Hot, cold, even lukewarm, the nectar extracted from nature’s doctor repellent, according to the old adage, is sure to conjure fall memories filled with crunchy mounds of leaves, frosty pumpkins, annual harvests and endless hayrides. In fact, apple cider is almost as much an American tradition as, well, apple pie.
Nobody knows that tradition firsthand as much as Robert Bowers, Jr., a champion of Ohio’s apple cider contest and third-generation owner of Laurelville Fruit Farm. Nestled at the foot of the Hocking Hills, along State Route 56 in Laurelville, Bowers’ farm has been in operation since 1911, literally progressing from a chicken farm to an apple farm overnight. “All the chickens got killed by a fox,” Bowers said. “My grandfather, and the banker that helped him start the farm, looked up the hill and saw an apple tree growing and decided to go into the apple business.”
Ninety-six years later, the farm is known as having some of the best apple products in the state. Among them, Bowers’ pride and joy – the clearest, cleanest, best-tasting cider in the state, at least according to judges of Ohio’s annual cider contest.
Bowers grows approximately 20 different apple varieties, producing an average of 16,000 bushels on 25 acres. Initially, the farm sold apples to stores wholesale, but eventually cider became the main business.
“Moving from apples to cider wasn’t a plan,” Bowers explained. “The grocery stores started to demand a certain redness and size of an apple, and it just became a hassle.” Bowers said the store wouldn’t accept perfectly good apples even if there was a small speck on one.
“It became quick in my mind that I could take that same 18-bushel box of quality apples, crush a premium juice out of it and make the same amount of money,” he said.
What makes cider cider?
Bruce Benedict has been active in the coordination of the state cider contest. He said judges use a 100-point scale, with clarity and appearance representing 20 points each and taste accounting for 60 points. “Judges are looking for a clear cider that has almost a glow or sheen to it,” he said.
As for taste, Benedict said there is no “perfect” cider. “Each cider is judged upon its own quality, not necessarily against others, whether it is bitter or sweet, or has a crisp bite to it,” he said.
Benedict said some ciders are composed completely of one apple type and, while tasting good, may lack color and other appealing aspects judges look for in cider. He said most growers use combinations of different blends of apples and tend to have their favorites.
Because cider is 100 percent juice, the only determining factor on taste is the apple itself. “The first cider, made around Labor Day weekend, will be much (more tart) and much more acidic than the cider we make at the end of October, which has a lot sweeter and more mature apples in it,” Bowers said.
“The biggest compliment I get is when somebody takes a drink and says, `Well that tastes just like an apple,'” he explained. “I don’t want it to taste like a musty old cup of something else.” Bowers will tell anybody that the maturity of an apple is key to the taste. “You don’t want to use apples that aren’t ripe enough or that are too ripe; you want right on the money apples.”
Bowers always uses a blend of four different apples in his cider, with the mainstays being Red and Golden Delicious, which are most popular among U.S. consumers. Customers do tend to notice the changes in the cider throughout the season, going as far as to tell Bowers it tastes like there is more Golden Delicious apple in the cider toward the end of the season.
A loyal tradition
Some of Bowers’ regular customers have been making the seasonal trek to Laurelville for generations. In fact, Bowers said there are many that came to the farm when he was a kid that are now bringing their grandchildren.
Many customers stop in yearly on their way to Hocking Hills, always saving a few extra dollars for a natural treat from the farm.
Apples, apple butter and apple slushies may be purchased at the farm, as well as peaches, but Bowers’ specialty will always remain cider, proving for a second straight generation, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Cider, juice, which is it?
The line between apple cider and apple juice is blurry to many. In this region of the country, apple cider and apple juice can be used to describe the same substance: 100 percent pure liquid from an apple. Most of what is labeled as juice in stores will appear to be much clearer than most cider due to repeated filtration.
Consumers should remain aware when reading labels on apple juices and ciders from the grocery store. Juices that contain less than 100 percent apple juice will be labeled as “juice beverages”, “juice cocktails” or “juice drinks,” and often have added sugars and flavors too. In addition, producers who do not pasteurize their drinks are required to label them as so.
Remember: If it’s not 100 percent pure juice, it’s not the real thing.
Attention teachers and parents: See how this story connects to Ohio’s academic content standards.