Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery

Certified Organic Hard Ciders and Apples
Hard Cider

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.


Legislative action

Here is a letter we sent our reps. regarding a situation we are facing, you can help MA farm wineries and cideries by contacting your State Senators and Representatives, Thanks!

Rep. Steve Kulik
Senator Ben Downing
We are a small orchard and hard cider producer in Ashfield. We are writing you concerning recent changes to some of the States liquor laws, in particular to the Ch 138, Sec 19F Direct Wine Shipper license. As you may know, Massachusetts has had a complicated time in trying to figure out how to regulate distribution and shipping of wine (etc) in the state. We have a Farm Winery License (Ch138, 19B), this allows us to manufacture wine (cider) and sell only through a wholesaler, no self distribution. The way to self distribution for small manufacturers for years has been to get a Wine Shipment license ( Ch 138, Sec 19F), this allowed us to sell directly to retailers (package stores, etc) and restaurants without having to go through a wholesaler. It came to out attention that changes were made to the 19F license and after a phone call with the ABCC’s director, Ralph Sacramone, he verified to us that possibility for us to self distribute was removed from the updated legislation. The 19F will now be about just shipping (mailing) wine. 
Self distribution is critical to the success of Massachusetts small cideries and wineries as it allows us the ability to work closely with those who carry our products, and the flexibility to get other small businesses our products as they need them. We also keep more money in our own pockets (30% +). For wineries (cideries) of our scale it is often hard to even find a distributor who is willing to work with us.
As of Jan. 1st we will no longer be able to self distribute and our business will come to a standstill until something changes. We are asking you to do what ever you can to remedy this situation. A good model as a basis for change to the 19B Farm Winery License would be to look at the Farm Brewery License which allows self distribution, etc under one license. 
Thank you for your attention to this,

Steven Gougeon and Jennifer Williams

Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery
Jennifer Williams & Steve Gougeon
1209 B Hawley Rd  Ashfield, MA 01330
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Bottling day

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New labeler and new bottler
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Farmhouse cider going into a barrel for aging, and Maple sugaring

Spring has arrived at last, with maple sap boiling and trees getting pruned. It is also time for us to work on hard cider. We bottled the Sparkling hard cider this weekend and moved the Farmhouse hard cider to a bourbon barrel to add that barrel-aged patina to the cider. We updated our process a bit with a new labeler (made here in Ashfield!) and a five-spout bottler. The whole process was significantly smoother and quicker than our previous setup, which involved hand-applying each label, and bottling one at a time. Using these tools in our current space gives us good insight into how we want to set up our new space once we have that built. Like we did last year, we used maple syrup to bottle condition the Sparkling hard cider. The only difference is, we got our maple syrup certified organic so we can use it in our cider and still maintain that 100% organic status.


Next year's ice cider is fermenting

The recent cold snap was ideal for ice cider production, and we made the most of it. We pressed cider the day before the temperature really dropped, and the cold weather did a great job of freezing water out of the cider. Now the warm weather allowed us to clean out the cider mill in good shape, and the ice cider is now in its tank, so the yeast can do their part. Now all of the cider for 2014 is busy fermenting.

Selling to retailers

Steve and Jen spent a couple hours pouring hard cider at Provisions in Northampton this past Monday. It was a nice opportunity to have some more folks taste our cider, as well as meet the people working at the store. This is a really exceptional place, offering an amazing array of wines, beers, cheeses and other specialty foods. They have a whole rack of local ciders and meads, where our Sparkling cider is available until we run out. If you want to shop for these items where the staff is knowledgeable and helpful, check out Provisions. There is even free 15 minute parking out front.
We also delivered some Sparkling cider at Ryan and Casey in Greenfield, and Cold River Package in Charlemont. Both of these stores are really supportive of local beverages, with a great selection of most of the alcoholic beverages our area has to offer. We are lucky to live in an area where not only local food, but local drinks, are increasingly more available. We will certainly be enjoying some local cider with our harvest Thanksgiving meal tomorrow. Happy fall!

Summer orchard

The orchard is looking good, with apples sizing up and decent fruit set on Libertys, Freedoms, Northern Spys, and Cortlands. Golden delicious are taking a year off, as they are on a biennial cycle. A handful of the young trees have a few apples, but none are really starting to bear yet. We had a very rainy spring/early summer, so it was difficult to keep clay on the trees while the plum curculio were active. Libertys in particular are very attractive to plum curculio, so we thinned those quite heavily to remove damaged fruit. Jen is still thinning the Freedoms - between rain and other time commitments, it is difficult to fit in the many, many hours needed to hand thin the fruit. At this point, we continue to thin to keep apples from touching, to minimize insect damage on the fruit. It also gives us an opportunity to keep track of late season insect damage, mostly from codling moth.

We are selling our hard cider every other week at the Ashfield Farmer’s Market this summer and fall. We will be at the market next Saturday, July 13, from 9-1 on the Town Common, and have the Hop and Sparkling hard ciders for sale for $12 per 750 mL bottle. We also offer free tastings; there’s nothing like a little hard cider with your coffee and pastry in the morning, right? Right now, the only way you can buy our cider is at the Ashfield Farmer’s Market or by stopping by the farm. This fall, we will sell hard cider here at the farm every weekend when we are open for apple picking. By that time, two more varieties of hard cider will be ready; a Cyser (hard cider and honey fermented together) and a limited offering of our Ice cider. Looking forward to next year, we are all set up to make more hard cider this fall so we can offer it in a few retailers and restaurants locally.

Almost blossom time

While our apple trees are holding off blossoming for a few more days, our other fruit trees - plum, cherry, peach, pear - are all in full bloom. We are supposed to get frosts in the next few days, though not so cold as to endanger the blossoms. Let’s hope the forecasts are correct. We are relieved to have gotten a few inches of rain in the last number of days. It had not rained since we planted all our new trees, and no matter how well you water plants, real rain does a better job. Nothing makes you attentive to weather like farming! We are thrilled to have really precise weather information with our new weather station. We find the temperatures are really different than those recorded by the Clark Orchard weather station, which is only a few miles away but hundreds of feet lower in elevation. Now we can track our own degree days and wetting periods.
We got labels approved and printed for the sparkling and hopped ciders, and we are now close to contacting retailers to start selling cider. We plan to be at the Ashfield farmer’s market Memorial Day weekend with those two varieties of hard cider. That market is on the town common in the village of Ashfield Saturdays 9-1. We won’t be there every week (unless Ashfield residents turn out to be really thirsty for cider), but expect to attend once a month during the spring and summer. Once the maple, farmhouse, and ice ciders are ready we will add them to the selection.

Spring orchard work

We have been so hard at work we have not taken the time to share what we’ve been doing, hence the length of this entry. We pruned all the trees in the orchard, some on top of snow that let us reach high in the trees, some on snowshoes, and some on the ground. The trees are continuing on their path to proper shape, as each year we allow some branches to grow out and eventually can cut the overhanging branches that grow at weird angles. We also grafted new varieties onto rootstock that we collected from our trees or those of neighbors and friends, which are currently in our refrigerator but will soon be in the nursery bed to grow into young trees. We ordered a few new apple varieties from Fedco Trees, namely Redfield, Campfield, Reine de Pomme, as well as a few more peach trees, grape vines, and blueberry bushes, and all but the blueberries are now in the ground. We are also moving all the trees we grafted two years ago into the orchard, filling in areas where trees died and starting to plant in new areas as well. It feels great to have the orchard filled in at last, though these new trees will not fruit for some time to come. Remaining orchard work, before we see blossoms, include planting the apple trees that remain in the nursery bed and the blueberry bushes, pruning of a few of our giant standard sized trees, removing all the big tree trimmings from the orchard, and flail mowing the smaller branches to return them to the soil. It’s amazing how those chopped up branches disappear.

On the hard cider side, we have also been busy. We ordered new bottles, and bottled most of the 2012 cider as Sparkling and Hop hard cider, with the still, Farmhouse hard cider, Maple hard cider, and the Ice cider continuing to age for a bit longer. We decided to bottle-condition the sparkling and hop ciders by adding just a few ml of maple syrup when we fill the bottles. This adds some bubbles as the maple syrup ferments. We also worked with our artist friend Jeff Grader to design some labels for the new varieties, and we are now working through the bureaucracy of getting them approved by the organic certifier and the federal government so we can get them printed. Nothing is quick and easy when dealing with alcohol! We are looking forward to making the hard cider available at a few local retailers in the next month or so. Updates on that as soon as we have them.

This spring has been nice and gradual, with no weird heat waves in March like we had last year. We see no vole damage on any trees this year, perhaps due to the long cold period before we had snow this winter. Hopefully pest insects were knocked down by that cold as well; we are looking forward to seeing whether cold, dry winter periods reduce pest insect pressure. Every year is a new adventure, we’ll have to wait to see what this one will bring.

Hard cider matures

Our hard cider has been fermenting very slowly this season, but it was finally ready to be transferred into new vessels this past week. We spent a day moving cider from one vessel to another, with a bit of product testing. A productive day. It is amazing how different cider can be from year to year using the same apple varieties. One year we made a lot of cider with Freedom apples, and it was all pretty high acid. We only made a little cider from Freedoms this year, and the acid level is much, much lower - it tasted really good, actually. Hard to say why. So our cider is going to be quite different every year, given differences in the apples and the yeast from year to year. Every batch is a new experience!
The cider will age for another few months before we bottle it this spring, and then it conditions in the bottle for a while. We expect to start selling cider in May this year. Stay tuned for where it will be available.



All Licensed up!

It took a few months longer then we expected, but we finally received our last license, and can now sell hard cider! Our introduction will be in the spring of 2013 with the product that is fermenting in the tanks right now. In the mean time, if you are in the area and want to try a bottle of our wine-like, dry , still (not sweet, not carbonated) farmhouse hard cider, just call ahead, we still have a few cases left and we would love you to try it.

Hard cider musings

We spent a lot of the Cider Days weekend talking about and tasting hard cider. There are a lot of fine hard ciders available at this time, as represented by the ciders available at the Cider Days salon held Saturday night. One thing that is very interesting to us is the preponderance of carbonated ciders. Why has carbonated cider become the standard, when there are so few carbonated grape wines? We have a book about making cider commercially from 1869, and even then bubbly cider was so sought after that a good portion of the book is focused on how to make it bubbly. We offer a possibly explanation based on the traditional seasonality of cider for people who made it themselves, and pulled some from the barrel in the basement throughout the year. Cider that is fermented using wild yeast ferments gradually, so that by Thanksgiving or Christmas it is alcoholic but still fizzy, with varying amounts of residual sweetness depending on timing and speed of fermentation. A few months later it has completed fermentation, so the rest of the year you would be drinking still cider. Perhaps people valued that fizzy, slightly sweet cider given its limited availability and holiday spirit. Once people came up with technological ways to stop fermentation such a cider could be enjoyed year round, but the market still valued the formerly rare, fizzy cider.

Something to think about the next time you enjoy a glass of cider.
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