As the leaves change, taste buds turn to apple cider

By / Wine + Drinks / October 12th, 2017 / 1

As the leaves turn colour and the weather takes on the crisp bite of fall, orchards across the country are preparing the fresh, tart and sweet treats we’ve all grown up loving — apple pie, applesauce, apple butter and, best of all, apple cider.

Wait, isn’t that alcoholic?

No, not always. The name for the rich, flavourful, non-alcoholic apple beverage changes depending on where you are in Canada. “If you are in eastern Canada or eastern US, then everybody refers to fresh pressed juice as cider — non-alcoholic, fresh pressed juice with no additives,” explains Tom Davison of Davison Orchards in the Okanagan. “In western Canada, and even western US, as soon as you talk about cider it’s always assumed to be alcoholic … Somebody always comes to the farm and asks for ‘cider,’ and I always make a joke — which part of Ontario are you from?”

Cider, by itself, and hard cider are usually reserved in the industry for the alcoholic beverage that feels like sucking on a bubbly apple. But referring to apple cider as apple juice can be confusing too. “The problem with ‘apple juice’ is that it’s a pretty big umbrella,” says Davison.”

“Apple juice is pasteurized and filtered,” explain Matthew Estabrooks and Heather Rhymes of Gagetown Fruit Farm in New Brunswick. “Fresh apple cider is just fresh squeezed apples, we don’t pasteurize ours — so it just goes in the bottle and then to market.”

“The bottom line is what we’re doing is a fresh pressed product right off the trees with no additives,” says Davison. “Actually, ‘fresh juice’ is probably the clearest way to define it.”

When you go to the grocery store or supermarket and pick up a bottle of apple juice, the liquid contents have been pasteurized to give it a longer shelf life, sugar and other additives have been thrown in to make it taste “better,” and the end result is a beverage that is just a sad shade of true, fresh apple juice.

Canadian food laws require cider sold commercially to be pasteurized, which adds a bit of a conundrum to the definition of apple juice/cider. If you want the true juice, visit your local orchard and ask for fresh pressed apple juice/cider — but prepare your taste buds, as the experience is nothing like commercially sold apple juice.

“People say ‘oh, the juice is so strong, I feel like I should water it down’ and that’s so hard to hear,” says Davison of his apple juice. “It’s just that people aren’t used to all the flavour.”

The flavour is one of the reasons why apple cider has the popularity it does across Canada. I’m sure everyone remembers drinking it in the fall as a kid, the slightly grainy texture playing on the tongue as the intense apple flavour overwhelms. This intense flavour isn’t the result of just one apple variety being pressed into juice form. Instead, it’s a blend of multiple varieties.

“When we’re making juice or cider, one of the keys is the blend and the different varieties that we have,” says Davison. He oversees the farming, produce packing and apple juice production at Davison Orchards and has first-hand experience with choosing varieties for his blends. “There are certain varieties that I know are quite consistent in what they will bring to the juice. Those ones I use as my base varieties and then I add to that base to achieve the desired taste.

Bob Davison of Davison Orchards.

“There are some that are very common varieties — Golden Delicious is really good in juice — while there are also uncommon ones, like Arlet. Arlet is really great as a juice. It’s my favourite. We’re one of the only ones around here that grow it.”

Estabrooks and Rhymes explain that the apples they use in their apple cider blends depend on where they are in the season. “The earlier apples produce a cider that is more tart and as the apples get sweeter in the later varieties, the cider gets sweeter. We always do a blend for fresh cider as each apple has its own little flavour profile; we try and get a nice blend of apple-y goodness: tart and sweet.”

“Every growing season is a little different and that affects the sugar content and acid content in the fruit,” agrees Davison. “Every year you’re playing around with the combinations to get the flavour you want. And the balance — if you use too many sweet apples, the sweetness overtakes the flavour. You’re really looking at the balance to get the best quality fruit juice.”

Making apple cider is much like making wine or beer. The producer needs to have a good understanding of how the climate and growing season will affect the fruits’ flavour profile, they need to understand how these flavour profiles will interact with each other, and most of all, they need to know how to combine it in such a way that the end result will be balanced and enjoyable. At Gagetown Fruit Farm, they use this nifty process: “Keep eating apples to check flavour, then drink the juice after pressing. The growing season is different year to year, which means the flavour of the apples might vary a little.”

As you’ve probably noticed, the process starts with the apples. “We want to have a premium product, so we use very high quality apples,” says Davison. “You can’t make great apple juice out of so-so apples — you have to start high quality … Everything is fresh picked.”

Over at Gagetown Fruit Farms, they have a similar standard. “We don’t use windfall apples in our juice, we only use tree-picked — we grade through the fresh eating apples and anything that isn’t up to standard for that (they mainly just have branch rub marks, or aren’t as red as they should be), we use in juice. It’s an efficient system for us.”

Once you have your apples, you can start the juicing process. “The apples go through a grinder and then into a press that has a big air bladder in the centre,” state Matt and Heather. “The bladder fills up with air and presses the apple pulp.”

Davison explains the full process he uses: “Basically the apples come in. The first thing is that they’re washed. Then they go through a grinder, which grinds them into fairly large chunks so that when they’re pressed they explode with juice and then they go into the press and under the UV light pasteurizer and bottled right from there. No filtering.”

At Davison Orchards, they use the UV light pasteurizer instead of the typical heat pasteurization to ensure the juice is as safe as possible. “We use a cold pressing technique — the apple juice is never heated … As soon as you heat it to pasteurize, you’ve extended the shelf life, but you’ve destroyed all the great things that make it juice.”

Once the pressing is complete, the juice is jugged — nothing added, not even sugar — and the apple cider is ready. “We add nothing to the fresh cider, it is pure apple-ness,” state Estabrooks and Rhymes. “Then is gets bottled and labelled.”

In addition to apple cider, the process has a second by-product: pulp. “After you’ve pressed it out, you have the skins and the stems. It’s quite dry,” explains Davison. “It’s not really for human consumption; best for animals. We have a friend who owns cattle and they’re very excited to get the pulp. They haul it away in the fall and we get manure in the spring.”

At Gagetown Fruit Farms, the pulp “goes to the compost pile or a little bit to the cows and sheep.”

If there aren’t any animals around to enjoy munching on the leftover apple parts, some cider makers use it as mulch. “I know some growers who put it in a spreader and spread it out on their land to break down organically,” mentions Davison. However, according to Davison, the pulp isn’t as efficient as a fertilizer as the manure he gets from his friend.

Many Canadian orchards and farms are family affairs, passed down through the generations to the current owners. “Matt’s family has owned the farm since the early ‘70s (1973 I think), his parents (Greg and Marylou) retired and we decided to continue on,” states Rhymes. “We both have backgrounds in professional kitchens, so our version of Gagetown Fruit Farm reflects that — we have the freedom to grow it and then use it in fun applications, which was our goal.”

Today’s intrepid farmers are changing with the times, modifying their ancestors’ traditions to include new ways of selling their produce. Ways that are slightly more profitable to their bottom line.

“I’m third generation,” states Davison. “The first two generations grew apples and then hauled them to the packing house and the packing house would package and sell them. When my wife, Tamra, and I started back in the business some 35 years ago, the reality was the returns from the wholesale production weren’t really great. We changed the direction … to direct sales.”

These changes include expanding their orchards to include new varieties, exploring grafting and fulfilling customer demands. Gagetown Fruit Farm currently grows Vista Bella, Lobo, Jersey Mac, Melba, Paula Red, McIntosh, Cortland, Red Delicious and Golden Russet. “These were established before we arrived — apple trees take a while to start producing, so you need to either plan ahead or be patient!” say Estabrooks and Rhymes. “We have some Ambrosia, Cox Orange and Regal Gala on the cusp of being ready for a harvest (cross your fingers!).”

“We recently grafted a few newer-to-us varieties,” mention Estabrooks and Rhymes. These new varieties include Honeycrisp, Sandow and Gingergold. “But these will also take two or three years to start any kind of fruiting. Varieties that we have planted and grafted were based on ones we’ve had in the past and enjoyed, or customer demand.”

Davison Orchards also expanded their apple portfolio when Tom and Tamra took the reins. “As soon as we started growing for ourselves, we started grafting and expanding our varieties. We went from being a McIntosh grower to growing 25 varieties, as well as peaches and pears. We grow everything from watermelons to peas.”

The addition of other fruit to their orchard’s produce selection was a necessity. “It’s a great area to grow apples,” says Davison. “But it’s a very expensive area so we have to maximize the returns. We are diversified to the point of insanity.”

Diversifying production is common in the apple-growing industry. “We also have pears, plums and cherries in the orchard. The garden is usually full of fun stuff — most notably: coloured carrots, heirloom tomatoes, peppers and asparagus,” state Estabrooks and Rhymes. “In addition to outside bounty and our fresh cider, hard cider and wines, we also have a commercial kitchen in which we create pastries, soups, granola, shortbreads, pickles and preserves that we take to market. We really enjoy focusing on seasonal and local. We use our own produce and we support the other local producers as much as possible.” They also have goats, pigs, cows and other animals.

In fact, Tom and Tamra Davison promoted the idea of visiting the farm to see how your produce is grown before the “buying local” craze. “The concept was radical at the time,” Davison said with a chuckle. “I always encourage people wherever they’re from to buy local and get to know your local farmers. Go and see how things are being done, look for the cleanliness and all the things that should be there. If you can buy directly from the producer, that’s the best quality you can find. You should talk to your local farmer and ask them what they use and put in there. They’ll be happy to explain their products.”

Selling at the market or from the orchard itself is only one of the ways orchard owners get a buzz going on their products. While Gagetown Fruit Farms has a commercial kitchen and market-bound baked goods, Davison Orchards has a small café located in a farmhouse circa the 1940s. “We converted that to a little coffee shop so we can sell our pies. All the fresh vegetables go into soup, so we’ve got a bit going on,” says Davison. “We also have preserves … our baking staff makes preserves six months of the year. We’re really into anything we can do to market our crops.”

This includes tasting events. After all, how will you know which apples you like in your cider blend if you haven’t tried them all! “We do tasting events to find out what’s popular. And we do tasting events with the juice as well,” states Davison. “As soon as we start picking our apples, we are doing tastings all the time. Most of our varieties have a following. People come in and it’s almost like a wine tasting. People become their own apple connoisseurs and are really proud of it.”

So get out there, grab an apple, or two … or three … and munch away until you find the varieties you like. Then try your hand at making a batch of fresh apple cider at home — you’ll enjoy the experience and maybe just develop a deeper appreciation for the hard-working men and women at Canada’s orchards!

make it at home

Have a bushel of apples and want to add some variety to your beverage selection? Try making some apple cider yourself. The best part is you can call it whatever you want — apple juice, apple cider, fresh-pressed cider or whatever else floats your boat!

Step 1 – Select Your Apples

Put together 1/3 bushel of apples, either of a single variety or a blend (like the pros). If you have more of a sweet tooth, use a 3:1 ratio — 3 parts sweeter apples to 1 part tart apples; medium sweetness is 2:1 and mouth-puckering tartness is 1:1.

Remember to use apples that you would eat — they can be misshapen and scratched, but avoid bruised or mushy apples, as those will lower the quality of your juice.

Step 2 – Prepare Your Apples

Wash them, and then quarter them, leaving the skin and seeds in place.

Step 3 – Make Apple Mush

Put the apples in a food processor and purée them until they look like applesauce. Don’t worry about the seeds and other suspicious bits.

Step 4 – Strain it out

Strain the pulp and seeds out of the apple mush by running it through a cheesecloth, fine-mesh sieve or chinois sieve held over a bowl or wide-mouthed jar. Using the back of a spoon, press the mixture through your straining tool of choice. Once the whole bushel has been strained, you can either restrain or move to step 5.

Step 5 – Refrigerate and Enjoy

Always keep your apple-cider-juice refrigerated (best kept at below 4°C). It will stay fresh for up to 2 weeks. To keep it longer, freeze it and thaw when company comes over so you can show them your apple talent.

flavour of the day

Here’s your basic guide for apple flavour – remember that the final sweetness or tartness levels will change from season to season, so taste and experiment to find your perfect blend.

  • Granny Smith – tart, tangy and very acidic; lemon notes make perfect for blends
  • Gala – mild, yet sweet and juicy. Watery with an astringent acetone aftertaste
  • McIntosh – rich, tangy, classic apple flavour; becomes sweeter as it ripens
  • Mutsu (Crispin) – slightly astringent and aggressively tart; sweeter when cold
  • Northern Spy – combines flavour of a sweet pear with a tart bite
  • Winesap – spicy wine flavours. Sour; will make your mouth pucker
Sweet & Tart
  • Braeburn – sweet yet tart, almost caramelized flavour
  • Empire – watery with balanced sweet and tart flavours
  • Jonagold – full-flavoured, sweet and tart
  • Macoun – perfect balance between sweet and tart with berry nuances
  • Pink Lady – sweet, slightly tart, floral, fruity and slightly tropical
  • Red Delicious – mild, slightly sweet and tart; watery
  • Sunrise – great blend of sweet and tart
  • SweeTango – not too sweet, not to tart; perfect apple flavour
  • Honeycrisp – as sweet as honey (hence the name)
  • Nicola – sweet, crisp and juicy
  • Royal Gala – sweet and succulent
  • Spartan – sweet, succulent and crunchy; slightly tart and crisp
  • Golden Delicious – very sweet
  • Opalescent – creamy, sweet and rich
  • Cortland – thick skinned, floral, spicy, sweet and crisp
  • Fortune – mild and sweet with a slight milky note
  • Ginger Gold – sweet and slightly spicy
Very Sweet
  • Ambrosia – crisp, sweet and aromatic – very sweet actually
  • Arlet – crisp, juicy, quite honeyed and lightly perfumed
  • Fuji – very sweet with earth and snap pea notes

A freelance writer and editor, Lisa Hoekstra loves learning and trying new things. She can be found with her nose in a book or multiple tabs open on her browser as she researches the latest and greatest in the world of food, style and everything in between.

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