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Cultivating Adult Beverages
Deirdre Birmingham, Mineral Point, WI

Be careful when OFGA President Dan Kelly buys something from you; he may soon be asking you to write an article for Just Picked! How could I resist? Well, having been the first editor of Just Picked, I can relate to the value of members contributing. But my orcharding is so different from most, if not all members, that I am not sure readers will find my story of interest. But here goes.

So what Dan bought (and has been enjoying and sharing with others), is our barrel-aged Apple Brandy. Apple Brandy is not what my husband, John Biondi, and I initially set out to do. But it is a product line we are keen on continuing. And we are bringing in another OFGA-founder and member, Harry Hoch, and his wife, Jackie, to help us expand that product line.

What John and I set out to do was farm organically and do a high-quality, finished (aka value-added) product. First, we needed to find farmland, which we bought in late 2002 in beautiful Southwest Wisconsin. We bought our 166-acre farm for its natural beauty without having yet decided on a farm business. There was no infrastructure on the farm, not even a driveway – so had a lot cut out for us. All the wild apples trees on the farm brought to mind the idea of growing apples. But it was when I found myself reading on apples and cider- making, what is also known as “hard” cider in the U.S., that initiated our considering cider as our finished product

To get the quality we envisioned, we learned of English and French cider apples - apples developed specifically for drinking and not for eating. We call them the wine grapes of apples. If you drink wine, you may have read of wine grape tannins that give the wine mouth-feel and complexity. One can make wine or cider out of table apples, but it will not be great wine or cider because something is missing. And that is primarily the tannins.

Tannins are bitter and/or astringent, so the apples containing them are not tasty to eat. If you’ve bitten into wild apples that are “spitters,” then you’ve come across tannins. Mix those apples in with sweet and tart ones even for juice and you will have what John calls “adult apple juice.” The juice has more complex flavors and mouth-feel than just sweetness.

I blend our tannic apple juice with that from our tart apples of Liberty and Priscilla to get two of our most popular ciders, Classic Dry and

Tremlett’s. Tremlett’s is named after the English apple, Tremlett’s Bitter, which is both tannic and tart. Our Classic Dry has five of our tannic English cider apples blended into Liberty. The complexity of tannins in the mix makes it almost champagne-like to some fans.

To get this project started back in 2003, we could not buy these apple trees in the U.S.; commercial nurseries did not carry them at the time. Few people knew of cider then. So we learned to graft from Dan Bussey, (formerly of Seed Savers Exchange), who in 2003 had cider apple trees in his 300-tree orchard in Edgerton, Wisconsin, and did grafting classes for UW- Extension and others. In subsequent years, I also got scion wood (Medaille d’Or) from Door Creek Orchard, the USDA Plant Genetics Resource Unit in Geneva, NY, and more recently from growers who make ciders in New York and in Michigan. As the orchard slowly grew and after doing 10 years of my own grafting, I taught my employees to graft and also got a grafting tool. The guys really liked the tool. That enabled us to do as many as 3000 grafts last year while also dividing up the February and March work between grafting and pruning.

I also learned from Jim Koan of Al-Mar Orchard in Michigan, to start the grafts in a hoop house in April to get them growing taller faster. Any grafts that don’t take, we later bud-graft in August.

A trip to the Northeast using a Value-Added Producer Planning Grant in 2005 helped me narrow down my cultivar selections, which I continue to reshape as I balance horticultural, product qualities, and marketing concerns. I am also able to further concentrate our orchard expansion on tannic varieties since we can get certified organic tart apple juice from Harry and Jackie Hoch and their team. Since cider became the fastest growing adult beverage category in the history of the U.S. from 2011 to 2015, a few nurseries have started offering cider apple trees.

Since I mentioned earlier we did not set out to make Apple Brandy, you might wonder why we did. In 2011, we had our first apple crop coming on. So in July I was estimating for the first time how many bushels it might be. (It was 115 bushels.) I also had to determine how we would get a small batch cider made. I was not finding a high-quality wine maker in southern Wisconsin, with excess yet small fermentation capacity, and an interest to make cider. I had read in 2008 of Wisconsin’s second craft distillery, Yahara Bay Distillers, opening in Madison and decided to call. He did custom distilling and, while he made his own brand of apple brandy, our apples intrigued him. Later, we cost-shared their organic certification application. While their brandy processes have been certifiable all along, they got certification for fruit brandy last fall. So in 2019, after two-years of aging, we will be able to put “Organic” on the front of our Apple Brandy label. We will not on our ciders since I sulfite the juice after pressing to reduce the impact of wild yeasts and bacteria on juice quality.

As for a cider maker, OFGA-member TJ Callahan of Brown Dog Farm and Farm House and Farm Bar restaurants in Chicago, found us a great winery in Illinois to ferment our ciders. Custom contracting enables us to leverage their ~$3.5M investment in equipment, buildings and licenses, let alone experience, while we focus on expanding the orchard.

Back to the trees. I started planting out our grafted trees in 2006 on primarily EMLA-7s using a 15 to 20’ row spacing on a north-facing slope of stony silt loam soils that hadn’t been cropped since 1960 or earlier. After a neighbor helped break ground with a chisel plow, I used our little 9-N antique Ford tractor to turn in successive cover crops for three years. This brought up all manner of weed seeds, including thistles, which perhaps might have been better left undisturbed in the soil. I soon switched to dwarfing Bud-9 rootstocks. Other growers do have me considering a Geneva rootstock or two for the less vigorous varieties I grow.

I have gradually narrowed row spacing and tree spacing to a tall spindle at 12’ x 3’ to 4’ depending on variety vigor. These varieties in a high-density, certified organic system in Upper Midwest conditions is a big, expensive experiment. And the majority of our trees are now on former crop ground. The crop rotation was corn-soybeans- alfalfa hay, with at least three years if not five or more of alfalfa prior to tree planting. That area gets the most focus for building soil health. I swap horse care for horse manure with some neighboring horse owners. Annual leaf tissue analyses guide any fertilizer purchases from Midwestern Bio-Ag.

I’ve been reducing tillage and trying to leave as much of the alfalfa and clover mix, despite its weeds and grass. I frost seed white dutch clover to continue to add low-growing, nitrogen-fixing, living mulch. Quack grass dominates clover gradually, so some living mulch areas are now strip cultivated along the sides of the tree rows. I don’t have the official Wonder Weeder made in Washington, but a non-hydraulic version that our local blacksmith made that I run on the front of our Bobcat. Not ideal, but it has worked okay. I plan to buy my third tractor with the hydraulics to run a real Wonder Weeder and a side- cutting mower. Also a cab would be lovely.

You might ask what are the varieties I grow, even though you’ve probably never heard of them. Of those already mentioned, I’ve scratched Medaille d’Or since two successive plantings of it have succumbed to fire blight (FB). English and French cider varieties are quite susceptible to FB. I am replacing Medaille d’Or with Mettais, a French variety predominantly used for Calvados, the French apple brandy we model ours after. My favorite variety horticulturally is Dabinett. Others in the mix are Ellis Bitter, Chisel Jersey, Kingston Black, Major, Brown’s Apple, Sommerset Redstreak, Porters Perfection, and a wild variety from Minnesota, for which Dan Bussey provided scion wood, called Kronebusch. He found it to be very tannic and high brix, which should do great in both our brandy and cider blends.

The other major pest besides weeds and fire blight in our orchard is round-headed apple borer. Yes, Michael Phillips, you warned of this Darth Vader! This is hugely time consuming to battle, and like FB, can kill the trees. We flag each tree where it is found and concentrate continued searches for it there. But even such diligence has been like squeezing a tube of toothpaste—it just moves elsewhere. Tree guards must come off in May to enable our first search for it at the base of every tree, and then go back on after thorough fall checks. While trunk sprays might have had some value, I’ve seen the adults and damage at waste to chest height. Please contact me if you have solutions for combatting this nemesis.

I keep codling moth at bay with granulosis virus. For plum curculio, I use the Michigan State University method of spraying Surround WP after petal fall leaving the outermost row of Liberty unsprayed. PC really likes Liberty. Then spray that Liberty row with one to two Pyganic sprays on a warm night. We pinch any sign of leaf rollers in leaders of new trees while patrolling for fire blight. In older trees, a Bt spray at pink and beneficial insects keep damage acceptable for our processing apples. Copper sprays for fire blight usually keeps scab to acceptable levels. However, something was going on in 2017 that seems to have been more than scab, and possibly Elsinoe disease --thanks to OFGA member Chris McGuire for bringing this new disease to light. To be confirmed.

I do weekly insect pest trapping for the WI Department of Ag, which helps me stay on top of insect pest monitoring. But it is not a replacement for insect pest scouting.

During winter pruning, we are also checking for FB cankers to cut out. During the year, we do routine pruning during dry weather for shoot blight.

Our adventure has taken us thus far to ~9000 trees (who has time to count), about 3500 in the tree nursery, 1000 to graft this year, several thousand on order for delivery this year and the next, all in an effort to reach 25,000 trees in the next five years--hopefully. I am diversifying bloom time to help something survive the wacky spring weather ahead.

We press all the apples on farm with a new Voran mill and belt press. It sure beats the squeezebox we had. We pick and press and do not have cold storage. We take the juice in 275gal totes to the local distiller for our brandy and to the Illinois winery for our ciders. I start some apple blends at pressing and then instruct the winery or distillery of further blends to be made. Contact us to learn more about our English-style ciders and French-style apple brandy. We also have a YouTube channel where you can see the press in action and the “loving” care our grafts get in the hoop house.

Contact us to get in touch with Deirdre!

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