Massachusetts has a long history with cider, stretching back hundreds of years to the first European settlements. As this was long before Louis Pasteur identified yeast as responsible for fermentation, cider makers (and brewers, bakers, and wine makers) relied on the indigenous populations of yeasts that exist on practically every surface, a practice that came with some risks. Once pure cultures of yeasts became widely available most users made the switch, hoping for more control over the fermentation process. American cider makers today use a whole variety of cultured yeasts, but there are a few intrepid souls, such as Steve Gougeon of Bear Swamp Orchard that are taking a different path.
Steve and his wife Jen didn’t intend to start a cidery when they bought their house and orchard from Steve’s parents some 10 years ago. They were looking to live a simple rural life raising chickens, vegetables, and their two sons. The property had a several acre, long neglected apple orchard, planted by a neighbor in the 1980s before changing markets made small plots of apple growing economically unsustainable. They set about rehabilitating it, and as the orchard grew more healthy and productive, their friends would come to pick apples to take home, then friends-of-friends, and eventually the orchard became a certified organic pick-your-own business, one of a mere handful in New England. Located near Ashfield, MA in the Berkshires’ eastern foothills, it is a popular stop for Bostonians seeking time away from the city.
Though a cider maker and brewer of beer for 20 years, it wasn’t until 2006/2007 that Steve decided that cider needed to be an integral part of their farm business. His goal was to make something authentic and real, something that reflected the area, something his great-grandparents, who undoubtably made cider themselves, would recognize. He spent a season making test batches with 14 different yeasts, but in the end concluded that their orchard’s wild yeasts made the cider with the most complex and interesting flavor.
Bear Swamp’s 2013 Farmhouse cider is a prime example of the ciders Steve is creating. Deep gold, still and cloudy, since none of the Bear Swamp ciders are pasteurized or filtered, it starts with a decided tanginess that is soon offset by flavors of nectarines and other stone fruit, finishing with a dry, mild astringency that leaves the palette clean. Aged in old whiskey barrels, it has hints of whiskey and vanilla and woody chestnut. This is a remarkably balanced cider that pairs well with just about any cheese or cured meat. The leading acid cuts through rich dishes, such as braised lamb shanks with white beans and celery root, while the fruit keeps the acid from becoming overpowering. Other Bear Swamp ciders are bottle conditioned with farm produced maple syrup – still dry, but sparkling and caramelly from the maple – or infused with farm-grown organic hops for a refreshingly citrus aroma and flavor. All have the distinctive tang that is characteristic of wild fermentations, yet no one flavor overwhelms.
There are risks to using wild yeasts, especially in an organic setting. The use of sulfites, the anti-microbial standard, is forbidden under US organic certification, so Steve relies on meticulous cleanliness to keep his ciders safe from unwanted bacteria (his many years experience in fermentation clearly a help here).
Then there is the challenge of consistency. Orchards are intricate environments and yeast populations are subject to the same dynamic ebbs and flows of any natural system. One of the reasons that wild fermented ciders can be so rich and exciting is that wild populations are not mono-cultures and instead contain any number of yeast varieties that can contribute different attributes to the finished ferment. Steve believes that because he does not use fungicides on his orchard, relying instead on a variety of more natural means to control orchard pests, his wild yeast populations are more stable and, to some extent, predictable. An organic, healthy, intact system is just more balanced. He also starts his fermentations, which tend to progress quite slowly (another feature of wild yeasts) in small batches, tasting them regularly so that he can monitor flavor development. Batches that are headed in the right direction are carefully blended with those that might have lost their way, helping to keep the yearly variation in flavors within exceptable limits. Stability also comes from aging for at least 6 months, which contributes to the ciders multi-level flavors as well. There may yet be changes in the bottle, an accepted phenomena in wines, so why not cider?
In keeping with his belief in flexible, local food systems, Steve plans to keep the cidery’s production at the nano level, topping out at perhaps 3000 – 4000 gallons per year, and distribution to no farther than Boston. This is a local cidery modeled after those that would have been found here when cider was at its zenith in the 18th and 19th century. Not every cider maker relying on indigenous yeast is as successful as this one, making a visit to Bear Swamp Orchard well worth the trip.