A Day at the Orchard: First Fruits

It might have been a touch early but I was itching to get to the orchard and pick some apples. Here in Arizona, we tend to get our first apples in late July. These are usually a small variety called Earligold. They are a green apple and turns gold as it ripens. The problem is that if you pick them when they are gold, you are also picking them when they are mushy. I usually start picking them in late July and don’t pick any more after mid-August because they have gone mushy. For me, there are some apples that I would rather pick a little early as I believe they ripen better in storage. Earligold apples are one of those varieties.

I sweat my Earligold apples for 1-2 weeks. Sweating apples is a process where you let them sit, usually not in the sun, and age. This aging will allow them to ripen more and it also allows them to lose water from evaporation through the skin. Besides ripening, the evaporation of water from the apple also concentrates the sugars in the apples. You can often increase the specific gravity by at least 0.001 or more points. I normally sweat my apples in the house, which is air conditioned. Arizona gets too hot in the summer and early fall to let me sweat them in the garage or back porch. There is a difference between sweating and cooking, which is what you could get if you left them in the Arizona sun!

We had a great day at the orchard. We picked 90 pounds of EarlyGold apples and checked on how the other trees are doing along with the grafts I did in the spring. It was nice to get outside and enjoy the views and the officially kick off the 2020 hard cider season. For the apples, Earligold make great apple sauce. I also like using them as a base for adjunct hard ciders, like Rock’n Raspberry. It has good sugar and acid but not a lot of tannins. However, I plan to ferment them on some of the peels to augment the tannins. Research I’ve read and my experience last year shows that it’s is a great way to increase the tannins in non-cider apple varieties. Here’s one of the trees we were picking. Some were already starting to drop. Can you find the Mesquite Beetle that photo-bombed my shot?

  • Earligold Apple Tree
  • Earligold Apples: First Fruits of the Season

We pulled out about 20 pounds of apples for applesauce and apple butter. Look for a future post on our favorite apple sauce recipe. It’s a simple but delicious option for apples. It’s also nice because I take the peels from the apples we use for baking and include them in my hard cider fermentation. I started exploring this method last year as a way to increase the phenolic compounds in my hard cider. Most of the apples in the US don’t have a lot of tannins and phenolic compounds, at least not in the flesh. However, almost every apple will have a higher concentration in their peels. So just like grapes and red wine, I have started fermenting my hard ciders with peels added to the primary fermenter.

Earligold Apple Peels: For use in hard cider fermentation.
Earligold Apple Peels: For use in hard cider fermentation

Besides picking some early apples, we also got to check on the cider apple trees I planted in spring 2019. Unfortunately, I have lost a couple of the French varieties, Nehou and Vilberie, but my five Hewe’s Crab and Harrison trees are still living though in different conditions. A couple of the trees are alive but were recently hit by grasshoppers. I am hoping that I might get some fruit in the next 1-2 years. I have still never held a true cider apple in my hand, unless you count hard ciders made from them. I will one day address this deficiency. However, I will keep working to make great hard cider with the apples I can find locally. I will also keep seeking ways to learn not only about hard cider and apples, but also the trees. That quest includes knowledge about growing, pruning, and grafting.

  • Harrison Apple Tree: Heirloom American Cider Apple
  • Hewes Crab Apple Tree: American Bittersweet
  • Nehou Apple Tree: French Bittersweet
  • Vilberie Apple Tree: French Bittersweet with Grasshopper Damage

In an earlier Day at the Orchard post, I highlighted my first ever grafting experiment. I took cuttings from the “Super Yellow” seedling apple I found at the orchard and grafted them to some other seedling trees that were producing apples of undesirable value. They were not sweet, not acidic, mushy, and without any tannins to note. I was happy to see that when I cut away the water sprouts from the rootstock, I have severa grafts that are growing. It’s such a wonderful feeling when I think that I was able to take a piece of wood from one tree, stick it on another, and see it flourish. I hope to have several Super Yellow trees producing this unique apple in the coming years.

  • Grafted Apple Tree: Super Yellow
  • Grafted Apple Tree: Super Yellow

Overall, we had a wonderful day picking and walking the orchard and I am excited about some of the future posts I can share as we continue into the 2020 season for apples and hard cider.

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