Some Montana Apple Growers are working to revive Hard Cider Interest

Two apple growers located in Northwest Montana are doing their best to make Montana a destination for craft cider enthusiasts and it should be no surprise given the regions past history.

Around the turn of the 20th century, newcomers, enticed by fertile land and plentiful irrigation, came by rail to the irrigated Bitterroot Valley, and soon the rich land was covered in orchard parcels. Today, "McIntosh Apple Day" --an all-out apple extravaganza hosted by the Bitterroot Valley Historical Society--is still a big event, reflecting an era when the Bitterroot Valley boasted, "The largest apple orchards in the world!" In 1920, there were over 1 million apple trees in Montana.  McIntosh apples boomed in Bitterroot Valley from 1866 to 1924 before the orchards began shutting down because of the great depression and finally from severe hail damage to their crops. But if the cider revival currently under way in the U.S. has its way, that number is bound to increase.

There are two commercial cideries in Western Montana, Montana Ciderworks, located in Darby, and Big Mountain Ciderworks in Kalispell.  These two  may seem like a lonely group, but considering that relatively few regions of the country give any land to producing apples for cider production, this number in such a relatively small space marks these orchards as special in the cider world.
 The DeSmul family owns Big Mountain Ciderworks. They have a 5000 tree orchard and are growing over 25 varieties.
One tricky part about growing anything in Montana is the variety of microclimates strewn about the state. Growing seasons vary from as short as 30 days to as long as 130, and temperatures can vary by as much as 20 degrees within in a few miles.

The Desmul looked for a few years before buying land for their second orchard. “We lucked out and found a great parcel with the right combination of light, slope and water.” “We have planted a wide variety of apples and so far they are doing well. However we won’t know if all will be commercially viable once they are fully mature and that will take another 2-3 years.”  says the owner, Bud Desmul. They are also blessed with a favorable microclimate. While most of the state of Montana has an average annual extreme minimum temperature as low as -35 deg F, Kalispell has a winter low at a relatively balmy -20 deg F.

While apples traditionally used for eating can serve as the base for outstanding cider, what these cider producers want are traditional cider apples, which unlike desert apples are normally inedible. However, these cider producers are willing take the double risk of producing cider-making apples in a somewhat in hospitable climate but if successful, could provide real encouragement for other orchardists to follow in their footsteps in the state on Montana.

If you’re interested in growing apples I Montana, check out the "The Climate Atlas of Montana," a $3 publication available through MSU Extension. In it you’ll find detailed data about average high and low temperatures, length of frost-free season, and many other data gathered over more than 30 years.

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