Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery

Certified Organic Hard Ciders and Apples

Apple season is over once again

What a whirlwind of a season. We had a great pick your own season, with plenty of apples and nice weather every weekend. It was even warm for Cider Days weekend, when we offered seminars on organic orchard management, apple scouting, making vinegar, and natural fermenting. The New England hard cider was a hit, so we are fermenting more as we speak. We were crazy busy picking and pressing apples almost up to Thanksgiving, but finally we are done, fermenting tanks are all full, and the orchard is put to bed. We took full advantage of the long fall, with few very cold days - what a contrast to last year when we were downhill skiing the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This was another year when every tree in the orchard and woods, in yards, and along roads fruited with abandon, so we picked everything we could find room for. Likely next year many of those trees will be taking a rest to recover from their overabundance this year.


2015 Season Opener

There are lots of apples this year. For a small operation like us, trying to pick them all will be the challenge. The apple are generally larger than normal for us too, some of the biggest individual apples we have ever had on some varieties. For the weekend of Sept. 18-20 we start the season with PYO Liberty apples, and ready picked Jon Pippin, Williams Pride, Red Astrachan, and Macintosh. We will be doing our first pressing of the season on Friday morning to supply sweet cider for the weekend. To add more, we are also releasing the 2014 Ice Cider and our first commercial version of a New England style cider which is fermented with brown sugar and raisins, and aged in oak. We are very excited to see what people think of this cider. Hope to see you!

Out scouting some wild trees.



Fruit, Fruit, Fruit

We have a selection of fruit right now, available in the fridge in our barn self-serve. We had our Reliance and Red Haven peach season, and now are on to Contender. They are juicy, good sized peaches. This is their first real year fruiting so I have not tried canning or processing them yet, but they are delicious. They need a few days ripening on the counter (or longer, in the fridge) at this point in the season.
We also have some Somerset seedless grapes this year. They are small, sweet grapes that grow so well, we will likely plant more of them. They are perfect for eating right now.
As for apples, we still have Red Astrachan, and also have Williams Pride. Red Astrachan is a relatively tart apple, and Williams Pride is sweeter, with skin so red the color bleeds into the flesh. This is the first year of production for this apple, we are excited to be able to try them out.

Apples and other fruit getting close

Our first apple of the season is the Red Astrachan (below), the first ones are ready around the first of August and it will continue to give fruit through the end of the month. Like many summer apple it is soft, tart and does not store well. We use it for apple sauce and press the rest for vinegar.
We have been plowing and prepping areas for next years plantings, about 1200’ (200 + trees) of a trellised planting using a small root stock with mostly wild seedlings that we have found, and some Golden Russet. We are doing this to experiment with how cider varieties on a dwarf rootstock will do with our low input (free range?) management approach.
We will start to see plums and peaches become available as we get into August, so keep your ears open. We have our tasting room open every other Saturday throughout the summer, so stop up and try it out, or pick up a bottle!


In the two months since I last wrote here, the season has developed. Trees blossomed well, pollinators were busy, and fruit set was very good. Varieties we planted over the years are starting to fruit, and we will taste some varieties for the first time this year. Apples are sizing up well, far too fast to keep up with hand thinning tasks. We have more plums than we have ever had on those four trees, and despite weak looking peach blossoms the fruit is looking good on those as well. We hope to offer some of those other fruits for sale when we have the tasting room open, later in the year.

Our current vintage of Farmhouse and Hopped ciders and our Cyser are now matured and ready for sale. We have restocked our retailers, and have been offering tasting room hours every other Saturday or so. The summer dates are much less crowded and hectic than fall, so we feel like we can return to our early years of selling apples, when we were able to talk with people a lot more. It has been fun. We are also pouring our cider at the Green River Brewfest in Greenfield this Saturday, June 20. That was a fun crowd last year and I’m sure will be a blast this year as well.

With the kids done with school, the orchard and gardens growing, sheep sheared of their fleece, and new chickens getting bigger, it feels like summer is here at last. Yay for the growing season!


Spring has sprung at last

After a long, cold, snowy winter, we are finally looking at brown grass instead of white snow in the orchard. We had a lot of drifted snow, so were worried about vole damage. Voles can use the snow to move around, accessing things like apple trees to eat without being exposed to cold and predators. The young trees we have wire cages on fared well, with two trees suffering damage. However, we did have a number of mature trees that lost bark to voles, both lower scaffolds of branches and some damage on trunks. Given the number of trees that were engulfed in snow up to five feet deep, the losses were light. We were able to finish pruning while the snow melted, despite a late start thanks to all that snow and bitterly cold temperatures. Now we await dry ground so we can get the pruned wood out of the orchard. Snow melt has been pretty gentle and gradual, so the ground is drying faster than it often does this time of year.

Another task we accomplished to be ready for spring was grafting new trees. We have 200 dwarfing rootstock we attached to tree varieties we want to add to the orchard, as we experiment with growing small trellised trees in our organic, low-input system. If successful, these trees will fruit in a small fraction of the time we have waited for the larger rootstock varieties to mature. It’s an amazing experience to take wood from two trees, bind them together, and watch them grow into a new tree. We received a Grinspoon award that will help us set up this new planting.

Our most recent spring task was bottling hard cider. Our hopped hard cider had taken on the hoppy essence it needed from the dry hops we steeped in it, so we bottled that variety. It was a pleasure to bottle in our new cidery, with plenty of space to work efficiently, knowing we won’t have to carry all those heavy cases of cider out of the basement. What a difference a year makes. We will bottle the Farmhouse cider soon, but the other varieties will continue to age for a while longer before bottling.

We are pleased with how the ciders are turning out this year. The base cider is more assertively flavored this year, which balances the hops in that variety, and the wood tones of the barrel-aged Farmhouse well. We will also have Cyser and Ice cider in small quantities, and we are experimenting with a New England style cider. This is cider augmented with brown sugar and raisins, and was the cider making tradition that survived Prohibition around here. We model it after hard cider we served at our wedding over 20 years ago, which was made by a local apple grower.



Winter cider work

We are currently in the cold snap we were waiting for to start the ice cider. We need cold temperatures for at least a week, in order to freeze-concentrate the cider before fermenting. While we have certainly had some cold weather earlier in the winter, it was interspersed with warmer days. Now, however, we have highs in the teens for a few days, and highs below freezing for the foreseeable future. Great ice cider weather.

We are making ice cider in our new space for the first time, and finding it to be a breeze. We got to press in a heated space, roll the pallets of cider-filled buckets out into the unheated portion of the building, and then roll them back into the heated space to separate ice from liquid, which we did by dumping the buckets into our press and collecting the liquid in buckets. Now we will repeat the freeze and strain process until we’ve reached our desired level of sugar, at which point we can start fermenting. Yay for the new building! If only we had more apples to press, we could make more ice cider than we’ve ever made before…

December was taken up with legislative worries and work. The Massachusetts legislature changed the wine distribution rules back in July, when they were adding direct shipment ability (i.e., ability to mail wine into or out of state), and they omitted the language that allowed farm wineries/cideries to sell wine or cider to stores and restaurants. Although this happened in July, the ABCC (Alcohol Bev. Control Commission) did not let wineries know about this change until November. We got together with the other cideries in the state and let our legislators know that this was a big problem for us. Most small wineries rely on self-distribution, since a) at a small scale the cost of distribution is less than you would pay a distributor to do it (30% of the cider’s cost), and b) we have all heard (or lived) horror stories about how distributors deal with small producers, since they are really scaled to deal with Budweiser, not those of us selling a few cases a week to select stores. Some of our legislators, in particular local reps John Scibak and Steve Kulik, worked really hard to get the language reinstated before the end of the year, finally getting signed by the governor an hour before he left office (!). They apparently did not realize this change would impact us, suggesting that the ABCC was interpreting the law in a way that they didn’t expect, hence the last minute fix after we realized what was happening.

The laws governing alcohol in this (or I suspect any) state are a Gordian knot, a result of post-Prohibition laws that have been tinkered with in different places at different times, resulting in a nonsensical collection of hoops an alcohol producer must learn and jump through. The purpose at the beginning appeared to be to limit the sale of alcohol, perhaps the lingering grasp of the teetotaler’s movement, as well as to track it for tax purposes. Over the years they have been modified bit by bit to better reflect modern times (though not much), and to make them consistent with the Constitution. For instance, the farm winery license initially allowed self-distribution and sale from the farm, but that was challenged in court as a violation of the Interstate commerce clause since it was limited to businesses within Massachusetts, thereby giving Massachusetts wineries an advantage over out of state wineries. So, those distribution rights were moved into another license that was available to wineries both in and out of state. The farm brewery license has exactly the same self-distribution rights within it’s license, since it was never challenged in court.

Unfortunately, as with most of our laws, it seems impossible for us to look at the body of law as a whole, decide what is important to us (in my view, tracking for taxation, plus laws that prohibit driving drunk or public inebriation, and probably allowing municipalities a say in where and how many places can serve alcohol), and get rid of the rest. Hundreds (thousands?) of bureaucratic jobs depend on the inane paperwork to track alcohol in our country, and much of that work seems singularly unproductive to me. How do we gain from all the laws controlling alcohol distribution? If it was regulated the same way as soda, would the world be a more dangerous or less productive place? I just don’t see how. Even the drinking age seems arbitrary, and having legal adulthood occur before people are allowed to drink creates huge difficulties in the college-age crowd (so much so that many college presidents support changing the drinking age to 18. Such a change would mean they could actually provide services to make college drinking safer, rather than pretending it doesn’t happen). Most countries in Europe allow drinking at much younger ages. In Germany, for example, 14-year olds can drink in a restaurant if a custodial adult approves, and 16-year olds can buy beer or wine unchaperoned. I don’t see that Germany is falling apart as a result.

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