Apple choices: What’s in YOUR cider?

It all started for me because I wanted to plant some apple trees. Just at the time I was mulling over what and how, we happened to visit my sister-in-law in Montreal. After dinner she pulled out a gorgeous skinny bottle and said “you must try this!” It was Neige, an ice cider from the original, premier producer in Southern Quebec, and it was freeking delicious. I looked at my better half across the table and said “yes we’ve got to try this!” Fateful words.

So, apples?  Yes…but.

Concentrate? Left-over storage grocery apples? Fresh-harvested grocery apples? Organic apples? Bio-dynamic apples? Heirloom apple varieties? Bittersweet cider apple varieties? Abandoned or un-managed apple trees? Wild apples?

There are apple trees involved in every one of those options, but it’s an amazing range of options. At one end of the spectrum: low cost, predictable supply, juice consistency, low flavor. At the other end: scarcity, biennial-ism, high cost, variability of sugar/acid/tannin levels, more flavor (hopefully?).

There is much to be discussed about the economics and markets for growing apples. I’m not going to deal with that now, but here’s a quick view of what’s out there from the perspective of someone deciding what kind of cider to make. And if you are growing your own apples, you have to do the same comparison, and recognize that farming apples and manufacturing cider are two VERY different businesses, although in the same value chain.

China is the largest apple grower in the world, producing 37 million tons per year, 70% of which is Fuji. The US is the second largest producer at a mere 4 million tons, with 67% grown for the fresh market – Red Delicious, Gala and Granny Smith being the top three varieties. The top 5 apple growers in the U.S. are all in Washington state, with over 5,000 acres each. The labor costs associated with picking mean that the US is not an efficient producer of apple juice concentrate. Most apple concentrate used in hard cider production comes from Argentina, Italy, France, Turkey, or Poland. US orchards work mightily to make sure as high a % as possible of their crop makes the grade for sales to the grocery market, as that is where they can get the highest price. The other 33% goes to processing. Washington State has enormous bulk juice processing and cold storage facilities. You can buy tanker trucks full of bulk juice pressed out of cold storage pretty much all year round.

The largest two apple growers in Vermont are 400 and 300 acres, respectively. Then there’s my friend Steve Wood, who back in the late 1980s top-grafted trees in his family’s 60 (not a typo, not 600, 60) acre New Hampshire orchard over to British bittersweet and American heirloom varieties that had NO possibility of being sold to the grocery store market, with the crazy idea that they might be better suited for making specialty hard ciders. Finally, at the far extreme, Andy Brennan at Aaron Burr cidery in the Hudson Valley of NY, makes a cider from apples foraged from a couple of trees growing wild on Maine’s Isle Au Haut. OK those apples were “free”…all like 5 bushels of them, all like 500 miles away of them.

Buyers at stores and restaurants sometimes screw up the courage to ask me why the ciders in 750ml wine bottles are SO expensive. Here’s an approximate price comparison (vetted with other producers so a pretty good ballpark) for a gallon of liquid going into a tank to be fermented into cider –
– Frozen foreign concentrate, reconstituted with water                              = $0.70
– Bulk juice from left-over grocery apples, pressed out of cold storage = $1.80+
– Harvest-pressed grocery store apples in New England                            = $4.00+
– Heirloom and Cider variety apples, harvest-pressed at small scale    = $10.00+


In the case of ice cider, we use our Vermont winter weather to do a natural concentration outdoors before fermentation during which we lose 80% of the volume of juice we started with. That increases the cost of the gallon of liquid going into the tank by a factor of 5 times.

And all of this begs the question “does it taste any better”?  Hmmm, depends what the cider maker does with it, and who’s tasting.

The worst-case scenario is when you plant 1,000 trees of 42 different varieties on 3 acres in a biodynamic management program and hire someone 3 days per week during the season to do the work. That’s the route we chose of course. The $64 tomato has nothing on the $100 bushel of apples!  While we wait for the trees to grow and start producing apples at their full potential (soon? I hope?), we purchase fresh apples – a mix of heirloom, cider, and grocery varieties – from 4 other regional orchards and press them, usually within 6 – 10 weeks of harvest. So we’re operating at the base cost of somewhere in between the two bars on the right hand side of the chart, MULTIPLIED BY 5.

It makes it especially rewarding when you are giving a tasting of ice cider at the farmer’s market and the elegant lady who’s been listening and nodding to your explanation finally takes a sip and says “That’s delicious! What grapes do you make this from?”





Apples to Cider to You

The timer on my computer rang out and I pushed myself back from the table and rose to go down to the basement and check on the progress of filtration. I was alone in the house for the week, trying to get the ice cider filtered and stabilized so we could leave it sit until we were ready to figure out bottling.  The problem with making an alcoholic cider with so much residual sugar left in it is that the fermentation can restart.  By that I mean that the yeast would come back to life, start eating the remaining sugar in the cider and turn it into alcohol, resulting in a completely out of balance drink.   We were trying to arrest the fermentation by freezing the cider, hoping to kill the yeast.  I would drag the containers of the ice cider outside where at least the weather was a cooperative -5F, all the murky yeasty stuff would settle to the bottom, then after a few days I’d bring it back in the basement, and then suddenly three days later it would be all murky again.I knew I needed to filter it, and so I got my hands on a little home brew vacuum filter apparatus.  It came with three different grades of circular pads.  One pad at a time, every drop of ice cider had to be filtered through each grade of pad.  The little vacuum pump would create a vacuum in a thick-walled glass 3 gallon carboy with a heavy rubber plug, and the cider would be drawn out of the fermentation container, through the pad and into the carboy.  The first stage was the toughest. In some cases it took an hour to filter 3 gallons.  I had 120 gallons of ice cider that had to be filtered 3 times.  I was avoiding doing the math so I wouldn’t feel too sorry for myself. 40 straight hours of filtration, not to mention all the time it took to stop and clean and replace the filter pad. Oh the romance of a cold basement, the soothing sound of the pump, the trickle of the cider falling brilliant and clear into the carboy.  NOT.

While I waited for the next 3 gallons of cider to push though the filter, I went back to working on my estimates for how all the costs of producing and selling the cider would add up, and what kind of price I should be putting on a bottle of it.  Well, that’s the way a lot of small producers would think about it as they got started.  But it’s not necessarily the best or only way to look at it.

In fact, it was pretty easy to know what the price ought to be for one beautiful 375ml bottle of ice cider.  I had only to look at the prices being charged by the Canadian ice cider producers right to my North.  I also checked the prices of other sweet dessert wines – Ice Wines from Ontario, Sauternes, late-harvest wines, and my favorite name – Trockenbeerenauslese, the super sweet reisling from the Rhine Valley.  Appropriately, ice cider is less expensive than those noble tipples.  The midpoint of the Canadian ice wines was about C$27/bottle, or US$24.  I expected to make something of similar quality, so asking a consumer to pay more than that seemed likely to increase barriers to sales, while asking less would just be leaving money on the table.

But could I make money at $24/bottle?  To answer that question, I couldn’t just assume that a customer would come to the door or the farmers market and I would collect $24 in cash from her.  I can’t just add up all my product costs and subtract that from $24.  If I ever hoped to sell more than 100 cases of ice cider, I need to think about the whole process of getting the cider from apples all the way to the bottle at your table.

If I sell the bottle of ice cider to Willy at the local general store, then I have to charge the store something less than $24.  The store has to pay rent, employees, insurance, supplies, utilities, advertising, and make some money.  It turns out most stores need 25 – 50% of the retail price.  Fortunately in Vermont, it’s typically closer to 25%.  So that means I’ll get $18 when I sell it to Willy.   But what if I want to sell it to my friend’s fancy restaurant in New York City?  Then I have to sell it to a New York distributor, who will then sell it to the restaurant.  The distributor has trucks, a warehouse, employees, order and inventory systems, and all those other expenses, plus he needs to make some money too.  Typical wine distributors need to make somewhere between 26 – 35% of the wholesale price.  At 30%, that means I will be selling it to a distributor for $12.60.  From that I need to pay some part of my mortgage, utilities, insurance, my or some future employee’s labor…and looking backward, that set of costs and profit is also built into all the prices I pay for what goes into the finished cider – the grower from whom I buy the apples, the suppliers of winery equipment and supplies, the packaging producers, etc.  This is what is meant by a’value chain‘: the whole chain of costs involved in every aspect of getting from the apple to cider, and from the cider to you.

Here’s my attempt at a visual rendering –


So, can I make money at $12.60 per bottle?  More on that next time…



What is Cidernomics?

“How do the economics of small, low-tech, agriculture-based manufacturing work?  There is so much romance about these kinds of businesses, but really, what does it take to ensure a happy ever after?”

It had snowed 8 inches overnight as predicted.  I was glad I had parked the UHaul truck on the side of the highway where at least I had a chance of getting it going.  I scraped the snow off our old Toyota Highlander, started it up and drove very slowly down the mile of ice-covered dirt road from our farm, down and up and down again, the last hill having a grade of about 8% and landing abruptly perpendicular to the rural highway.  If you lose control coming down the hill, you have to be grateful for the lack of traffic in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom that allows you to just come to a stop right across the middle of a State highway without worrying about being obliterated, or even just cursed out.  This morning I used the engine braking feature and only slid a few feet as I turned at the end, managing to line myself right up behind where I parked the truck on the shoulder of the South-bound side.  I left the Toyota, hauled myself into the truck, started it up (it was a balmy 28F), and got on my way.

So began my first foray into buying apples to produce Ice Cider in the basement of our farmhouse, perhaps to sell commercially, although at that point we didn’t have grand plans.  Ice Cider is a sweet, dessert-wine style alcoholic cider that was developed in Southern Quebec in the late 1990s.  It was November 2007, we had acquired an abandoned farm that Spring about 8 miles from the Canadian border, and we thought Ice Cider should be a Vermont product too. I thought it would be fun to try it out ourselves.  I took a short course on cider making at Cornell, I ran some numbers, I bought an apple press, and now it was Thanksgiving week, the weather could be relied upon to be below freezing for the next four months, and I was ready to get started.

I wanted to buy enough apples to make about a 100 gallons of Ice Cider.  That turns out to be more apples than you would ever buy as a consumer, but not enough to make you a meaningful wholesale customer for an orchard.  It took me multiple times calling the two orchards I was interested in for them to return my calls, answer my questions, and agree to sell me the apples in the packing format I could handle – no 600 lb. bins that would require a fork lift to unload.  Commercial orchards will pack apples in bushel boxes (40 lbs.) for stores and restaurants, but they sell those packed onto pallets to a distributor who does the actual selling to said stores and restaurants.  The orchards themselves don’t deal with the individual accounts and aren’t necessarily set up to respond.  They certainly don’t deliver!

Therefore the truck.

What would these apples end up costing by the time I had retrieved them from the sunny, snow-free Champlain Valley and got them back up the icy hill to my Northeast Kingdom basement?  How much would that mean once they were pressed, the juice frozen outside, a small bit of super concentrated juice extracted, then partially fermented?  What about packaging – bottles, corks, labels, capsules, boxes?  Then equipment, labor, and marketing?  It was one big question whether we could actually make something that tasted good enough for someone who didn’t know and love us to hand over real American dollars for it.  It was a whole other question whether doing so would be something that would ever prove to be financially sustainable.

How do the economics of small, low-tech, agriculture-based manufacturing work?  There is so much romance about these kinds of businesses, but really, what does it take to ensure a happy ever after?  What are the key success factors?  What are they up against?  From a broader perspective, is it a viable rural economic development strategy to encourage more of them?  I don’t know all the answers, but I’ve learned a lot.  So I’m going to share my experiences, and perhaps we can start a dialogue that leads to some useful insights.

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