Bitter Fruit & Tipsy Groundhogs
If you see a gopher and it looks like it’s dead, it is not. It is drunk. Once the apples fall, they have already started to ferment. These little gophers like to have a little boozy snack and are probably drunk on the orchard somewhere. They’re just drunk, leave them alone, we don’t know if they’re going to wake up happy or angry drunks.
Tour guide Heather at Angry Orchard in Walden, NY described intoxicated groundhogs to my roommate earlier this fall. At the orchard there were families, games, food, tours, music, and, of course, hard cider. On the Treehouse Tour we learned there was such a thing as cider fruit apples.
Assistant Professor of Horticulture, Gregory Peck, works in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell Orchards, conducting field research programs on varieties of apples. Cornell Orchards is a program at Cornell University working on 15 research projects a year with all different types of fruit. The goal is, “to support a growing fruit industry and provide consumers with healthy, tasty, high-quality fruit,” according to their website.
Citing Cider Hard and Sweet: History, Traditions, and Making Your Own by Ben Watson, Peck mentions evidence that cider fruit apples can be found as far back as the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages, but at the time, it was a trial and error to find the best tasting ones. Before fermentation occurs, cider fruit apples have a tendency to taste very bad. In fact, the bitter taste that can come along with cider fruit apples is the reason Angry Orchard got its name.
The first recorded evidence of its existence came in Roman records when they invaded the Celtics who were already fermenting these apples before their arrival. A foundation for horticultural arts began here with Romans experimenting with the different flavors of the fruit before the collapse of the western Roman Empire. However, “the skills of grafting, pruning, and fruit-growing were preserved during the Dark Ages by the Christian monastic orders,” along with Islamic Moors ruling in Spain.
Fast forward to the times of the colonists and you’ll learn one of the first crops to sail to American shores was the apple. Cider trees could be grown in any part of America, but farms in New England seemed to flourish with them by 1775. In 1996, hard cider consumption “reached 5.3 million gallons” after its decline from the Prohibition of 1919.
“Back in 1996, I first learned about hard cider while working for the Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery in Healdsburg, CA,” Peck explained about his initial interest in hard cider. “I was an intern there for about a year and learned how to graft trees in their nursery, as well as prune and manage their apple orchards.”
Grafting is the insertion of one variety of apple tree branches into another mature one of a different variety. “We can graft up to nine different apples on one tree at one time,” said Treehouse tour guide Heather. The inserted variety of apple grows off the foundation of its new trunk to allow for further growth of the orchard where the previous trees once stood.
The Angry Orchard cider house is currently using grafting as part of their plan to become the first strictly cider fruit apple orchard in the United States. For this to happen, Cornell Orchards has allowed some of the employees of Angry Orchard to work with them in their extensive apple program along with the contribution of fruit to the Angry Orchard “Extension” cider.
Cornell Orchards is also responsible for the cider house’s attempt to be environmentally sustainable. One of the ways they do this is by filtering water from the orchard for reuse in the cider house with something called pervious pavement. “Whenever it rains, it’s going to soak in all that rain water and we’re going to recycle that water and reuse it in our toilets, in our sinks in the bathroom, as well as using them to spray these crops out here,” said Angry Orchard’s Treehouse tour guide Matt. Another way they look to continue in their effort of being eco-friendly is by using beeswax to seal the grafted branches into their new trunk. Heather explained to us that these bees will be moved to Maine where they will pollinate the blueberry orchards and then be imported back to Florida later in the year: “How they are wrangled, I have no clue, but I would like to watch that process happen,” she said.
Cornell Orchards’ role in the creation of hard cider is studying the DNA of the cider fruit apples, so they know which cider apple flavor they’ll be getting. Once a variety of apples are picked off of these trees, there is a process that goes with it. First, after the apples are picked, they must be pressed to separate the juice from the pulp. After pressing, the apples are fermented with a combination of the juice and yeast to make the hard cider. This combination is then put into wooden barrels for aging the cider and finally brought on sight to their Innovation cider house where they get feedback from everyday visitors.
Hard cider has made its comeback and has become as popular as ever with brands likes Angry Orchard, who is the creator of the number one hard cider in America: Angry Orchard’s Crisp Apple. “I expect hard cider sales will continue to increase, but at a slower rate. I also expect to see a lot of new orchards being planted specifically for hard cider production,” said Peck of the future he sees for the hard cider business.