Organic Hard Apple Cider and Vinegar Production
Nancy and Steve ‘Bear’ Bishop hosted a quintessentially autumnal farm walk at their certified organic cider apple orchard and cider processing facility, Alpenfire Orchards & Cider. They shared with attendees their passion and knowledge for the art and science of growing cider fruit and producing award winner cider and vinegar. As Washington State’s first certified organic cider grower and processor, we were thrilled to have Nancy and Bear (also long time Tilth Producer members) show nearly 30 fellow farmers, orchardists, and cider enthusiasts the beautiful process of cider production from branch to bottle. Also on-hand were resource people Gary Moulton (private orchard consultant and orchardist) and Mary Chramiec (WSDA Organic Food Program-Handling and Processing). Gary had helped Nancy and Bear plan their orchard when they planted it in 2003 so it was wonderful to have his perspective as both cider apple expert and original consultant to Alpenfire.
Nancy and Bear purchased their land over 22 years ago and always had an interest in cider production. In 2003, they made the leap and cleared just over two acres of their forested land to make way for their cider apple orchard. They attended a cider apple production class through Washington State University where they met Gary Moulton, who at the time was a cider apple extension specialist and researcher for WSU Extension. Nancy and Bear planted a high-density planting of 900 dwarf cider apple trees. Wanting to produce traditional European style ciders, they select 12 different English and French cider apple varieties. Some of their favorite varieties are ‘Foxwhelp’, ‘Muscadet de Dieppe’, ‘Kingston Black’, and ‘Dabinett’ – though all the varieties they grow lend important flavor profiles to creating their ciders. Cider apple varieties are either bittersweets or bittersharps and they have both high sugars and tannins – perfect for making cider.
Nancy and Bear both attended The Evergreen State College in the late 1970s and learned about organic farming at the organic student farm. Ever since, they have been keen on organics and utilizing organic production and processing practices. Their orchard became certified organic in 2005 and they became a certified organic processor in 2009 – making them Washington’s first and only organic cider producer and processor. As part of being organic, Bear has taken a unique approach to managing pests, pathogens, and weeds. Starting in the spring, Bear flames the ground beneath his trees with a propane powered flamer on a weekly basis. This controls the weeds and kills any soil borne pathogens such as scab. On wet days, Bear shared that the heat will create steam that travels up the tree canopy and kills small pest insects and any surface plant pathogen. To control tent worms, he will go through the tree canopy and use a handheld flamer to apply a brief shot of heat to kill the notorious orchard pest. Speaking generally about orchard insect pests, both Gary and Bear noted that as an organic system, they have more predator insects that naturally take care of the pests.
One of the worst pest problems that Nancy and Bear have encountered in their orchard are vols, which they can do little about as organic producers. The pestilence of the vols increased after the forest service clear cut several acres of forest adjacent to their property. Nancy and Bear have relied on raptors and owls to help eliminate the vols and they encourage their habitat in the trees surrounding their property.
Talking more specifically about their orchard, Bear shared that they essentially prune year round. Their soil – a glacial till – was not particularly fertile, which can be advantageous in producing flavorful cider fruit. Bear does supplement the soil with peat from Chimacum Valley, a 3-2-3 organic fertilizer, and chelated lime, to keep the pH between 6.5-7 – which Gary said is an ideal pH range for orchard soils. Bear completes soil tests often and keeps orchard grass in the alleyways. Alpenfire has an irrigation system that delivers about a gallon of water a day per tree to achieve good fruit set. Related to fruit set, Bear and Nancy are keen on ensuring that their apple blossoms have the best possible chance of being pollinated. They keep mason bee houses throughout the orchard to promote pollination by the bees. They have also begun an education program with a local school that invites out grade school children to be hand pollinators. Bear gives them cups of pollen (sourced from Antles Pollen Supplies) and q-tips to walk around the orchard and pollinate flowers. This year, Bear judged the children to be successful bee impersonators and had excellent fruit set.
Starting in September, Bear begins testing his apples for their brix or sugar level using a refractometer – a simple device that he believes all orchardists should be utilizing. Bear demonstrated the use of the refractometer which involves using testing juice squeezed from pieces of apple in a garlic press. Once the brix registers around 15% for an apple variety, it is an indication they are ready for harvest. Bear will also look for the seed color to be a dark brown when he cuts open an apple. He also stressed the importance of simply tasting the apples as well. Being able to pick up on flavor profiles and knowing the difference between bitter and sour is very important when growing cider apples. These flavor nuances will affect the final cider product. Bear, Nancy, and Gary were all in agreement that it is worthwhile to take a sensory analysis class to improve one’s ability to assess an apple through its taste.
Nancy briefly took the groups through their recently constructed high tunnel, which was partially funded through a NRCS-EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program). She uses the high tunnel to grow vegetables and herbs to flavor her cider vinegars. Currently, she is experimenting with tomato vinegar and hopes to expand flavor offerings.
The group then walked to the apple processing facility where Bear and Nancy explained the process of cider making from harvest to bottling. They harvest about 15-20 bins of apples every November. These apples are allowed to sit in the bins for about a month to allow the tannins to rise and the starches in the apples to convert to sugar. The apples are then sorted, washed, and pressed through an Austrian cider press. The juice is pumped to holding tanks at which time it is tested for brix and pH. Wild yeast is allowed to naturally colonize the cider to begin the primary fermentation in tanks for the first six weeks. The fermenting cider is then racked three times before it is bottled. As certified organic processors, Nancy shared how they have to pay particular attention to detail with their organic ciders as they cannot use sulfites. They use counter-pressure bottling and allow their ciders to bottle condition so that the final product is naturally bubbly.
Both Bear and Nancy approach each year of cider making as being unique, similar to a winery, recognizing that from year to year the apples are likely to provide different flavor profiles. In this way, their ciders essentially come with a unique vintage. Alpenfire utilizes a distributor to sell their ciders in Seattle and Portland. They also operate an on-farm tasting room where they sell 30% of their product. Bear and Nancy expressed how their operation really is three businesses in one as they are simultaneously orchardists, cider makers, and marketers.
The group then walked to a different building that Nancy uses to make vinegar. The separation of the cider and vinegar houses is important to prevent the vinegar culture from contaminating the cider tanks. Nancy produces a wide variety of flavored cider vinegar including an Orleans style that is a surface-fermented vinegar, allowed to age for two years in barrels. This vinegar earned Alpenfire a 2013 Good Food Award.
The farm walk ended in Alpenfire’s tasting room where Olivia, an Alpenfire employee, poured tastes of cider for attendees. The passion displayed by both Bear and Nancy throughout the walk definitely came through in the quality of their cider. It is no wonder that it is award-winning!
This project is supported in part by WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant program.
Summary by Angela Anegon, Tilth Producers Education Coordinator