (which might change) will be to open Friday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings for a few months through the summer with some bakery products and try to do pizza Friday and Saturday nights. Something that used to happen here and I think that’s something Virgil would like. We’re sort of in the works to bring the Virgil Farmers Market over to this space on Saturday mornings.
EC: Currently they’re over at the four corners.
Matt: Right and we sold a few products at the farmers market this year. Moving it here would use our name to get them some more business and then I don’t have to go 250 yards every Saturday morning…
EC: And there are some other locally made items that Hollenbeck’s is already selling.
Matt: Yes, Jesse’s [Blue Sheep Yarn Company] Food & Ferments… so trying to have more of a local food focus. I would like to sell things from Virgil. I think there’s things made in Virgil and to consolidate them in one place for people to buy things from Virgil is important to me. Even just thinking about it from sort of keeping the money here and going back into our local economy…overall benefiting the community. This is all as much of a Hollenbeck thing that may name is on the deed but that the community feels ownership over this place. This is a community institution and I think it’s important as such that we act with the community in mind when we can.
EC: Where do you think the farthest traveler has come from to Hollenbeck’s?
Matt: Wow well we get… specifically to come here I’m not sure but at Thanksgiving we get a surprisingly high number of people from Philadelphia, New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut who maybe have skied at Greek Peak or have a condo at Greek Peak and they had our pie once and now it’s not an uncommon thing for them to band together with friends and one will pick up everybody’s pie and then next year another friend comes and picks up everybody’s pie. We get a decent number of people who come as part of their tradition. If you get enough people and they band together, it is cost effective to get pies at Virgil prices as opposed to Long Island prices. They’ll come up here and just say “this would cost $40 where we’re from.” We get a decent number of people doing that and anybody from the area who has an out of town visitor, this is one of the places they bring them. Last year we had people from Germany who came. Hollenbeck is actually a town in Northwestern Germany where I assume that’s where we come from.
EC: All over.
Matt: We get calls from people all over the United States who grew up in Cortland and want to know if they can get our pies…
EC: Lots of requests to ship pies.
Matt: Yeah, we get a lot. It’s just we have no control between us and them and if they get shaken, dropped, flipped over.
EC: Quality assurance…
Matt: It’s a hard thing to do.
EC: Just find a friend.
Matt: Yes, and then be mad at the friend instead of us.
EC: I mean it’ll still tastes good. Just put a scoop of ice cream with it…
Matt: Put the scoop of ice cream right on top and then you can’t tell it’s ugly.
EC: How many gallons of cider do you think you’ll press in a week?
Matt: It depends but the first weekend that we were open we did 14 presses which are 120 gallons per press so over 1500 gallons [actually 1680 gallons!] It’s on demand. We can do more, we can do less. There are different size presses.
EC: And does it all depend on the weather?
Matt: For sure, last year we go a ton less [apples] because of the drought. It was almost disheartening to do the same amount of work and get significantly less amount of cider per press. This year we’re getting about average, maybe a little bit more depending on the type of apple. This year has been pretty good, especially after last year.
EC: What kind of apples will you press?
Matt: It depends on where you are in the season. For the first part of the season it’s all Macintosh apples and then we had a weekend or two where we did all Macoun and now were doing a blend. People always assume we have one secret recipe and that’s not what it is. There’s definitely a thought and planning on what we’re going to do but it’s not one single blend throughout the season. There are things you’re not going to put together, things that do go well together… some of it is personal preference. I don’t really like the cider that Cortland apples make so I kind of skew a little further away from that. It depends.
EC: Apple science.
Matt: Yes, and it’s one of those things that when you start to press cider you test every single thing you make. Then you’re able to pick on things like what is good, what is bad, what you like, what you don’t and you can start picking out some of the apples. Anybody could do it if they’re think about it and concentrating about it and paying attention and also it helps to see what is going in.
EC: What a great job to just be a cider tester.
Matt: Yes, it’s a lot of fun. My mom and dad do the donuts on the weekends in the donut room and I make sure to take them a sample of every press so they get there vertical tasting of sweet cider.
EC: Excellent. Okay now are you ready for our rapid-fire questions round?
Matt: I’ll see if I can be rapid!
EC: Okay, what’s your favorite apple?
Matt: Northern Spy
EC: Northern Spy? That’s a great name… okay further research to be done there. Dutch apple pie or regular apple pie?
Matt: Regular. I’m a crust man.
EC: Do you prefer your apples cut up or just bite right into it?
Matt: Bite right into it.
EC: What’s your favorite donut?
Matt: Chocolate with powdered sugar.
EC: How much cider is too much cider?
Matt: I have yet to get there but I can easily go through just myself a gallon or two a week.
EC: For a hot second, I thought you were going to say a day.
Matt: No! That might be too much.
Hollenbeck’s is open 7 days a week now 9am to 6pm. Check back in January for fresh donuts but there are so many more great products to check out! From cheeses to jam and of course order your Thanksgiving Pie. Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill has been a local family favorite for decades and a place to watch in the future.
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