An interview with Dan Bussey and Deirdre Birmingham about cider apples and hard cidermaking.
Dan Bussey is an apple historian, orchardist, cider maker, and author of the seven volume series “The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada.” He has a special interest in heirloom apples and loves to get creative with his cidermaking.
Deirdre Birmingham and her husband own and operate The Cider Farm, an organic cidery in Mineral Point, WI. Together, they craft fine ciders and apple brandy from true cider apples grown on their farm.
JASON FISCHBACH 0:00
This is a podcast about new crops, you’re gonna love it. Join us on the cutting edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin.
Deirdre Birmingham 0:10
I realized I was kind of a data point of one in the US. I didn’t know anybody else growing these apples commercially, organically in our Midwest conditions. So it’s been a lot of trial and error. And it’s trial and error to this very day, at least, as my husband has said, Well, if we can’t sell it all, we can just drink it.
Dan Bussey 0:53
Welcome to another episode of the cutting edge podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin. My name is Steffen Mirsky, and I’m a commercialization outreach specialist with UW Madison. Today’s episode is all about cider, apples and making hard cider. And I’m really excited to talk about this subject. This is our first ever cutting edge episode about cider apples. And we’ve got two panelists joining us today with a lot of expertise in how to make hard cider. So joining us is Dan Bussey, who is an apple historian, orchard manager, cider maker and author of seven volume series all about the history of apple varieties in America and Canada. And our other panelists joining us today is Deirdre Birmingham, from the cider farm in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, which is about 10 minutes west of Madison. So I’m just going to have the two of them introduce themselves and give a little background on their their business and experience with cidermaking. So Dan, do you want to go first?
Anyways, I’m Dan Bussey, I’ve been a longtime apple grower, I started growing heirloom apples since the late 70s. And I’ve really never looked back. That’s what I’ve really enjoyed growing and reading about and writing about. And I spent many years as a cider maker here and Azure 10. Mostly I was making the raw product unfermented product that I was selling them to, like the wine and hop shop and Monroe Street and Willy Street Co-op and whoever, whatever came by my door, they wanted to good mix of cider that I was making. And so it was a lot of fun. I did that for 24 years, currently now. And then I was of course then the orchard manager at the Seed Savers Exchange for six years. And I built up the collection there before I left and now I’m retired but not retired. I’m the orchard manager for the Silverwood County Park heirloom orchard project, which is in the southeast part of Dane County, where we’re planning a community orchard of about 1200 trees, hopefully about 600 varieties of apples that will be available for anyone to come down and sample and take. And we’re we’ll have all the extra apples when they are producing available for cider makers to make hopefully some very interesting cider.
Steffen Mirsky 3:36
Well, that’s that’s exciting. That’s a really cool. Deirdre, do you want to talk a little bit about your background?
Deirdre Birmingham 3:43
Yes, yes. And my background connects to Dan in. So back in late 2002, my husband and I had the chance to finally buy a piece of land so that we could do our farm based business together. And we got this naturally pretty piece of land not knowing what you’re gonna do just that weed farm organically and have some kind of nice high quality finished product. And in our thinking process, we landed on doing apples for cider and when I say cider, I mean the fermented kind the pre prohibition cider here in America, and what the rest of the world called cider. So we learned that cider is fermented like a wine it’s it’s not brewed. And so we thought if we’re going to ferment the juice of apples while you don’t make it any fermented similar to wine, you don’t make a great wine out of just any old grape. So we thought what kind of apples and we learned about English and French cider apples that they in particular the English and French develop such apples. And some of the apples even have tannins and tannins and a wine grape can Gibbs complexity character mouthfeel gave it give it some depth so we thought rate these are the kind of apples we want to grow. And then we quickly found out they weren’t promote commercially sold in the US. So then this is where Dan enters because he was teaching a class on grafting through UW Extension, and we heard about that class signed up right away for it hung out with Dan after the class and turns out he has some of these very cider varieties in his own small orchard. So that started the graphing just went from there. So Dan and I would would order rootstocks together, Dan helped me hone my skills. He grafted some trees for me alongside my grafting. And so he plays a key role in the foundation of the sire farm and and our brand. Our brand or ciders and Apple brandies are all based on on on this farm, and we focus on those tannic apple varieties. Since we can’t really get those anyplace else, I guess nobody else is crazy enough to, to try to crop them. Because they are, they are challenging. And then doing them organically adds adds another layer of complexity, let’s say or challenge to it. But we’re very glad we went this route. It’s certainly not the route for for everyone. And it’s a very uncommon route. It was 10 years before we even had a product in the marketplace. First, you have to get good at grafting. And then I realized I was kind of a data point of one in the US. I didn’t know anybody else growing these apples commercially, organically in our Midwest conditions. So it’s been a lot of trial and error. And it’s trial and error to this very day. Well, so why did journey but at least as my husband has said, Well, if we can’t sell it all, we can just drink it. Yet, it’s finding people that have a lot of interest in in sort of real ciders. And in these ones that feature the apple, that’s what, that’s what, that’s what we’re about. So you’ve got two people here on this podcast who are really about the apple and there’s a lot of creativity in the American cider market. And I guess we we find ourselves not being as creative by you know, adding a lot of things to our ciders, we try to try to make it kind of feature what cider more historically has been, as well as what these great apples can add to it.
Steffen Mirsky 7:49
Yeah, can we talk a little bit more about the the apples that that you use and the varieties? Dan, I know this is your area of expertise as an apple historian. Can you just talk a little bit about those English and French varieties and what makes them so great for cider?
Dan Bussey 9:26
Well, most of the European cider varieties are species called Malus sylvestrus as the European wild crab, and they tend to have more flavors that are the apples tend to be probably a little bit smaller, not always but smaller. And that changes the skin to pulp ratio so it can sort of concentrate the tannin aspect. So what they’re looking for, of course, are the bitter sweet flavored apples, the bitter sharp flavored apples. I think the most popular variety in the States is probably the bitter sweet varieties. That tends to be the kind We’re looking for a lot of sweetness, some aroma, hopefully with the apple, if it has it, and then having that tannin structure that just gives you that mouthfeel and quality to the cider that dessert apples just don’t have. So it’s been really fun. I’ve grown a lot of different kinds. I think one of the first ones that was notable for cider in this country was the Virginia light that came out in the late 1600s. And then I think it was followed very quickly by the Hughes Virginia Crab, which is still a variety that’s available today. A lot of people use it as a cider type. I think it does better, perhaps maybe in eastern and southern states, but it does grow in Wisconsin and Iowa does pretty well. So there’s a lot of different kinds out there. Which is really fun. That’s the that’s the thing is gear dimensions is having so many to choose from, you will find the subtleties as where they grow in your area. what lens do well, and what ones don’t.
Steffen Mirsky 11:01
And, yeah, so you talked a little bit about the different qualities of those European cider apples, like the the tannins, and the the sweetness and the bitterness. But what what’s separates those cider varieties from just kind of your, your everyday dessert apple that you’d find in a supermarket?
Dan Bussey 11:25
Well, mostly, a lot of them aren’t particularly tasty. Yeah, you sort of think that sort of counterintuitive, you’d like to eat it, you ought to make great cider Otto, that doesn’t always work. A lot of these are what we call spitters. There so tannic, so puckery when you eat them that just like, you know, you just shake your head about that. But when you analyze the structure of the apple and you check the juice, sometimes you find that these apples that are so bitter, have an incredible amount of sugar in them. And it’s really fun to to sort of play with that because it gives you then the sugar you need for the alcohol, or production. And it just gives that flavor and mouthfeel which is great. But I find out that there’s differences in this company about what kind of ciders that people like. In New England, they tend to like more on the acidic side. So you use what they would call a bitter sharp apple. And then in the Midwest, and most other places, I think the bit of sweets are the kinds that I think most people like I was at Apple camp in Maine, just a couple of weeks ago. And it’s sort of like a mini cider con, which is the big cider convention most years. And there’s a lot of commercial cider makers that were there. And we talked about the different styles of apples. And that’s what sent tends to be popular in the Northeast are the ones that have a little sharper flavor, a little bit more acid than the ones that are here. But that’s the fun of it. And I think the biggest thing that everybody’s looking for now are foraged apples, they call it scrumping, looking for those wild apples that are growing in hillsides and scattered places around that they think will make the next new great cider variety. Because the lot of the European cider apples that we get are a little touchy to grow as Dierdre well knows, they tend to ripen sometimes a little bit too early, they don’t get a chance to really develop the sugars, I think as they should. They’re very subject to fireplace. And that is always a problem when you’re a grower, but having trees that stay alive, that’s kind of important. So there’s a lot of problems that I’ve come to find with the European cider varieties. I will never stop growing them. But I realized that they have their limitations. So it’s really a fun thing right now that more people are foraging wild apples for for cider production that they’ve come across that have these really great characteristics when you bite them. They’re just kind of nasty to eat, but there’s a there’s a lot of really good sugars that are in there. And they do end up making some pretty decent ciders.
Steffen Mirsky 14:10
Interesting. Yeah. So I think we’re gonna have to dedicate a whole nother episode to apple production for cidermaking specifically. But just Deirdre if you could just touch on, like, how do you manage your orchard with these varieties that are not adapted to our region?
Deirdre Birmingham 14:31
Well, some are better adapted than than others. So in our first block of trees, maybe about 800-1,000 trees, maybe I think I had about 10 good, maybe 11 varieties in there and now I’m reducing that down to four or five. I mean, some of them just deselected themselves because they were so sensitive to this lethal disease called the Dan mentioned called fireblight. So And it’s It’s highly contagious a bacterium and so it’s very a lot of these cider varieties are are susceptible to it and some greatly so so that one French variety called the die door which stands for gold metal yep tanza laughing last year, that one didn’t metal here at all. So now we’re trying one called Matej and that is one that’s actually grown in the Calvados region of France for the Calvados apple brandy and so it’s great for us since we also do do apple brandy. But yeah, spring is is definitely a touchy time for me I’m on edge because not just a frost. But because of that Fireblight being I mean, that’s a key time for to enter the blossoms is at that time, so that’s a that’s that’s quite a challenge keeping the trees protected from heat from rain when we have warm warm weather. We also have to we find that the site of varieties are more prone to rot. We do grow to table apples for blending with all this tan with all these tannic apples and one in particular for its for its acid, since the bitter sweets are very low on acid. But those you know don’t seem to have much problem with rot at all. But the cider varieties definitely, definitely can have have such issues. And that’s a that’s a real tough one to deal with. Also, we do we don’t pump nitrogen into the trees when people are getting orchards established. They’re really trying to get them to grow tall fast. And we don’t do that because that makes them more susceptible to Fireblight. So yeah, you have to there’s there’s always kind of trade offs in whatever you do. So but we’re so we don’t we don’t get a lot of quantity from them. But we do say we get we get quality. And I have figured out you know one of my favorite ones to grow. I just saw early on that hey, I like the way that tree grows, is Dabinett and that’s a nice English bittersweet. It can be annual hours with the wacky weather we’ve had is gotten to be a bit biannual meeting every other year. This is a big year for it after getting hit by three freezes last year. So yeah, so So right now we’re we’re struggling with our biggest crop ever but it’s a it’s a great struggle to have. Yeah. We’ve been we’ve been waiting for Yeah, well, I run test rows of apples the the other thing too and Dan mentioned wild apples, we’ve always encouraged friends to go after all these wild apples and we would have a community Apple pressing here and get those spitters and get this collages great mix of apples, no matter what size what they look like what color just throw them all in the hopper and it just makes great juice. There’s more to it than just sweetness. There’s some complexity to it really nice and viscous in the in the mouth. It’s certainly when they go home and fermented it yields some some nice some nice cider. And Dan brought to us a wild apple tree found in Minnesota called Crone Bush where the person who found it knew Dan was the go-to guy because he said it had a lot of tannins and and a lot of a lot of sugar high high Brix so so we’ve got that going now we’re getting the crop off of that this year. So we’re looking forward to seeing how it how it works out. Cool.
Steffen Mirsky 18:58
Yeah. I mean, so with with all these different apple varieties and different qualities that they impart into the cider. Can you just talk a little bit about this the process of making the cider and how do you choose which varieties to use? And do you do you do? Do you blend them or you just do single variety? ciders? And, you know, do you add anything to the to the press juice? Yeah, can you just like walk through the process of of how you make cider at the cider farm, you know, just from start to finish just kind of a summary a brief summary of how you do that.
Deirdre Birmingham 19:48
Yeah, I mean, I say that the cider making you know begins when we’re apple pressing, because I will press when I have varieties that that ripen at at at a similar time. I and they’re gonna go in the bottle together, well then I like to press them together. So, the commingling of those of what those juices have to offer is already starting right right from the Apple pressing. And we also, we, when are fermenters available, we’ll try to bring fresh juice right over to that to the fermentation tanks. We also make apple brandy or have apple brandy made. So we work with a distillery and we take some of our juice right to the distillery and we do more of a Calvados style, meaning that we’re also using a lot of bitter tannic apples in the in the mix. So some of these go for distillation, we like a nice mix. And then I look at like my classic dry cider. One Brand we have in the market that has five different tannic apple varieties in it with a tart apple base, produced by Liberty, a Cornell variety. And so I have to, you know, make sure I’ve got totes that have those, you know, one might have three different tannic varieties that ripens at a similar time and other one might have another two, we also do a rose a cider. So we’re pressing our first red flushed apples today. And it’s just always so fun to see this. Gosh, those deep red are this this rosy colored juice just coming out of the press. So that that gets sectioned off and goes to our rose a cider we have a later variety called Redfield, that will be pressing later in the fall and we’ll reserve that so that we can blend all those together for a rose a cider to be released later this year or in the in the spring, I’ve got another cider called triplets and that’s just to cider variety or to apple varieties. We just we grow up Priscilla which is a an American Apple developed by Purdue records in Illinois to be disease resistant. And but I found that I just had a hunch when I when we first started doing the blends that that and the Geneva Tremlets Bitter would be complementary to each other and I had kind of the right ratios the tannin and the Geneva Tremlets that are is not is quite strong and packs a punch so we we blended those two and and found it was quite appealing to those who knew sire and so we continue to make that that blend today and when that we’ve had to ramp up our grafting I didn’t really like to do much with the Geneva Tremlets before because it’s just every other year the tree is one year on and one year off. So but I thought well geez, that doesn’t make a good cider. So I guess I’ll just have to have to put up with that. But but those two and those two ripen at a at a similar time so so we’ll be pressing those in about 10 days. But yeah, so the pressing starts starts there on the farm and then it continues when we go to do we freeze juice also and then we can pull specific totes with according to the juice content for doing the blends we want we have another variety another cider called dabba net. So that’s the star tannin in that in that blend and that’s what we came up with with this year. So we give dabbing and a little bit of our porters perfection and chisel Jersey apples just to round out some of the some of the tannins with Liberty apple so…
Steffen Mirsky 23:46
So just curious, like how scientific of a process is this? I mean, Dan, when you make cider like are you just kind of tasting the fresh juice and and kind of seeing where to go from there. In terms of blending are you actually out there with like scientific instruments measuring these different qualities.
Dan Bussey 24:11
I used to do a little bit more testing but I think I have a refractometer so I can tell the dissolve sugar. refract Dahmer is a little device that you put a couple of drops of cider on a class and you close the lid and you look through it a sight glass and it will tell you how many degrees Brix which is the amount of dissolved sugar that’s in your in your juice and it does vary every year. This year being a little bit of a wet year. I’ve noticed the Brix level is a little bit lower on a lot of writing. So I wouldn’t call this necessarily a great vintage year, but it’s a great quantity. So we’re going to be able to get lots of really good quality juice from somebody these varieties Oh see where I was going to go with this but it’s it’s I think, I’ve come to realize that I trust my taste Taste buds, more than anything else, I can stamp, analyze things, I could send it off to be tested or do it myself, but I just find that, you know, I make what I like, that’s the probably the nice thing about being an amateur cider maker, and I don’t do this professionally, is I know what I like to put together in a mix, I tend to mix probably as many different kinds of apples as I can, because what one lacks and other one picks up and is dear to nose. You know, it’s it’s really getting that right ratio, that right mix that gives you that quality that is trying to be consistent from year to year to year. And I think that’s the that’s the fun of being a amateur cider maker like myself, because you know, it’s going to be very different. But you could tweak your batches based on what you taste it, you can press some of these varieties separately. And and then see what that’s like and test another variety and then you can do some mixing from that point on. It’s kind of fun, I don’t do single varietals as a rule, because I think they tend to get a little bit one dimensional. Some varieties are okay at that. But there’s a lot that I think just kind of leave you hanging a little bit. I happen to have a cider that was made from the Harrison Apple, it was a cidery out in Colorado that I got some from and that makes a wonderful cider by itself. And that’s one of the rarities I think I’ve ever had. That was really good just by itself. However they processed it, it was really good. But my feeling has always been tried to mix as many different kinds, many different types of flavors, not like the same kind of time. But some ones that are sort of, you know, moderately, like builders, you know, they’re that your foundation and your spider, but then you add these ones that have some pretty intense flavors, just enough to give it that great mouthfeel and great quality to it. And it’s really fun to put some of that away. And then I aged sometimes I’ll I’ll aged in oak, and those little different ways of treating it. I don’t like to add different flavors to it. It’s not my thing, but I know a lot of people do. You have to make a cider. If you’re doing it commercially, for the for the people that are going to be your customers, you have to make things that maybe you might like to be a little stronger or, but you have to make cider a product that I think appeals to as many people as possible. But it’s fun to play around with some of these exceptionally interesting varieties. Let’s put it that way. That just add a lot of character and see where it goes.
Steffen Mirsky 27:40
Yeah, so I assume Deirdre there’s year to year, you’re not going to be making the same cider it’s going to be it’s going to be very different. And so once you have the fresh pressed juice, you know what’s what’s what’s the process from there. Add yeast and yeah, can you just talk through the rest of the process? Sure, either. Yeah, either one.
Unknown Speaker 28:08
I can start because Deirdre is certainly more professional than I am. But I’ll tell you what an amateur does, is to get your juice. I don’t use wild yeast. Typically, I like to just sort of make sure my my cider is going to turn out so I buy a just dry packets of yeast of cider type yeast, but I will use like British ale yeast I will use a pastor champagne yeast. I know there’s a lot more cider type yeasts that are out there that are great and they all do make a subtle difference in the way your juice turns out. So I’ve just always I’m kind of sticking them out. I will use the same thing over and over and over again. I don’t experiment a lot because I like what I get out of it. But it is wouldn’t be better if I probably branched out and tried more some of these right so you basically have your juice, you will then add us a carboy like a five gallon carboy if you’re doing a small quantity, that’s the easy way to manage it and move it around. You will you will have a packet of yeast which will handle about five gallons worth you follow the directions and you put in a little bit of warm water to get it started. You pitch it which is how you add it to your cider. But you do need to check your cider to see how much sugar is in it because you’re looking for about 6% Alcohol. That gives it shelf life you need to have at least five to 6% I think to be able to have it so it lasts for a while and doesn’t turn bad on you. So you can pick you can add sugar to it which is the probably the best product because it gives it a cidery kind of a flavor. People will use honey which is great that it is a different complexity, but that’s fun as well. You can use brown sugars, but I just use a plain cane sugar. Sometimes beet sugar and that works to get so I have at least 6% I’ll make mine typically a little stronger but Tom, but not a whole lot more than that, because when I’m giving cider to my guests, you know, I don’t want to negotiate them immediately. It’s nice to play with them for a little while. So you put in a fermentation lab because you need to keep the air out of your cider mix because you don’t want to make vinegar. And the fermentation lab basically has a little bit of water in it in a little deep part of the of the unit. And so bubbles can get past it but air can’t get back. So you let it bubble away, it gets really frothy, when it first gets going. It’s quite wild. I’ve got stories I can tell you about that. But that’s for another day. But let it froth for a while, keep in a place where you could sometimes wash off the container because sometimes foam comes out of the fermentation lock. So you need to have a spare be able to clean it out. There’s different ways of doing it. But this is typical. And you let it basically bubble until it pretty much stops, it takes about eight weeks or so. Good fermentation temperatures around 68 degrees. You don’t want to work at too fast, you don’t want to do it too slow. But 68 degrees has generally been sort of a modicum of the correct temperature. And then when it gets down there, you see the activities a lot less. And that’s a point where then you would like to rack your site or into another clean container. Basically, you’ve got all that spin East down at the bottom of your container, and you want to clarify it. So by being able to siphon all the material above that layer of basically dead yeast cells onto a new clean container. Then you can keep doing that until basically you can have a very clear product without much haze in it. And at that point, you will then mix up about a half a cup of sugar in in a pint of water, boiling on the stove to sanitize it, stir it together. And then when it cools down a little bit, you can put that back into your cider that’s in the container and then bottle it because that’s your priming sugar for a nice sparkling sparkling cider. Each gallon or each five gallons of cider will make about 50 to 12 ounce bottles of beer or use a beer bottle for that. You can use other containers, but you need to have something that can handle pressure. So old champagne bottles are wonderful for it don’t use old wine bottles, because they can’t they can’t pressurize those at all. And then you can cap them and put them away for a while. Let it age a little bit. Sometimes. I’ve got a friend that puts charred oak chips in his which is kind of interesting. You’re pouring sightedness stick comes out. But it gives you cider that nice sort of tannin structure of vanilla tones from the from the oak. You can play around with it. You can aid your cider in bulk containers. There’s lots of fun little things you can do. But that’s the basics of making cider. It is so simple. It’s not funny.
Steffen Mirsky 33:01
Yeah. Yeah, that’s what I love about cider, too. It’s so easy. Does that sound about how you do things? Dierdre just on a larger scale, or do you do things? Yeah.
Deirdre Birmingham 33:15
Yeah, I mean, it does. I mean, Dan mentioned, checking your Brix level or your you want to know kind of what sort of sugar you’re starting with, you can get a thing called a hygrometer to help you measure that. And that can also help you ascertain if not just by taste, but how dry it is. Of course, we do use packaged yeast. For our blend, we use an organic one. And then we have fermentation tanks and they have temperature controls on them. So and then since we can’t really prime with sugar, do you have the carbonation, we have a carbonating tank for some reason they’re called Bright tanks. So that’s the last stage before packaging that it goes into that that that carbonation tank
Steffen Mirsky 34:14
Cool. So probably a lot of our listeners are familiar with kind of the the mainstream brands of cider like Angry Orchard how how do your the ciders that you guys make? How are they different from from those?
Dan Bussey 34:34
They have flavor. Flavor from the apples. I mean, like for example, we do a Rose a cider and we use actual red flushed apples. We will add some other fruit juices to give some more color and to balance acidity. But we’re not using I mean, there are some interesting things I think it’s like sweet potato peels and some some other things to kind of make it make it Rose. And we’re expanding our Rose apple collection, some of those varieties that just haven’t worked out well. And I’ll now grab top working them to some some red flushed apples, and some, some of them are doing quite well. And there is a tannic one that that grows quite well called Redfield. So the the Yeah, so I think we’re featuring the apple. I mean, we do an oak gauge cider, like, like Dan was talking about, we can sometimes have gone off onto the onto the other side, you might say, just for some of those commercial purposes, but we’re not adding like, habanero Chili’s or, or do so or, I mean, it was distressing to me when I first saw this happening some years ago in the cider craft magazine, about, you know, people making those kinds of things. And I just thought, Where is the apple in all of that. But I think that a lot of that’s because, and people don’t really know this very much, because even Kraft cidermakers Besides some large brands will buy just apple juice concentrate. I mean, one at the big cider conventions said in a seminar that he just uses whatever’s cheapest on the global market. And so, I mean, China is the largest producer of that. So it could very well be from there. But it’s, I mean, what what is juice concentrate? Well, it’s it’s boiled down apple juice, so you are losing aromas, and you’re losing some of the flavors or you’re changing some of them. So I think maybe if people are using that as their base, I have to do something because there may not be that much that much there. And so sometimes I think well, then you could just almost be using anything, if you’re just going to be making it tastes like something else, or adding an entirely different different set of flavor, flavor profiles, so to you know, to get something done, but that’s, you know, I mean, I mean, I think in the American market, there’s just a lot of a lot of creativity. And so that I think is to be to be noted, but it’s just you know, our path is not is not that one. And there’s plenty of sweet cider in the marketplace. And so we we’ve we wanted to be drier, because I don’t want to, I mean, I tell people, I’m not going to grow, go to the trouble of growing these varieties organically with these lovely tannins in them, and then just cover them up with sugar. Um, you can do some back sweetening to balance, especially acidity. And we one year just had, it turned out with a very cool fall and some very low pH is. And so in our Tremlett cider, the only thing we could do to balance that acidity was to do a little more back sweetening. But we got these lovely notes of caramel apple. And it sold very well. But I had to say, hey, you know, that’s a one year phenomena, we don’t know how often that would happen again. But so, you know, being an agricultural product, you can get that year to year very variation when especially when you’re when you are featuring featuring the apples in the cider.
So sometimes when you have like a really acidic cider, you can do a mal lactic fermentation, it’s an extra product you can put in there. And it sort of will buffer that acidity down and will actually give your cider some Chardonnay notes. And they’ll have sort of a buttery constitution like like sharp nays do. So there’s some fun things you can do that are very simple and don’t take much, but I think Dierdre is exactly on point where it’s about the apples. There are a lot of people that got into the cider business because they wanted to make cider. They didn’t grow the fruit, but they knew how to how to process work. So they were just buying tanker loads of dessert apple cider, and, and putting it out and calling it the wonderful apple cider. And, frankly, it doesn’t work for me, it just doesn’t. I’m a friend of mine who calls that middle C cider. The piano scale is kind of right in the middle. It appeals to about anybody, but it’s not exceptional one way or the other. But it’s drinkable. I mean, that’s the lovely thing about it’s kind of like a like a lawn more cider of beer. You know, it’s just one of those things that just it’s a really good thirst cruncher. But it’s nothing that I would go out of my way for. So a true artisanal cider maker like deer to you know, utilize is really good apples to make the product that she makes and that’s, that’s why it’s to me it says fabulous cider. Do a lot of wonderful things. So other varieties, I know we dance around a little bit, but I like to use russet apples whenever possible, because they They have a really great sugar acid balance. They aren’t necessarily tannic. So you may need to add a tannic variety but I think they typically have better aromas. And a real rich deep flavor, which is wonderful for making hard cider from. So I’m a big fan of using russet apples whenever I can’t, but blend it with some of the ones that have that bitters, sharp flavor, a bittersweet flavor for that mouthfeel. And it really makes a pretty neat product. So the fun of it is experimenting with whatever you have at hand. But realize that, you know, you want to make a slider that I think is significant. And it’s it’s going to be different from year to year. But that’s what makes it fun. Because who knows what it’s going to be like next year. Subtle, you know, it may be but the same friend of mine also likes to blend horseradish into his site. Dissect horseradish roots, now tell you that is something to be appreciated. It is pretty good. It pairs really well. You have to think about this, how it works with food. This pairs with bratwurst really well and pizza and then stronger flavored things. So you can have a lot of fun with this just using ingredients that you have around. Some people use aronia berries, which I don’t particularly care for, but it adds a lot of color if you don’t have red fleshed apples, but it’s it’s fun to like is that that’s the point of being an amateur you can make small batches of bad things and not waste a lot of material. Turns out pretty well.
Deirdre Birmingham 41:41
Yeah, speaking of aronia that, I mean that is a highly tannic fruit. So you can get color and and tannin from that. And we do have a friend who’s won many amateur awards for his aronia bloomer dropper sizer. So it is quite a high octane. But I think that one does the best of his different sizes because of that of that aronia. And although we’ve talked a lot about tannic Apple writing, we do have to table apple varieties we grow. But then our plan from the start was while we focus on the tannic then also collaborate with other organic growers. And so there’s been two that in some years, we have purchased, just like a blend of table apple juice from them. And they also make their own brand of cider. So they so they know what we’re after. But yeah, so so you can blend in some of those desert apples to get the aromas, the acid in particular. Since a lot of these, as Dan was mentioning, in the in the Midwest, we, they bittersweet means the apple is high intanon. But low and acid. So yeah.
Dan Bussey 43:09
I had a chance to try a cider in from New York State that was a smoked cider. Now that’s different. It’s like sort of drinking a campfire. It’s unique, I have to admit, I have no idea how they make. But that’s something that’s kind of running the gambit around some of the cideries now is these variations of how you make cider but the smoke cider is something totally new to me. I have no idea how to do it, but Well, lots of different choices out there.
Steffen Mirsky 43:39
Yeah. So Dierdre just in general, do you not add anything to your cider? Like, you know, aside from the apples, you’re not, you’re not adding any other flavorings or fruits or anything? It’s just it’s just pure?
Deirdre Birmingham 43:55
No, no, there are two that we do do that with and we might, we might sulphite at the start. And, and so we have we have one that’s called sizer, which by definition means you fermented honey with the apple juice and the result is sizer and so when it gets to a higher alcohol, it’s 9%. So it is technically an apple honey wine according to the federal government as such, and we get wine tax on it. But we do have one called Equinox where we add a subtle hops called Equinox. And the this was requested we private label ciders for some friends and they requested that and we thought, ooh, we didn’t know how hops would actually work. We’d only had kind of some bad hops Ayers at the time and but they were friends and we wanted to be open minded. So we sampled out a bunch of hops. And when we got to one called Equinox, it was like a pause or around the table and somebody goes, I’m getting a little notes of like us New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on this. And our tagline was cider refreshment with wine complexity. So we thought, hey, I think we can do this. So we don’t emphasize that there’s a subtle hops in there. But it gives a green grassy citrus notes characteristic of a New Zealand Savio Blanc. And then we have another one that’s that’s quite different, where my husband was reading a book on Belgian farmhouse ales, and thought, wonder if we could do a cider that incorporates some of these flavors. And so we’ve come out with that. And so there are quite a few adjuncts in it like bitter, several hops, bitter orange peel, Sita paradise star anise bergamot, but it’s it’s quite popular. So that’s like a limited release site or forest. So that was kind of our step away from what we what we usually do.
Steffen Mirsky 46:00
So you don’t know what the slider is going to taste like until the end. So like, I’m just curious how you how you do experimentation? Like, are you doing these in small batches first, and then trying to replicate that if it turns out well?
Deirdre Birmingham 46:16
Yes, yeah, yep. Okay, definitely small batches with with carboys are usually five gallon carboys. So we’ll, we’ll partition off some, you know, collect some juice, like it like at this time of the year and then start start doing some experiments with it. So you know, for example, our what we call Belgian Saison. Cider, there were quite a few iterations on that just dialing in all those different flavors to get it to just be kind of one unified thing that nothing that nothing overshadowed it.
Steffen Mirsky 46:50
Can you talk a little bit about the different preferences in flavor, like, you know, from the northeastern part of the US in the Midwest? Have there been tastings like that, to kind of discern like what kind of cider people prefer in this area? And then have you, you know, made cider to, to meet to match those preferences? Or?
Dan Bussey 47:21
No, I just make what I like, stuck in like, I like what I make it, I think it’s pretty decent cider. But you know, it’s is fun to taste other people’s experiments. I had a toasted coconut rum cider. I’ll tell you, I wasn’t sure it was a little thicker. It might be a pie, or was cider. But that’s not a flavor, I would have more than one. But it was unique. But that’s the fun of it. And a lot of people, of course, are trying to single varietals. Arkansas Black was a was a popular one people were trying. And in that case, the quality for the different yeasts that they used, made altogether, all all the difference in the world about how it how it tasted in the long run. So I think apples are a lot of the component part that really stands out. But boy, I’ll tell you, sometimes it sees that can how it acts upon that Apple makes quite a bit of difference too. So you know, be flexible about what you’re trying and and try a couple of different ways. See what comes out. It’s not like you have to search for that perfect yeast or whatever. But, you know, learn to make a good apple cider by itself and that should stand stand alone. But you know, it’s fun to play around with it, come up with a couple of different things. Because, you know, we’re taste is so subjective. What I like is not going to necessarily be what someone else likes. There’s a flavor quality, called barnyard funk. That sounds really terrible. But that is actually my favorite cider style. Because it has the sort of earthy tones to it. And there’s some Somerset ciders that I’ve had from England that have that barnyard funk quality to it, and I really liked it. So it’s those tend to be what really makes me happy. But you know, that’s the fun of it is is understanding yourself what you like, and hopefully you find it for other people that like what you make. And you can you could sell it. But you know, that’s that’s the joy of it is experimenting.
Deirdre Birmingham 49:31
Yeah. And Stan was commenting about the Northeast and the Midwest because he gets to travel a lot. You know, he’s a sought out. He’s a sought out person. So as he’s been able to travel move around. Yeah, he’s picked up on these nuances. So yeah, so that was interesting to hear that.
Steffen Mirsky 49:52
Yeah. Can you do it? Can you talk a little bit about the apple brandy? That that you make, like how do you how do you make it
Deirdre Birmingham 50:01
Yeah, so it’s, I mean, we put together the juice and then we take it to the distillery and then they start fermentation that that day. So it’s, you know, we press one day and then the next morning, we truck it over to the to the distillery and they pitch it with, with yeast just like you do to make cider because you first got to convert the juice to cider. And then it goes for distillation. Once it’s stabilized, there’s a lot of rush to get it, you know, it’s it’s a, it’s stave stabilizes cider, then there’s not a rush and kind of get in the queue, and wait for the just open tanks to be over to be open. But we’ve done kind of two things, we work with a distiller who does like a double distillation. So first, they do a stripping run, where you’re just heating the, you’re heating the cider, and you’re getting the alcohol to volatize off. And so they separate out the what they call the the heads, it’s the first part to volatize off, it has a lot of acetone in it. And it literally smells like nail polish remover. So that’s a craft distillation does, it moves that out. Big, huge giant distilleries, just mix it all together. And that’s where people might get a headache from drinking too much cheap liquor. And so then they go for the heart. And that’s what they really capture. And then the tails are also discarded, because those have some characteristics that aren’t aren’t as tasty. And so I mean, and when, when it’s doubled is still first, they’ll just do a stirring around to just get all the alcohol out. And then they fractionated into those into those three components. The other kind of some of the other distillation we’ve been experimenting with at a different distillery is to use a more of a French still and alambic still, where it’s all there isn’t a two step process, they just monitor for the heads and the tails as it’s as it’s coming off the off the still. And then we barrel aged. So we have a two year age and we have a five year aged. And we started out using charred oak bourbon barrels with some wild apple wood from the farm. And then when you’re when there was a barrel shortage, we thought, well, heck, the French use their barrels for generations. So let’s just reuse our barrel. And we aged it an extra year to I mean, at that point, it was three years and we’d love the result. So now we continue to reuse all of our barrels, but we’ve also expanded production so we continue to bring in barrels. And we’ve been experimenting also now with some toasted oak wine barrels. So first use, there was no like bourbon in them before. So we’re looking to see how that affects it. But you gotta wait at least two years if not five. It’s a long time. You gotta Yeah, you gotta gotta have some patience. Yeah, yeah. And so far we’ve been we’ve been fortunate. We’ve just had a had a lot of a lot of good batches, but the apple varieties and the year they what was the growing conditions of that year can make a real difference. We’ve we’ve found two, because we had our first release and then our second release came out from a batch that was from the summer in March, freezes in April, late April, the has July on record, and then worst drought in 25 years. That juice was so thick and aromatic in the winter. So they’ve never smelled anything like it it just the aromas just permeated the distillery. So um, and that that produced because a lot of our very late blooming we got mostly late blooming bitter sweets that survived that that year so so it made at first I was alarmed that it was so different from the first batch and the distiller said, your apples, remember, and I, I smelled the he had right when it came off the still. He lifted the lid of the container for me, and I just thought this is gonna be a faceful of alcohol because it’s like 140 proof. And it was like, wow, those are some nice aromatics. It wasn’t just wasn’t just alcohol. So it really hits home the point that the apples use and the growing conditions do make a difference. Yeah,
Dan Bussey 54:42
Just to mention Deirdre. I have a bottle from your first barrel still holding on to that for a long time.
Deirdre Birmingham 54:50
You know, we’ve always liked that one. Yeah. And we’ve had some others that we will compare to that and say, Well, yeah,
Dan Bussey 54:58
This was a good one. I bought a couple, so I made sure I kept one around just for whenever.
Deirdre Birmingham 55:06
Right? Thanks, Dan.
Steffen Mirsky 55:08
The longer you hold on to a dam, the harder it’s going to be to crack it open.
Dan Bussey 55:13
I know, I know, it’s pretty tough. But it’s it’s like having gold in my cupboard. That’s what I love about it. It’s beautiful color. It’s got it’s got such a nice aroma to it. The one that I did open and have. Yeah, that disappeared a long time ago. But yeah, sometimes they call like the head and tails, they call it the four shots and things there’s a lot of different terminology for it depends, I guess where you learned it. But it is, those sort of home stills are I guess it’s probably still technically illegal. I tried making it a couple of times, and it was a lot of fun. I think ethanol evaporates at about 163 degrees. So you have to get your your product up to that temperature. And I guess the old fashioned way of doing it is when it drips out of the condenser is you have a little metal pan and you light it and you look for the color of the flame. If it’s got a lot of yellow in it, you don’t use it. Because it’s got bad stuff in it. You wait till you got a nice blue flame, then your then your product is right. So you get rid of those early alcohols and evaporate a little bit differently. Then you leave it for the for the other ones that are good. And when it starts to come and the production and it starts turning color again on the flame. Yeah. Then you you quit using it you quit distilling at that point. So that’s the unofficial amateur doing.
Steffen Mirsky 56:37
Sounds a little subjective.
Dan Bussey 56:40
And scary. Yeah.
Deirdre Birmingham 56:42
You probably don’t want to do that around a place with a lot of alcohol and a lot of distilled product.
Dan Bussey 56:50
No, no, it’s a somewhat dangerous Yes. But, but it was a unique product, I have to admit when it was all said and done, highly unrefined. But I guess that’s how I feel about myself, I guess.
Steffen Mirsky 57:07
So what have you noticed about the Apple crop this year? I mean, Dan, you said it’s because it’s been a wet year, you think that the sugars are low, and
Dan Bussey 57:15
They’re a little bit lower. There are lots of apples that I’ve not seen before, friend of mine, and I went scrounging for apples on wild hillsides and run it in Minnesota, which is the southeast corner and some other places, and we are finding apples on trees, we’d never seen bear fruit before. And in this year, there actually were ripening, sometimes several weeks earlier than usual. So it’s kind of an unusual year, considering it seemed like it was such a long, protracted winter into spring, I didn’t think we would have apples that were maturing sometimes three weeks earlier than usual. But that’s what we’re seeing we tagged some of these trees before. And we had the date that we sampled it and, and the notes that we had on it. And just this year, it’s really different. But there are a lot of apples and a lot of things we’ve we found in this past couple of weeks that I think may have some potential for cider production. We found one off the off the share that with the Dierdre. It’s wicked. You’ve thought the chrome Bush had a lot of tannins in it. I think this one is even crazier. It doesn’t have the sugars, though that’s the downside to it. We call it the black hole, because you become a little piece of it and you sample it you have it takes a while for you to pry your lip away from your your teeth, because it’s just your mouth has shrunk so much. It’s got so much tan and astringency in it. Wow. I don’t know if I I was thinking I was going to make we found some really good apples that we made some pies out of and I thought well, if I put a little piece of this apple in one corner, it’ll sort of be like hiding the anchovy in a pizza. run across that. But it’s a it’s a seriously wicked apple. But we’ve never seen this tree bearer before. And that’s the fun of it, because we’re finding stuff that it’s pretty unique. And if we get it back to more of a drier year, that the sugars a little bit more concentrated. I think sometimes these flavors are going to be exceptional. And we’re hoping that these will be good potential cider varieties kind of like the crone bush that have possibilities, I think. And they’re Hardy, they adapt well, they don’t seem to have issues with Fireblight. So that’s what I think. What I’m trying to look for is that next unique kind of apple that might be really popular. And I wanted so people have access to it. It’s not like I want to, you know, command the market to sell it or anything like that. I think I like to open source things. You know, if I find something is really good, I want to share it with people because I think it’s important, and that’s the that’s the joy of this.
Steffen Mirsky 59:54
Yeah, well, as we start to wrap this up, just Curious what, what are your? What are the both of you really excited about making this year? Is there any particular cider or flavor combination that that you’re excited about?
Dan Bussey 1:00:13
Hmm, go ahead, Deirdre, you start this one?
Deirdre Birmingham 1:00:16
Oh geez. Well, we we found that our Dabinett cider is doing very well, and it’s getting a lot of consumer appeal. So we got a great crop of dabinett this year, so we’ll certainly, which means we probably won’t have a lot next year, that’s the thing about we’re going to kind of squirrel away some cider. Since I with a big crop this year, it means you won’t have necessarily that same size crop next year. So but we’re getting the most red flesh apples we’ve ever had. So I’m really looking forward to making even more Rose getting that back on on the shelf. And, yeah, we’re gonna see how this how this chrome wash does, then we’ll put some of that into the apple brandy as well as some of our our cider blends, and we’ll be checking the pH is and the and the bricks on things as we go. Typically, at the start of the year, the bricks content, the sugar contents a little lower on these early ones, and just seems to pick up as we with our later varieties. And we also leave apples on the tree for a long time. So we we let them drop or wait till they are dropping, and then shake them off the tree and harvest them off the ground. Because we want for example, the Liberty Apple, if I buy that from one of my organic table, apple grower friends, it is quite tart. But ours is quite pleasant. It doesn’t it has so much more sugar and other flavors to it. And that’s what we want out of every apple. So we really let them stay on the tree to just get everything that Apple has to give us. And I think that also just gives you you know, a little bit more than terroir when the beautiful Driftless region of Wisconsin. And we like to think that people are tasting some of that too.
Steffen Mirsky 1:02:18
Cool. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, Dan, anything that that you’re excited about trying or making this year.
Dan Bussey 1:02:26
I’ve got some new russet apples that are coming along finally, and trees are starting to bear. So it’ll be a small quantity. But I’ve got some Windham rosette, some Lincolnville rosette, a doc and rosette and a few others that I can’t remember the names offhand that I put it really be playing around with and see what the juice quality is. And try to mix up something that takes the best of both worlds of all these different kinds and see what I can do with that. But yeah, I’ve got some some fun stuff coming along. The Silk Road orchard is actually most of the trees are still in the nursery, but some of them are already bearing fruit after three years. So there’s some fun things to come along no great quantity, but I’ll be able to make some small batches and see what happens with that. So that’ll be bad. But I’m looking forward to cool.
Deirdre Birmingham 1:03:13
We also found we put out a lot of rootstocks where trees were missing. And I’ve been mostly using this Russian rootstock that it’s abbreviated name is Bud nine. And that little rootstock just likes to just jump up and grow and give you apples, the second year and the ground. And their red one, the red flesh. So I’m like, hey, great, I’ll take them. And so we talk work you to something else. I’ll take your little red apples and and they’ll go into into our rose a cider.
Steffen Mirsky 1:03:45
Are you just going to let let those trees keep growing? Or you’re going to actually use them as a root stock eventually?
Deirdre Birmingham 1:03:52
Yeah, no, we’ll we’ll use them as as a root stock I got a couple that kind of because they’re actually more bushy. They kind of flop around. But I’ve got a couple that seem like they want to try to be like their neighboring trees and grow up big and tall. So we’ll see if a few of them do that. But But otherwise, we’ll be time working them over to what else is in that row tried to keep it consistent. What’s in what’s in the row.
Steffen Mirsky 1:04:17
Cool. So yeah, last question, I guess is what would you tell somebody who’s interested in either just starting out, wanting to make hard cider on a on a small scale just for themselves or somebody who’s maybe looking to start commercial cidery like what? What kind of advice I guess would you would you give them what kind of challenges have you run into or opportunities are there? Yeah.
Dan Bussey 1:04:53
If you’ve had a chance to grow apples for a long time, a person you know has a little bit of wear with all about I think how apples for work in which you can do with them. But I would suggest trying to mentor with an accomplished cider maker and learn the trade and what works because you know, it’s a business, you have to consider it as a business. You know, I love making cider, you know, and I don’t see, you know, dying for it. That’s not my point is that it’s, it’s a joy. And I think you need to have the love to do it. But you have to also consider it as a business. So mentoring with with a cidery, I think is probably a great way to learn, just to know what happens and where, you know, there’s a lot of cideries that aren’t growers, but there is a lot that are both and I think Deirdre is unique in that regard, that she grows the apples that she uses, which is wonderful. So I think that’s, that’s the best way to learn is learn the apples. And then you can learn the cider and learn what you like to make and learn to drink. Do you want to do it as a business or you want to just keep it at the small level and just do it for yourself and your friends? So once you make that decision, you can go commercial? Yeah, then you have the background to do it.
Deirdre Birmingham 1:06:05
Yeah, that’s great advice. I mean, I think you’ve people already know that, hey, if you’re gonna if you want to make this just for home use, and friends and family, go for it. But yeah, commercially, I think Dan’s got a great point now that there are other sarees I think when we started yet to go like to the one of the coasts to find another side of you did, yeah, yeah. And the so you know, there are there are places where you can you can get involved in and learn all aspects of it, because alcohol is highly regulated. And sometimes you just don’t even know what some of those laws and regulations and rules are out there. And until they present themselves to you in the mail or phone call. So, so there’s just a lot of kind of legal, legal things, there’s a lot of expenses, you may not you may not think about. So it’d be really good to get in into a commercial operation and try to see all aspects of it and try to do all aspects of it. So that you have a much better idea of what approach you want to make. And then I think you have to figure out I mean, do you want to deal with apples? Do you want to grow apples? Do you want to you know, buy source juice and then and then and then what sort of juice there is an orchard in New Hampshire Poverty Lane orchard that that does their own Farnum Hill ciders and he was one of the first real commercial growers of these English cider apples in the US so he’s almost looked to as like a godfather of the cider industry. And he does very fine ciders and very, very quality oriented. And he also will sell these tannic apple varieties to to other growers, or to other cider makers, I should say. So you know, if you want to try to go go that route. You can also but you know, those kinds of people are few and far between and I you know, myself of course get hit up for for our apples too. So, but um.
Steffen Mirsky 1:08:14
Do you sell your apples to other cider producers?
Deirdre Birmingham 1:08:18
We have not, it’s kind of something I’m entertaining, at least thinking about this year. Previously, it’s just like, No, we just don’t have enough for what for what we’re doing. But being a being a big copier. I’m at least entertaining the thought so and especially for some friends who are who are who are home cidermakers and, and really would would value the opportunity to work with these apples.
Steffen Mirsky 1:08:47
Yeah. Cool. Well, any final thoughts or?
Deirdre Birmingham 1:08:55
Well, we should all get together and drink some good cider.
Dan Bussey 1:09:00
Yes, that sounds great. Yeah. Oh, it’s it’s, you know, it’s the funniest thing is, you know, I I love cider because my father when I was just a kid brought home we we scrounge all the apples we could find here on the farm. And we had a local cider mill present. And we brought home the juice and we my dad had a big gallon glass jar, and he left the cabinets on the counter. And you know, it starts working and frothing and all that stuff. And that’s when we drank it is when it was starting to get really nice and fizzy and stuff. And that that taste of that cider when I first made my own was exactly the same as what I had when I was a kid. So it’s that taste memory that really hooked me on cidermaking And I never looked back. It’s just a joy. I love the cider. I think it’s a great product. I think there’s a great market for it in this country. I think people have turned around and really liked what cider is. To me, you can make it still where there’s no bubbles or make it so it’s fizzy and you know, whatever you want. But it’s it’s such a, I think such a nice product because it’s just so little manipulated in comparison to a lot of things that I think is just really a wholesome, healthy, good product to have. And it’s fun.
Deirdre Birmingham 1:10:21
And Dan mentioned a still cider and to do a still and dry cider. That’s a real challenge. Because cider, wine and cider making can hide behind sugar, you can kind of ameliorate certain faults or whatever with with sugar, and also just jacking jacking up the carbonation. So when you’re still when it’s still in dry, it’s kind of it’s out there. It’s almost like it’s naked. I mean, it’s just standing there on the on the quality of that cider. So
Dan Bussey 1:10:56
That’s the true test of the cider maker is how do they do a good dries still cider? Yeah, that’s that’s the apples have to talk. Exactly.
Steffen Mirsky 1:11:06
Oh, interesting. I could, I could listen to this all day. Yeah, thank you too, so much for joining this podcast and really appreciate you taking the time. It was really insightful, and I’m inspired to to make more cider. So yeah, thank you Deirdre. Dan. Thank you all for listening. This was another episode of the cutting edge podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin. And our first episode on cider apples with Dan Busey and Deirdre Birmingham. Thanks for joining us.
JASON FISCHBACH 1:11:55
Brought to you by the University of Wisconsin Madison division of extension
Transcribed by https://otter.ai