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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 1.0° F  Fair
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The Cider Farm near Blanchardville is a dedicated hard cider orchard
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Birmingham: 'These are the wine grapes of apples.'
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

Hard cider is undergoing a renaissance, thanks to the fervor for all product coming fresh from the fields. A standard element of the American diet in the 18th century, hard cider fell from favor with the rise of beer, then was finished off by Prohibition. Now it's becoming easier to find hard ciders on store shelves and on tap at pubs, but how close is that product to old-style hard cider?

Early ciders were made with varieties of bitter and tart apples grown specifically for cider -- not eating apples. With the resurgence of interest in hard cider, there's a return of interest in cider apples.

Enter Deirdre Birmingham and The Cider Farm. Located near Blanchardville in southwestern Wisconsin, it is an organic orchard dedicated to growing apples truly meant for hard cider. Apples you've probably never heard of, like the Ellis Bitter, Tremlett's Bitter, Dabinett, Chisel Jersey, Akane, Redfield.

"These are the wine grapes of apples," says Birmingham, prized for their acids and tannins. They'll be made into "high quality craft cider" with "deep flavors and complexity."

Birmingham and her husband found the land the cider farm is on ten years ago; they were looking for a farm-based business to start when they ran across some wild apple trees on the acreage. They liked the idea of an orchard -- organic, and with true English cider apples. Currently they have 2,200 trees planted, about half of which Birmingham grafted herself. Birmingham and her husband are adding more trees every year (shooting for 7,000), and some of the earlier trees are beginning to bear fruit.

Still, the orchard is not yet bearing enough fruit to make and release any cider commercially, and this past year was a very challenging one: heat early in the spring caused early budding, then frosts in April caused extensive losses. Still, some of the later blooming cider apples survived.

Then the drought hit; in early summer, they were tanking water to the trees. Birmingham finally got an irrigation system in place. "Now we just have to turn valves. But there's nothing like a good rain from Mother Nature." Birmingham says that production this year is "down 75 to 80%." She is still constantly irrigating the orchard. Apple trees, because they're bred to be short, do not have deep roots.

With the apples that the orchard has produced so far, Birmingham is having an apple brandy made for them at Madison's Yahara Bay Distillers: "They're great to work with." She expects the brandy to be ready in the fall of 2013; their first hard ciders will probably come to market in 2015.

"Americans tend to like sweet hard ciders," says Birmingham, although she prefers dryer styles. Cider is naturally effervescent; CO2 is produced during the fermentation. "Farmhouse style" is the term for a natural apple cider in which nothing is added; for a sweeter cider, honey or sugar can be added. Cider is generally not very "hard," more like a beer than wine (something like a 3-7% ABV) but because apples have less sugar than grapes do, it is less alcoholic than wine.

There are other decisions to be made about the cider itself -- for instance, would it benefit from barrel aging, and should the barrels be oak or not.

Although the apples are down from the trees now (and a steady stream of wasps visit those that are left in bushels near the pressing equipment), there's still work to be done in the orchard. Birmingham practices strip cultivation for pest management instead of using herbicides, and she's turning over the soil along the line of young trees. Although the plants (clover, alfalfa) that grow in the rows "will slow the trees down because they are competing for resources," she says, the practice "enhances the habitat for native pollinators and beneficial insects."

Birmingham keeps four Berkshire pigs to help manage the orchard organically (they're allowed to graze there part of the time, and can help control certain pests by eating windfalls, where larvae may grow).

The Cider Farm also hosts a "Community Apple Pressing" once a year in late September for neighbors who also have wild apple trees on their land. "They make great juice or cider," Birmingham says. "The more diversity, the better," reads the invitation. "Those ugly, bitter or sharp-tasting wild apples are great for juice and fermented cider. Go find the wilds!"

Birmingham will teach "An Introduction to Hard Cider: America's First Fermented Beverage" as part of Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg on Saturday, October 20 ($20, register online).

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