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.
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.
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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New labeler and new bottler
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.