Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery


Certified Organic Hard Ciders and Apples

Legislative action

Here is a letter we sent our reps. regarding a situation we are facing, you can help MA farm wineries and cideries by contacting your State Senators and Representatives, Thanks!


Rep. Steve Kulik
Senator Ben Downing
We are a small orchard and hard cider producer in Ashfield. We are writing you concerning recent changes to some of the States liquor laws, in particular to the Ch 138, Sec 19F Direct Wine Shipper license. As you may know, Massachusetts has had a complicated time in trying to figure out how to regulate distribution and shipping of wine (etc) in the state. We have a Farm Winery License (Ch138, 19B), this allows us to manufacture wine (cider) and sell only through a wholesaler, no self distribution. The way to self distribution for small manufacturers for years has been to get a Wine Shipment license ( Ch 138, Sec 19F), this allowed us to sell directly to retailers (package stores, etc) and restaurants without having to go through a wholesaler. It came to out attention that changes were made to the 19F license and after a phone call with the ABCC’s director, Ralph Sacramone, he verified to us that possibility for us to self distribute was removed from the updated legislation. The 19F will now be about just shipping (mailing) wine. 
Self distribution is critical to the success of Massachusetts small cideries and wineries as it allows us the ability to work closely with those who carry our products, and the flexibility to get other small businesses our products as they need them. We also keep more money in our own pockets (30% +). For wineries (cideries) of our scale it is often hard to even find a distributor who is willing to work with us.
As of Jan. 1st we will no longer be able to self distribute and our business will come to a standstill until something changes. We are asking you to do what ever you can to remedy this situation. A good model as a basis for change to the 19B Farm Winery License would be to look at the Farm Brewery License which allows self distribution, etc under one license. 
Thank you for your attention to this,

Steven Gougeon and Jennifer Williams

Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery
Jennifer Williams & Steve Gougeon
1209 B Hawley Rd  Ashfield, MA 01330 
apples@bearswamporchard.com
413-625-2849
www.bearswamporchard.com
Follow us on FACEBOOK

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Post Cider Days

Cider Days weekend was once again a busy, fun time. The weather was cold, windy, and wet, but folks came anyway, for one or more of the talks we had each day, and to try hard ciders and check us out. We had some help from friends and family so we could give talks and cidery tours. We had over one hundred people here at some times, so it was a good thing the new building was finished so they could all get out of the cold. This is also a weekend when lots of people involved with hard cider professionally are in the area, so we had the opportunity to visit with friends we see rarely, as well as meet new people who are working with cider in some way. We sold out of the cyser and ice cider over the course of the weekend, but still have sparkling, hopped, and farmhouse. Get in touch if you’d like to buy some, or you can buy the sparkling and hopped at one of our retailers.

Now that the retail season is done, we were able to finish our hard cider pressings (except the ice cider, which will wait until there is a cold snap). We have also caught up with bookwork and other tasks that had been delayed, and we can turn our attention to putting the orchard to bed by spreading compost and putting vole cages around the young trees. We have a few experiments to conduct in the cidery, and our hard cider has begun its journey from sweet juice to alcoholic beverage in our shiny new tanks.

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A week to breathe

Our last two weekends of pick-your-own were busy and fun, with lots of visitors to enjoy the beautiful fall weather, hard cider tastings, and apple picking. As usual, we had a booth at the Ashfield Fall Festival, selling sweet cider and apples, in addition to U-pick, cider tastings, and farmstand here at the farm. We also attended the Riverside Blues & BBQ beer and cider tasting in Greenfield that weekend. We got to work picking what was left following Columbus Day weekend, and did our first hard cider pressing into our new big tanks. Now the apple trees in our orchard are empty, the ground underneath cleaned up, and we have taken a break from pressing to insulate the new building. We received our second grant from the Mass. Department of Agricultural Resources for this project; the first allowed us to begin the project, and this one is focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy. If all goes well we should have the building back together for Cider Days weekend November 1 and 2, with the walls insulated and possibly a heating system in place. Hopefully by the new year we will have expanded our photovoltaic system to cover the heating needs of the new space, maintaining our home and businesses as net-zero.

As many of you who visit here know, we are blessed to have family with fantastic work ethic and a desire to take part in the orchard. Jen’s parents have been on hand to greet and help out when we are open, and they also pitch in with picking and orchard cleanup all season. Steve’s mom makes all the donuts, makes all the incredible jams and jellies, and keeps us fed every weekend. Steve’s dad is a constant presence in the orchard, pruning, mowing, picking, pressing, as well as pitching in to do hard cider tastings and help folks in the orchard when we are open. Steve’s brother pitched in with the building this summer, and staffed the tasting in Greenfield on Columbus Day weekend with Steve’s dad, since Steve and Jen were already staffing two locations. Our sons are also practicing customer service and retail sales, and we hope they can take on bigger roles as they get bigger and older. We are grateful to have such support, as we would not be able to do the work we’ve done without their help.

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Midseason check in

Hard to believe our first two weekends open this fall have already passed. Our new space is working well for us, with more elbow room for everyone. This past weekend in particular the weather was beautiful, and the trees are changing color already so the views of the hills were spectacular. I think this might have been the first weekend we’ve been open that was actually hot at times. It was great to see so many of our customers from previous years again, and to meet new ones as well. While we had a lot of visitors, the Freedom apple trees still have plenty of fruit on them, so we will be open for apple picking this coming weekend. We will check in again after the weekend has passed to decide if we can offer any apple picking Columbus Day weekend.

A note to folks who have bought ice cider: the warm weather this weekend revealed a flaw in our packaging for this product. As the ice cider warms up, it expands, and the bar top caps push up in the neck of the bottle. Given enough warmth the top will probably pop right off. The cider itself is fine but the tops are not functioning as well as we had hoped. So we are recommending storing the ice cider in a cool cellar, or in the fridge so the caps will stay on. We clearly need to use a different bottle type in future.

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Looking forward to opening September 19

This has been a hard working summer here, with the new building going from idea to (nearly) complete, on top of the usual work in the orchard, gardens, hard cider cellar, and woodshop. We are just starting to pick the early varieties we have only a few trees of, including Famouse, MacIntosh, Prima, Wealthy, and Williams Pride. Many of these apples will go into the sweet cider for our first weekend we are open, when we will be picking Libertys. The Liberty crop looks good this year, after a low crop last year. Meanwhile, Steve’s mom has been busy with her jam pot, preserving all the berries we grow, including blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, and gooseberry. Those jams and jellies are a great way to enjoy the fruits of summer when there is snow on the ground.

Last year we were picked out so quickly, we felt we had to do something different, since many of our long-time customers didn’t make it here before we were sold out. So this year we have instituted a 2-peck maximum per household. That is 20 pounds of apples, half a bushel. While I know a few of you will be disappointed, most customers only buy up to that amount, so I hope this will be a good change for most of you.

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Harvest season is coming

We have begun our harvest with our one Astrachan tree, which we use for vinegar, followed by peaches. This was not a great peach year in this region, and our orchard was no exception. We did have a good crop of the Red Haven variety, so we have a few quarts for sale at the farm for $5/quart. That will be it for peaches this year. Our most recent harvest is our hops, which are currently drying so they will be ready to hop some cider when we bottle next spring. They smell great. The rest of the apples are looking good, sizing up with no weird pest or disease epidemics. We are on track to have the new building functional by the time we plan to open September 19.

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New cidery shaping up

Since our last update, the cidery has begun to look more like a building.

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Roof trusses going on
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Framing complete and exposed
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A few days later with roof and house wrap added. We laid out 4 inches of rigid insulation on the floor in preparation for the concrete floor, which we will pour this week. While we still have some outside details to complete (windows, doors, siding), much of the work will be inside from now on, so the outside will not change as drastically as it has up to now.

Having skills is both a curse and a blessing. We couldn’t afford to pay someone to build this building, but it is a tremendous amount of work to fit into an already full life. We look forward to reaping the benefits of this investment of time, energy and money in the coming years. Sweat equity has certainly been a staple in our life plan to date!

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orchard update

Hand thinning on the Libertys, Freedoms, and Cortlands is finished at last, and we are also done keeping clay on the trees to control plum curculio damage. Lots of apples will be able to size up and not run into each other as they grow now, leaving us with more pest-free, round apples. IMG_0301
Robin nest being built

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Cluster of apples that need to be thinned

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New Cidery part 2

Coming along, working on it in between thinning, etc.

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Thinning begins

Hand thinning is one of the aspects of organic orcharding that is undoubtedly more work than conventional systems, where something is sprayed on the trees that causes them to drop some, but not all of their fruit. For us, hand thinning is part of our pest management, since we remove pest-damaged apples and put them in buckets, where they sit until the pests crawl out and die, unable to find soil to pupate in. It forces us to give each tree an up-close inspection, so we assess disease damage, insect pressure, and fruit set. Given the time this takes, we only do this for the pick-your-own varieties. So far the fruit load seems to be about the same as last year, except for our biennial trees (especially Golden Delicious) which were having their off year last year, and are weighted down with fruit this year. We have begun mowing our new/old orchard, so some of the trees there will be accessible for picking this fall (we will be picking there, that is - these are giant standard trees, not suitable for U-pick).
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New Cidery

We have our new cidery building underway. We will hopefully have it together by this fall (2014). As Steve has extensive carpentry background we are doing all the work ourselves (in our spare time, ha, ha).
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Orchard season work in full swing

It is a busy time here right now. We have finished with protecting the susceptible trees from the fungal disease scab, and have moved on to insect pest management. So, the trees are covered with white clay dust to irritate insect pests so much they leave the tree, especially plum curculio, and we are keeping close records on degree days so we can manage the insects effectively. This year we are spraying a virus that infects codling moth larvae, and later in the year we will spray the ground under the trees with parasitic nematodes that hopefully will infect many of the codling moth pupae in the ground that the virus missed. We are also mowing for the first time this season. Soon we will start thinning the apples on the pick-your-own varieties, to improve fruit size and quality. I hope to start earlier this year, as I was unable to finish the job last year.

Meanwhile, the barnyard is noisy with big machines excavating and laying blocks for our new barn addition/fermentory/cidery. In the next few days, the foundation work should be complete, and we will pour footings and begin building. It will be a very busy summer as this project will take as much time as we can manage to invest.
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New Ciders Available

Two of our new hard ciders are out at retailers now. They are a result of over a year of work by the apple trees, we the orchardists/cider makers, and our yeast. The trees did their part from March to October of 2013, flowering and attracting pollinators, and then slowly growing the fruit as they gather energy from the sun and nutrients and water from the soil. We as orchardists helped keep disease and insect predators down to a reasonable level, and thinned fruit so the trees could put more energy into each apple. Once the apples were ripe, we picked the fruit, pressed the juice out of it, and stored it in tanks away from oxygen so the resident yeasts could turn the sugars into alcohol. Our task over the winter was to monitor the yeasts’ progress, assess flavors and mix the juice from different apples to attain the blend we were looking for. Once that fermentation had finished and we blended the cider to our satisfaction, we added hop flowers to some (that we grew and then stored in the freezer), barrel-aged some, and left some alone. Our last step was to add some maple syrup we made in spring of 2014, bottle and label the cider. It was the yeasts’ turn one more time, to ferment the sugars from the maple syrup we added to provide some carbonation to the finished product. This process is at last close to done, which is why we have released the Sparkling and Hop ciders. Our ciders can be found at Provisions in Northampton, Ryan and Casey in Greenfield, and Cold River Package in Charlemont.
You may notice there is no step along the way that kills yeast or stabilizes the cider. Right now, the yeast in the Sparkling cider in particular is still active, slowly converting the remaining sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Over the course of the summer, we expect the Sparkling cider to gain effervescence and lose the touch of sweetness it currently has. Wild yeast often ferments sugars at a fairly slow rate, relative to commercial yeast strains, which allows us as consumers to experience the cider at different parts of its flavor spectrum from sweet to dry, bubbly to still. This experience is nearly nonexistent in our era of standardized food and drink, where there is an expectation for every item to be identical regardless of the season, the age, the growing conditions. Our ciders buck that trend, as they will change slowly over time even after they are in the bottle, and they will also vary year to year depending on which apple varieties are fruiting, growing conditions, and which yeast strains are dominant. Cheers!

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Surprise planting, llama beans

What a beautiful weekend to spend finishing spring chores in the orchard. We decided at the last minute to take advantage of Cummins Nursery’s end of season stock clearance, and added 16 Roxbury Russets, Newtown Pippins, and Freedoms to the orchard. These trees should grow like crazy, as they were fertilized with aged llama beans. Llamas very conveniently poop in one place, providing their farmer companions with a pile of great fertilizer to be scooped up and used whenever it’s needed. Our newest labradoodle Strawberry was also a big help, as she likes to take part in digging, and rolls in the llama beans and other compost as we put it down. Our sons pitched in too, to finish spreading compost and mulch under young trees, and removing the last of the branches we pruned off from the orchard. They were considerably more help than the puppy was.

We also did a lot of orchard work last weekend, when the weather was cold, wet, and windy. Steve and Elliot spread compost, while Jen and her parents removed all the wire cages from around the young trees and put them away for the season. Now we are really ready for spraying season; soon we will spray our scab-susceptible varieties with sulfur, and after blossom will have to begin controlling our insect pests. Fruit clusters look good with some of the trees we planted blossoming for the first time. Such an exciting time of year in the orchard.

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Spring orcharding

We had a beautiful weekend to be out in the orchard. We pruned trees, shaped young trees, and grafted new varieties of apples on some of the trees in the orchard. A Red Delicious will now grow as multiple local varieties (6 on one tree!), the last Prima has become a golden russet, and MacIntoshes will now be Jonathan and Harrison. The trees are looking good, and as soon as the ground dries up we can push the tree trimmings out of the orchard and spread some compost so we will be ready for the growing season. We now have two labradoodles, Watermelon and Strawberry, who keep us company while we are doing orchard work.

The vole pressure appears to have been extremely high this winter, as they girdled trees in the woods and yard as well as in the orchard. Voles eat the young bark off of trees under the snow, effectively cutting off the plant’s circulatory system. We lost a handful of young apple trees, but given the damage to blackberries, maples, and lilacs on the surrounding property, we are relieved the cages we put around the young trunks did their job so the vast majority of young trees are undamaged. A few mature apple trees had trunk damage, including one tree that was completely girdled. Interestingly, it was only the unhealthy mature trees that were eaten by voles. We ended up having to cut down a few trees that have been struggling for years now, as they succumbed to vole damage, disease, and general ill health.


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Bottling day



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New labeler and new bottler
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Farmhouse cider going into a barrel for aging, and Maple sugaring

Spring has arrived at last, with maple sap boiling and trees getting pruned. It is also time for us to work on hard cider. We bottled the Sparkling hard cider this weekend and moved the Farmhouse hard cider to a bourbon barrel to add that barrel-aged patina to the cider. We updated our process a bit with a new labeler (made here in Ashfield!) and a five-spout bottler. The whole process was significantly smoother and quicker than our previous setup, which involved hand-applying each label, and bottling one at a time. Using these tools in our current space gives us good insight into how we want to set up our new space once we have that built. Like we did last year, we used maple syrup to bottle condition the Sparkling hard cider. The only difference is, we got our maple syrup certified organic so we can use it in our cider and still maintain that 100% organic status.

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Getting the orchard ready for spring

This has been a long, cold winter, and with the wind we get in our orchard we have been putting off pruning until reasonably warm weather. We are fortunate that we have such a small orchard, so we can choose not to be pruning when it is in the single digits outside. We have had two nice days with temps over 40F, and due to our new pole saw (think chainsaw on a stick) we have made really great progress. Given this new tool, we have been focusing on reshaping trees on more of a macro scale, which is healthier for the tree and promotes better regrowth patterns than cutting tons of small growth. We still have a lot of snow in the orchard, which means we can’t use ladders, so it’s great to have a tool that reaches up into the tree and means we don’t have to climb them (good for us and for the trees). Hopefully we will have a few more warm days soon so we can finish up. We had a lot of snow cover in late winter, which could mean risk of vole damage to our young trees. We can’t be sure of the extent of damage until we can see the trunks of the young trees, but we have found one young tree that was completely girdled when voles made it over the cage we placed around the trunk. Hopefully such damage is not too widespread.

This year, we have decided to start rehabilitating an abandoned orchard nearby. It is made up of overgrown standard sized, heirloom variety trees, and requires a great deal of work. The site has not been managed for over 15 years so we will be able to get organic certification for it quickly and easily. Our plan is to make the trees accessible and do some pruning to help them be healthy, but otherwise do little management and just glean what apples they grow for our hard and sweet cider. This will allow us to increase the number of apples we can pick while we are waiting for our young trees to mature. Of course, last year was a record year for apples, especially on untended trees, so we may have no apples at all this year at that site. As always, there is a lot of wait-and-see involved in farming. We are excited about having access to more fruit, on land we can certify as organic.

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Apple Trees in a Wild System

There is a lot to be learned from thinking about the apple trees' role in a wild system. One place to look is the forests in Kazakhstan where apples evolved. The apple trees in the Kazakh forests are canopy trees that share the forest with lots of other plants and other creatures, and undoubtedly benefit from many partnerships there. Perhaps the most important are the soil fungi, which form partnerships with plants that give the trees greater access to water and nutrients. The soil fungi, in turn, are nourished by their connection with their plant partners, and by the organic matter that hits the forest floor which they can break down to feed themselves. Pollinators are an essential partner as well, of course, and any natural system has flowers to feed pollinators all the time. In addition, in any natural system the diseases and pests that challenge a plant force it to defend itself by producing phytochemicals that function as micronutrients and antioxidants for those of us who eat the plants. So the tissues of a wild plant will be richer in those nutrients than a conventionally grown plant. There are good studies (see the Rodale Institute) showing that organically grown plants exhibit a greater abundance and diversity in the chemicals plants use to protect themselves, like their counterparts in a wild system.

The wild Kazakh apples are incredibly diverse in terms of shape, size, and flavor components, especially when compared with the apples we grow commercially. However, because of the way apples are propagated, there is still a huge amount of genetic diversity even in our seemingly over bred modern cultivars. I can look around our own orchard at the wild seedlings that have come up (which are likely offspring of cultivated varieties) and see a great deal of variation in size, color, and content of tannins, acids, and sugars. Because apple varieties are grafted, one variety is like one individual in breeding of any sexually produced creature, like a dog or a plant grown from seed. For instance, the first MacIntosh apple began growing, perhaps, around 200 years ago; all MacIntosh trees grown since that time are from a genetic perspective all the same tree. So, if you trace the lineage of any cultivated variety, it is relatively few steps back to a wild ancestor. This means that there is still a huge amount of diversity in apple genetics relative to other cultivated creatures (crops or domestic animals). So a lot of wild traits crop up in a single generation, when breeding two cultivated varieties. In a natural system this diversity allows individuals to do well in lots of different environments or in an environment that changes a lot, including temperature, length of season, different disease and pest pressure, etc.

We can apply some of what we learn from observing natural systems to our managed orchards. If we can set up fungal soil ecosystems with plenty of sun in our orchards, we provide a lot of what the ancestral trees experience, and hopefully encourage fruit that reaches the potential of what the variety can provide. We do this by feeding the fungi with woody biomass and/or fungal compost. For pollinators, we must make sure they have flowers available throughout the season and not just during apple blossom time. As organic growers, we find that organic or untended apple trees tend to have more diversity in flavor than conventionally grown apples of the same variety, perhaps due to the challenges our trees face from insect and disease pressure. This leads to great nutrition, and more intense flavors in the apples. Finally, we plant a diversity of tree varieties to benefit from the strengths each variety has. Sometimes we find a variety that consistently does not do well in our conditions, but more often we end up with a diversity in flavor, preferred growing conditions, and resistance to pests and diseases that means each year some varieties are at their peak while others take a rest.
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A perpective on real cider

  • A perspective on real cider:
While cider is still rare in today’s market compared with beer or wine, this was not always the case. Historically, hard ciders were the original table wines in the colonies that became the United States. Every farmstead started by planting apple trees, in order to produce hard cider and vinegar. At that time, there were no waving fields of grain for beer or great fields of grape arbors for wine. And both of these were difficult to grow in quantity from the outset. Apples however love the temperate climate, and naturalized here very easily. Once planted they could be left on their own, and whatever fruit that showed up could be harvested year after year without a lot of input.

However, the culture of hard cider was for the most part a rural tradition and lost, as urbanization, and finally Prohibition combined to virtually wipe out hard cider production in this country. So when producers began reintroducing cider to the American market, they turned to ciders from other countries for inspiration, and used modern techniques to produce a specific consistent cider. Many producers today work hard to produce cider with residual sweetness and/or carbonation, by using forced carbonation, sulfites, sterile filtration, pasteurizing, preservatives, etc. Thus, most cider on the market today has little connection with the American cider culture from colonial times.

If you were making cider on your farm a few centuries ago, your cider would be unique to your location based on the source of the seeds you planted, your soil flora and fauna, climate, and regional yeast strains, plus variations every year depending on which trees produced more fruit, and how that fruit developed. The process was simple: gather apples, crush/press the fruit, collect the juice, put it in a barrel, and let it do its thing. As your cider fermented it passed through an aging continuum, never staying in one state for very long. It would have started as sweet juice, and as it slowly fermented would have lost sweetness, gained alcohol, and for a period of time exhibited effervescence as the yeast gave off carbon dioxide while fermenting the sugars in the juice. By sometime in the winter the yeasts would have consumed all the sugars, and the carbon dioxide level would drop as it escaped into the air. Eventually, by spring or summer you would have a dry (not sweet), still (non-effervescent) beverage. If there was any left.

Our cider ethos:

At Bear Swamp Orchard, we love the notion that cider produced on every property, by every maker, is different, and that it will also vary throughout its aging continuum, and from year to year. In order to embrace that diversity, and to express the terroir of our own location, we allow the yeasts from our orchard to ferment our fruit, and don’t interfere with fermentation by filtering, sulfiting, pasteurizing, or adding other processing/fermenting aids. Our yeast community is healthy and diverse, since we grow organically and use a minimum of sulfur to control fungal diseases. We use some modern varieties of fruit, but use older varieties and unnamed, wild seedling trees to provide old-fashioned character to the cider. Our goal is to produce cider similar to what might have been enjoyed by people living here two centuries ago; a cider that can really only be created here.

Thats our high horse, and we’re standing on it!
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Racking Hard Cider

Here is part of a recent conversation with a cider making peer regarding lees and racking for those cider makers looking to opt out of conventional wisdom:

Q: I wanted to also ask you a more technical question about racking cider. I'm planning on aging our cider for quite some time on lees while in barrel, this is a bit of a left over technique from my wine making experience but haven’t done it on a large scale with cider and wondered if you've ever had any particularly good or bad results from leaving your cider on it's lees for an extended period of time? I know a lot of people rack off quite quickly but was happy to see you waiting several months. Do you do any lees stirring as well or do you just let your cider clarify?

Response: I see no real problem with aging on the lees, and we have, and do to a certain extent. I think it can add a certain flavor profile which is nice, a soft earthy kind of thing. This was our second rack (Jan 29th), the first was a couple of weeks ago. We pressed most of it in late october so we let it sit and ferment on its own for quite a while. At this point we are just trying to clean it up a bit and maybe see if we can get rid of some of the CO2 in solution. My foundation for cider making knowledge is to contemplate on how it would have been done a few centuries ago: Gather apples, crush, press, put juice in barrel, let ferment, tap from barrel and drink! Real Cider! Modern approaches are too sciencey and not enough art, and more often then not are driven by the bottom line (money).

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2014 plans

This month has been spent doing lots of paperwork and planning for an addition on the barn that will serve as a press room and fermentory for the hard cider, with space for the farm stand. So, if you visit us this fall we should have a new (and hopefully permanent) retail space. The addition will allow us to make more hard cider as our young apple trees mature and produce fruit, since our current fermenting space is pretty jammed right now. We received an APR Agricultural Improvement grant which will help us expand, and we are checking out other resources the state has to offer. This should give us the space we need once all our trees are producing, so hopefully this will be the last big building project.
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