Nov 3, 2015
Hard cider: Big block could place orchard ahead of the curve

Ridgeview Orchards decided to take the plunge and plant 20 acres of hard cider apples.

Dan Dietrich, who runs the Conklin, Michigan, orchard with his father, uncle and cousin, planted the block this spring. Despite all the unknowns involving hard cider varieties, the Ridgeview partners decided the potential benefits were worth the risk. They know there’s a demand for hard cider apples out there. The tough part is finding ways to supply it.

An early difficulty is choosing which varieties to grow. The cider makers Dietrich has talked to “don’t really know what they want. If they had a favorite five or six varieties, then the industry could focus on those, but they’re not there yet,” he said.

Dietrich knew early on he wanted to avoid smaller, crab-type apples. He wanted larger-sized fruit that would generate some bushels. He also wanted to avoid biennial bearing, though some will tell you that all cider varieties are biennial.

“There’s a reason people quit planting them a long time ago,” he said.

There are mainstream varieties, like Jonathan, that can make great hard cider. Some cider makers really like McIntosh (but others don’t), he said.

“Everybody has their special blend. Maybe they mix a certain amount of tart fruit with sweet.”

In the end, Dietrich chose varieties that are more associated with hard cider: Spitzenburg, Dabinett, Golden Russet, Yarlington Mill and Baldwin.

As for trees, he decided to go with smaller and more modern instead of bigger and older. Some cider makers argue that smaller trees affect fruit quality, but Dietrich isn’t sure. Bigger trees are shadier, which leads to fruit of mixed maturity.

“With a smaller tree, the maturity should be more pinpointed to what you want,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Dietrich got budwood from Steve Wood, a grower and cider maker in New Hampshire. A nursery grafted the budwood onto M.9337 rootstock, but the trees didn’t take well and Ridgeview didn’t end up with enough. They had to cut the trees to force two leaders. Because of the change in plan, it will probably be close to four years before the trees start producing any fruit. When fully grown, the block will be sort of a hybrid bibaum/tall spindle, with the leaders on 12 x 2.5 spacing. Dietrich would like the block to eventually produce up to 1,000 bushels per acre, but only time will tell, he said.

The trees have only been in the ground half a year, but he’s already noticed that two of the varieties, Spitzenburg and Golden Russet, are highly susceptible to fire blight – but he knew about the potential for fire blight going in.

With all the uncertainties, 20 acres might be more than most cider growers are willing to risk at this point, but to Dietrich, planting 20 acres made more sense than planting 1 acre. He would devote just as much time and effort to either size, so he figured he might as well go big.

“To get people’s attention, you need volume,” he said. “With an acre, you’re not going to get volume. They’re probably going to want a year-round supply. It will take a fair amount of apples to fill that need.”

He doubts the biggest cider makers would buy his apples – not when they can buy juice. He expects the apples to end up in more of a high-end cider market, for people seeking a different flavor – perhaps something drier than the ciders being blended now. A potential buyer has already shown some interest, he said.

The wine model might be a good example for hard cider to follow. In that world, some people want wine that’s a little more bitter, some a little more sweet; some want high-end wine, others something cheaper. There’s a demand for variety, Dietrich said.

“Maybe one day that will happen to the hard cider industry, but right now it’s so new and so fresh,” he said. “People are still figuring out what cider is.”

He hopes Ridgeview can take advantage of hard cider’s increasing popularity. If not, they could end up grafting something else onto those trees. It’s pretty easy to sell Honeycrisp or Gala, and much less risky to grow.

“We could be making a big mistake,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the first mistake we’ve made. We could have planted Ida Reds.”

Matt Milkovich


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