The apple is the stuff of legends. We have poor Eve getting banished from the Garden of Eden for daring to sample its irresistible sweetness. Allegedly, an apple a day will keep the doctor away. Then there’s Johnny Appleseed, the folk hero famed for wandering large swaths of the American Midwest planting apple trees as he went. Even in the modern day, apples are cultural icons, appearing in starring roles in beloved traditions such as apple pie, bobbing for apples and fall family trips to nearby farms for apple picking and hayrides.
The famous fruits also grew in abundance in Southwest Colorado, a region once famous for producing blue-ribbon apples. When pioneers and settlers began moving into the region in the second half of the 19th century, they brought their fruit trees with them and began planting, finding that despite the state’s high altitude, many varieties thrived. According to the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, 436 varieties of apple tree were planted in Colorado prior to 1930. While farmers in Southwest Colorado at one time tended apple orchards spanning hundreds of thousands of acres, by the mid-20th century, trends had changed. Farmers were encouraged to focus on just a couple of top-selling varieties, and the new grocery store standard gave motley fruits the boot in favor of perfectly glossy orbs.
Fast-forward to the year 2013. Jared Scott, a competitive runner, was running through the countryside around his home near Dolores when he began to notice that the old apple trees he ran past were beginning to drop their fruit. The apples amassed in piles of forgotten, unwanted bounty beneath the old trees where they rotted in fragrant heaps. Scott began asking around, determined to create a different fate for the fruit. Before long, he was immersed in the art of cider making.
“If you’ve literally got hundreds of thousands of pounds of fruit falling on the ground and rotting, it’s just a lost economy,” observed Elizabeth Philbrick, Scott’s wife and co-founder of EsoTerra Ciderworks in Dolores, which opened its doors to the public in September. “It’s unfortunate because this fruit does make great cider.”
And that’s exactly what Scott and Philbrick are up to now in their apple-driven mission to reclaim the former glory of the area’s trees and orchards, which until recently sat mostly forgotten in centenarian quietude. Making great cider from heritage trees in Southwest Colorado is their life’s calling.
“Less than ten percent of the apples in these orchards go to any market whatsoever,” noted Philbrick. “They literally just fall to the ground and get bears drunk. The last thing you need is a whole bunch of drunk wildlife trying to commute home at the same time you are. Yeah, sure, a couple of drunk turkeys might be cute and funny, but a couple of drunk bears? You gotta keep an eye out,” she said, laughing.
Reclaiming this forgotten fruit has led the couple on a scavenger hunt of sorts across the southwest corner of the state, discovering new sources of cider apples along fence lines, in people’s yards, and along old railways.
“We’ll be flying down the highway at 65 miles per hour, when suddenly Jared will say, ‘Stop the car!’” said Philbrick. “We’ll pull over and he jumps out and runs into the middle of some field and bites into a single apple and says, ‘Ah, it’s delicious! It needs two more weeks!’”
Scott’s passion for Colorado’s heritage apples doesn’t stop there: he’ll track down the tree’s owner and ask politely to pick their apples. The pair believe in compensating the landowner for their apples even when they’d just as soon give away the unused fruit: they want to reestablish value for the region’s historic apple industry.
“We have probably some of the oldest apple trees in the country, with some orchards that date back to the 1880s, that are still healthy and producing fruit,” said Scott. “What’s cool about going to some of these really old orchards and trees is that it’s kind of a timestamp of what was cool to grow back in the day.”
Though in today’s craft beverage world cider is commonly viewed as a gluten-free alternative to beer, or is considered as a kind of cousin under the craft beer umbrella, Philbrick says that cider is, by definition, a wine. It’s simply employing apples in the age-old process of fermenting sugary fruit juice to create an alcoholic beverage.
“We really wanted to make these very wine-like ciders,” said Philbrick. “Our name is EsoTerra because the terroir of this area makes our apples taste different. Even if you had the exact same apple variety from say, Washington state, the soil is different, the amount of sunlight and rain is different. What we’re able to do is take apples from these older trees that have been stressed out a little bit, and they make a richer flavored cider.”
Apples at EsoTerra — following America’s apple-centric traditions that would make Johnny Appleseed himself proud — remain the stars of the show. The duo eschews the colorants and artificial flavorings common in many canned ciders in favor of natural, unfiltered bottles of cider whose sparkling notes evoke the heritage apples’ unique qualities.
“The biggest compliment I get from people who grew up in the area, people who are middle-aged or older, is when they drink my cider and they say, ‘Wow! This is like eating an apple straight off the tree,’” said Scott. “That’s the biggest compliment I can get.”
While hard cider was once the drink of choice in rural America, it currently commands just one to two percent of the adult beverage market in the United States. That doesn’t particularly bother Scott and Philbrick, who characterize artisanal ciders as part of the growing slow food and whole food movements.
“We just want to elevate the apples,” said Philbrick. “We want to make the apples sing.”