Valley Bounty: Hard Cider
Steve Gougeon and his wife Jen Williams never planned to start a farm. “We like to say it’s a hobby that got out of control,” Gougeon explained.
Their property in Ashfield had been a commercial orchard during the 80s and 90s, but by the early 2000s, it had been years since the trees had been actively managed for fruit production. Gougeon and Williams figured they would take a shot at doing a bit of pruning to try to get some better apples. “Once we started doing that, we had friends, then friends of friends, then friends of friends of friends, who were interested in picking organic fruit,” Gougeon said. “We thought, Hey, this could be a cool little business idea.”
In 2006, the couple began rehabilitating the orchard in earnest. They removed the old trees with health problems and since they knew they wanted to grow organically, they brought in new breeds of apples that were naturally disease resistant.
Today, Gougeon and Williams run Bear Swamp Orchard on their property in Ashfield. The couple grows apples, peaches, pears, and plums in their seven-acre orchard. During the late summer and early autumn, they welcome visitors to their farm for pick-your-own fruit. They also make specialty products from the fruit they grow on their farm including jams, vinegar, sweet cider, apple brandy, and hard cider.
Gougeon and Williams have focused on growing apples for hard cider, so many of the apples in their orchard would taste odd if you tried them fresh. “Some of your best hard ciders are going to be made from apples that have much different characteristics than your eating apples,” Gougeon said. “They usually have some bitterness to them, some tannins, a little more acidity, and generally are higher in sugar to bump up that alcohol content.”
2018 was a tough year for growing apples for hard cider. “It was wet, wet, terrible wet,” Gougeon said. So he was relieved when 2019 turned out to be a mild growing season. “It was your perfect overall, average farming year for us,” he explained.
Last fall, Gougeon and Williams harvested and pressed their apples between late-September and mid-November. They put the cider into large stainless-steel tanks, where it has been fermenting all winter.
“We do our fermenting the more traditional way, the way people may have done it 250 years ago in this area,” Gougeon explained.
While many cideries add commercial yeast strains to their cider to support fermentation, Gougeon and Williams prefer to let the yeast that naturally exists in the environment do the job of converting the sugars in apple cider into alcohol.
“It’s a really nice yeast,” Gougeon said. “We ended up being lucky in that way. And it’s pretty consistent year to year because of the way we manage the orchard. We don’t spray a lot of heavy fungicides because we’re growing disease-resistant apples. So we’re not killing the yeasts that are in the orchard every year with a fungicide. It’s a pretty intact and healthy yeast community.”
By this time of year, most of Bear Swamp Orchard’s apple cider from 2019 has gone ‘fully dry,’ which means that all the sugars have been converted into alcohol. But making hard cider is about more than turning juice into alcohol.
“There’s a technical side and an artistic side to it,” Gougeon explained. “There’s the matter of making sure your fermentations don’t go bad, that’s the real practical side to it. But once you have the raw ingredients, you need to figure out, how do you combine them to make them the best cider you can?”
Right now, the couple has different tanks filled with cider from different varieties of apples. But before they are ready to bottle their hard ciders, they will blend the different tanks with each other to get the balance of flavors they’re looking for.
“I’m already going through and tasting and starting to get an idea for the kind of things that are presenting themselves in the 2019 ferments,” Gougeon said. The couple will bottle their 2019 ciders in April.
In the meantime, Bear Swamp Orchard, and cideries throughout the Valley, still have plenty of hard cider in stock from the 2018 season. There’s nothing like a hard cider or apple brandy to warm up a cold March evening, so visit buylocalfood.org/farmguide to learn more about Bear Swamp Orchard and to find a local cidery near you.
Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)