The craft apple cider craze has hit British Columbia just like everywhere else, so apple growers there are eyeing the growing industry as a way to make some cash from more of their fruit.
“It is something that is picking up,” Hank Markgraf, a field services supervisor for BC Tree Fruits, said during the International Fruit Tree Association’s summer tour through the Western Canadian province. “It is something that is starting to become more hip, definitely with the craft beer, the craft cider movement. It is something that more growers are looking at as an alternative to making cash on the farm.”
Cider was one of the main topics during the July IFTA tour through the Okanagan Valley growing area, where growers face challenges of small acreages and an Ambrosia variety, previously grown only by them, now open to commercial plantings in the United States. To make more money off of fruit that may not fetch the highest prices, growers are looking to the increasing number of cideries.
BC Tree Fruits, a cooperative packer and shipper in Kelowna, British Columbia, started a cidery in 2014 at its packing house, using lower-value apples and canning under the brand name Broken Ladder. The company has a tasting room next door to its fresh market, also carved out of a corner of its packing facility. Together, the additions attract a steady flow of after-work customers.
The cidery has expanded rapidly. It started with four tanks, now has 26 and will jump to 29 in the coming months, said Michael Daley, general manager of the BC Tree Fruits Cider Co. The company also is adding a double-belt press to double its juicing capacity and allow for pressing soft fruit. The new investment this year carries a value of about $700,000.
“It’s been a very big success for BC Tree Fruits,” Daley told the IFTA group touring the cidery.
The goal is to provide a market for “commercial grade fruit,” fruit that could be sold fresh, but would only sell for 50 cents or 60 cents per pound, either because it’s off-color, off-size or has a spot or two. The company does not call the apples used for its cider “culls.”
The cidery produces about 1.45 million liters of cider per year. About one-third goes to Broken Ladder products; the rest is sold to other cideries. Overall, it uses about 6.5 million pounds of apples a year, less than 4 percent of the cooperative’s overall 170-million-pound production.
The cider company incorporates “very little” cider-specific varieties in its recipes and has not specifically recruited the cooperative’s 430 growers to produce them, Daley said in a follow-up interview with Good Fruit Grower. “We’re trying to make better use of the fruit these guys already have.”
However, cider-specific varieties such as Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill and Dabinett — sometimes called heritage varieties — are what a lot of cider drinkers and therefore cider-makers want and lack.
“We can’t grow enough cider apples right now,” Bob Thompson, a grower with a few small blocks of cider-specific varieties, told the IFTA tour at his Summerland farm. “There’s a huge demand for them.”
He has five cider varieties, finds all of them challenging and does not plan to grow more. Yarlington Mill is prone to fire blight, Porter’s Perfection alternate bears, and Dabinett produces wood that breaks easily. “Every one of them has something I hate about it,” he said.
However, leftover dessert apples can go only so far in making cider, said Thompson, a former partner in a cider startup. “It doesn’t work that way.”
All cideries can use some dessert apples for blends.
“We always will because it makes the most economic sense to use some off-grade dessert fruit,” said Mike Harris, a partner in Summerland’s Dominion Cider Co. Harris was also part of the IFTA tour but spoke to Good Fruit Grower separately.
Dominion uses about 160 bins of apples, a mixture of dessert apples such as Gala or Ambrosia and heritage cider varieties such as Newtown Pippin and Belle de Boskopp.
It’s just a matter of volume. The partners provide about 80 percent of the fruit from their own 7 acres, meaning they only have to buy about 32 bins from the market.
Not only do growers face the varietal preferences of cider makers, they also contend with British Columbia’s licensing laws.
As of late September, British Columbia had 30 cideries, with 21 of them considered “land-based” as opposed to “commercial,” according to the province’s Liquor Distribution Branch.
The operators of land-based cideries, which get substantial tax breaks, must use only British Columbia fruit, own or lease at least 2 acres of working orchards and use that acreage to supply at least 25 percent of the fruit in their cider. The rest they may purchase from another land-based cidery, but not a commercial one.
As for varieties, Broken Ladder is after the same “rounded palate” flavors as the smaller cider companies, said Daley, who spent 30 years in the wine industry. He and his team researched blends and fermentation times at the Canadian government’s Summerland Research Station to find balanced flavors of sweetness and acidity.
The company makes no concentrate and sweetens only with its own juice. Original Apple, the first cider in the Broken Ladder line, uses six different cultivars. It adds pears, peaches, hops, basil and juniper for unique flavors — and more are on the way, he said.
“We want to make a truly craft cider, and that’s what we’ve done,” Daley told the IFTA tour. •
—by Ross Courtney
Correction: This story incorrectly spelled the cider apple variety Dabinett in our November 2018 issue. This error has been corrected online.