Some apple growers in northwest Montana are working to build an orchard and cider company - literally from the ground up.
Kalispell, MT: Bud and Jen DeSmul planted their first orchard in 2006 to provide work for the family and fresh fruit for their friends in the area. They wanted to be able to produce different varieties that could be grown locally and to offer varieties that are otherwise difficult or impossible to obtain. A few years later, after the orchard started producing in earnest, they realized that they were growing more produce than they could sell fresh from their farm.
The Flathead valley, in Northwest Montana, does not have the necessary infrastructure or cold storage facilities in place to allow for efficient long term commercial storage of apples or pears. The costs of developing their own cold storage solutions forced them to explore other options to enable them to sell their produce year-round.
They realized that they had to make a decision – continue to grow produce as a hobby and operate at a loss, or expand the orchard and try to make a profit. The decision was not too hard and they decided to commit everything to develop a large hard-cider specific orchard and to build a commercial cidery and tasting room.
After much research, they decided that converting extra apples to hard apple cider was the most efficient and sustainable way to do process their excess fruit. They experimented with different varieties to see what would grow best in the area and then planted a second, larger orchard – mainly with apple varieties suitable for making hard apple cider. In 2011, they ordered their first 3000 trees before they had found land suitable for an orchard and luckily in 2012 they found a perfect location for planting and named it Big Mountain Fruitworks. The decision was prescient because in the last 3 or 4 years since making that decision, Americans have reawakened to the idea of hard apple cider as an alternative to both beer and wine.
There has been a lot of press lately about the popularity of craft beer. Production of craft beer rose from 11.5 million barrels in 2011 to 15 million in 2013. However, in the same time span, production of hard cider has tripled that amount-from 9.4 million gallons to 32 million gallons. One reason for the growth is the marketing budgets behind three of the largest cider brands in the country: Boston Beer Co. Inc.'s Angry Orchard, which launched nationally in 2012; Smith & Forge, made by Miller Coors; and Johnny Appleseed, made by Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest beer company.
“The big players are spending the money needed for marketing and improving public awareness of this traditionally American drink. They are helping rise a tide which will help float our boat” says owner Bud Desmul.
Today a lot of cideries, and especially the big players, are making their ciders, not from traditional hard cider varieties but from regular desert fruit commonly found in the grocery stores or, more commonly, are using juices or concentrates. Many cideries are successful with this approach but they sometimes also have to resort to using other flavors to add the complexity most consumers are after. Some cider makers are even using coffee or Chile peppers to make flavored drinks which are much different than the hard ciders the DeSmul's have been making for their friends. “We’re not so interested in making trendy fruit-flavored “alki-pops” as they are known in Europe, but rather traditional hard cider made from real hard-cider apples.
If one wanted to plant a cider orchard today, they would typically have to place their order for trees a year in advance and then wait another 5-7 years for the trees to bear fruit-and that is if one can find the trees today. Most nurseries have experienced a run on hard – cider specific varieties and are having trouble delivering the quantities needed to fuel this new business. “We lucked out when we decided to plant a hard-cider –specific orchard years ago. Now we’re way ahead of most new cideries in that we control and have access to our own supply chain. We can make traditional hard ciders with our own cider apples and still have plenty of room to expand- plus we’re no longer dependent on the nurseries to provided trees- we can propagate our own apple trees
The infrastructure needed for a high efficiency orchard is in place and the trees, now numbering around 6000, have been planted and should start producing by the fall of 2016. The Desmul's expect around 100-125 tons of apples from their current operation and have developed land suitable for producing 8-10 times that amount over the next decade if needed. They plan to break ground for their cidery and start production by the fall of 2017. The name of their operation is Big Mountain Ciderworks.