Not all cideries grow apples, but those that do have a unique control over the quality and inimitability of their product. They also have a lot more work to do all throughout the year. Over the next few months, MittenBrew will be publishing a series of articles that highlights the pre-harvest work that must be done at these tree-to-tap cideries.
Before the autumn harvest, tree-to-tap cideries like Crane’s Winery in Fennville must work closely with farm personnel to make sure the apples develop optimally for use in cider.
“As the season progresses, we can see what the changes [in the apples] are,” said Eric Heavilin, the man in charge of wines and ciders for Crane’s, “and that’s going to be a huge benefit in the long run, having the farm attached to the [cidery].”
Crane’s Orchards, which spans over 100 acres and includes 17 varieties of apples, has been growing apples since the 1880s. The orchard was purchased by the Crane family in 1916, and the Cranes have owned and operated it ever since. Over those 100 years of operation, Crane’s has expanded to include a restaurant, bakery, winery and, since November 2014, a hard cidery.
Rob Crane, owner and operator of Crane’s Orchards, will be working hard throughout the summer to make sure the trees are growing to develop the best fruit for cider. Right now, in the midst of spring, pest control and regulation are at the forefront.
“We just finished our first spray,” said Crane. “We’ve got a few scab sprays and mildew sprays coming up.”
Prior to that, when the trees were blossoming, pollination was the chief concern. Crane brings in honeybees to make sure he gets a good fruit set.
“That is an issue a lot of people are dealing with right now, because pollination was so tough,” said Crane. “We had a lot of cold weather and a lot of wet weather. If you had bees you were going to do better than if you didn’t.”
Now the blossoms have fallen, and the workers at Crane’s are taking measures to make sure they bear the best fruit. In the upcoming months, Crane will have to inspect every tree to make sure it’s growing a balanced crop, and then trim them as necessary.
“For the health of the tree, as well as the cider and the apple itself, you have to balance that tree out,” said Heavilin. “You can’t get greedy one year and grow a lot of fruit, because the quality of fruit will be lower, and it will offset that tree to be biannual.”
An orchard can’t afford to let that happen and risk missing a year of production from some of their trees.
“Right now, it makes it really tricky at this point to figure out from block to block which ones I have to thin and how hard, and which ones I better leave alone,” said Crane. “It’s not an easy time.”
Even then, their work won’t be done. Crane will continue regulating pests, trimming trees and insuring that the soil around them is providing the nutrients they need throughout the summer. But all that hard work is what enables Heavilin to make the best products for Crane’s.
“You have to have good fruit to make good wine or hard cider,” Heavilin said. “We can have a signature Crane’s hard cider that’s grown right here that no one else on this planet can emulate. It starts in the dirt.”