Eaten, a Dabinett apple offers a mouth-puckering, bittersweet flavour experience. But when blended with other bittersharp varieties such as Geneva Red and then deftly fermented, the end product becomes pure drinking pleasure.
Welcome to the land of hard cider, complete with a vernacular all its own. For orchardists used to growing “eating” apples, the transition to “drinking” apples requires years of commitment and trial.
Such is the shared story of Doug Balsillie and his wife, Leslie Huffman, now in their 39th season operating The Fruit Wagon near Harrow, Ontario. Their bucolic setting near Lake Erie comprises a 35-acre, high-density apple orchard with 2,000 trees per acre. Part laboratory, but full-time enterprise, this farm has become a beacon for veteran and young growers alike.
“We decided to be intensive growers,” recalls Doug Balsillie, “and not get too big.”
Back in 2012, the couple decided to convert to a trellised fruiting wall system. It was a forward-thinking move, but one that didn’t contemplate, at the time, the unique requirements of growing apples for cider.
Wide-ranging travels through the International Tree Fruit Association and beyond opened their eyes to the pitfalls of cider apples. In northern Europe, for example, cider apples are grown as a discount product. As Leslie recounts, “These apples tend to bloom later in warmer temperatures and thus are more susceptible to fire blight. In Wales, the orchards are very pastoral, but didn’t appear very productive.”
Doug goes on to explain that American consumption has trended toward a rising demand for hard ciders, fermented to produce a range of 4.5 to 7 per cent alcohol. And with a prediction by the American Apple Association that as much as 10 per cent of future apple production would be channelled to hard cider, the lure of a niche market was too great to ignore.
Balsillie admits it has been challenging to source apple varieties that produce economically sustainable yields in a trellis system while still delivering flavour that meets consumer expectations. It wasn’t until the couple took a trip to Rougemont, Québec, that they tasted pink ciders from heritage apple varieties. Dabinett is an old English variety producing bittersweet juice – a standard ingredient for most cider production. And Red Heart and Geneva Red are examples of red-fleshed varieties that give ciders a desirable rose colour when added to the blend.
Based on their research, Doug and Leslie committed to planting 1.5 acres of mostly Dabinett in 2016. “I can now afford to have someone pick these apples and put them in a bin,” says Doug Balsillie. “But it’s been a real learning curve.”
“We are looking to produce cider apples that yield 2,200 apples per bin,” says Balsillie. “That’s a little more than Ambrosia apples which would yield 2,000 per bin – just for context.”
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Daughter Janelle Balsillie has picked up the cidery bug too. She started her career studying wine-making and viticulture at Niagara College. Over the last seven years, Janelle has honed her orchardist skills in several of Ontario’s apple-growing regions, learning to appreciate how different soils affect an apple’s taste. And earlier this year she graduated from the American Cider Association’s certification program and is now one of four pommeliers in Canada.
Pommeliers are certified cider experts who have the skill to identify apple flavours based on region and style and classify them as having a bittersharp, bittersweet, sweet or sharp taste. These classifications are becoming more prevalent as the Canadian food and beverage industry catches up to a burgeoning small-batch craft cider market.
Hands full as a full-time cider-maker for Heeman’s Cidery & Meadery at Thorndale, Ontario, Janelle Balsillie nevertheless took on the challenge of launching of her own Carolinia Cider Company from the family farm this spring. All Carolinia Cider is from fruit grown, pressed, fermented, blended and filtered right on the farm. Emphasizing small batch quality, she’s devoting 5,000 litres to the current sales season.
Goldrush, her driest cider, consists of 84 per cent Goldrush apples and a 16 per cent blend of English and French cider varieties: Dabinett, Muscadet de Dieppe and Kingston Black.
‘It's a great blend of earthy and tropical notes with a fresh apple finish,” says Janelle.
Pink is a cider blended from 50 per cent Red Heart apples, a Québec red-fleshed variety, and 50 per cent from other aromatic, culinary varieties. She describes Pink as a big-flavour cider with lots of “red notes” of cherry and cranberry with fruity apple notes on the finish.
“Off-Dry is my ode to Dougie,” says Janelle, referring to her dad. “This blend is full of tried-and-true varieties that my dad and I have been playing with for the last 10 years of cider-making at a hobby level. This is our sweetest cider with lots of apple notes to it, balanced and full of flavour. This will be a great patio sipper after a long day in the orchard.”
Janelle believes that two markets exist right now when it comes to cider. ‘The Liquor Control Board of Ontario is promoting sweet apple ciders. But in my opinion, there’s another world of single varietals with unique tasting profiles.”
This is one pommelier who has tasted the future.
The Grower is Digging Deeper behind May 2023 cover story titled and speaking with Doug Balsillie. Doug and his wife Leslie Huffman have committed two acres of The Fruit Wagon’s 35 acres to growing cider apples near Harrow, Ontario.
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