If I asked you to close your eyes and picture an apple orchard, what would come to mind? Would it look something like this picture? Would it have rows of trees in straight lines? Maybe the trees would be even bigger. It’s interesting how our reference is based on what’s around us.
In Southern Arizona, it might look something like this, which is a mountain orchard tucked into a canyon at a elevation of 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) or higher. The trees are dwarfs or semi-dwarf and I can pick most of them without a ladder. In fact, it’s hard to tell the trees from the grass. Yes, it’s a bit unkept but like all orchards, there is a story behind that, but that’s for another time. For me, I pick wherever I can find interesting apples and I am always searching for interesting varieties.
Here is another example of a mountain orchard that you can find in Southern Arizona. This is Angle Orchard tucked into a canyon on Mt. Graham near Safford, Arizona. The trees are larger with most being semi-dwarf to semi-standard rootstock. They have about 1,000 trees and some date back to the late 1920’s when the orchard was started. For these, a ladder is needed to get the very top as many are about 15 feet (4.6 meters) high. While it’s a bit of a drive at just over 2 hours, they have some heirloom apple varieties. For me, that’s the closest to a true cider apple I can find, so over the hill and through the woods we go. The lengths I’ll go to to get tannins for my hard cider! Like most orchards, they also have a few unknown trees that are always interesting to use for hard cider.
In general, I find it interesting to see how different parts of the world have adopted different approaches to orchards and trees. I am sure weather plays a key role in that approach along with the topography of the land. This also leads to different harvesting methods. Most cider apples in the US are picked off trees. In England and Spain, they are usually picked off the ground. I believe this has more to do with the apple and history than the weather. In England and Spain the apples they are harvesting are specific to cider and since their hard cider history extends back for hundreds of years, there is a historical and traditional element to the harvesting process. The equipment has evolved, but it has evolved around harvesting from the ground.
In the US, our cider history was broken between the growing dominance of beer and ultimately, our period of temperance and prohibition. Even the word cider evolved to no longer mean an alcoholic beverage but instead an unfiltered juice. This also changed our orchards as the focus became culinary and fresh eating apples. In turn, this drove changes to harvesting over concerns about potential pathogens on the apples. While pathogens would naturally be eliminated by the alcohol, acid, tannins, and CO2 found in hard cider (see my tip on sulfites and sorbates), the small hard cider industry we find in the US today has followed the much larger apple industry driven by culinary and dessert apples. That means in the US, we pick our apples from the trees and the equipment is evolving around finding better ways to pick apples from trees. Here is an example of a vacuum harvester offered by the Phil Brown Welding Company (1). It’s advertised as the most efficient and gentle apple harvesting system in the world. Overall, it’s another example of the global diversity we can experience in hard cider, the orchards, and the apples.
So, the next time you drive to the orchard to pick a batch of cider apples or to get a jug of apple juice, consider the orchard, the trees, the apple varieties, and the way they are processed. What is normal for you, will most likely not be normal for me or someone else reading this article. However, that diversity is also what creates all the interesting and different hard ciders you can find and enjoy around the world.
Interested in exploring other posts about orchards and hard cider? Check out these posts.
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(1) Picture referenced from Phil Brown Welding Company, Conklin, MI, philbrownwelding.com