Learning from the United Kingdom cider makers

by Sally Colby
Although hard cider is still on the rise in the United States, it’s been a staple in the UK for a quite a while. And while growing apples is somewhat different in the UK than it is in the US, domestic cider makers can learn a lot from them.
“In the UK, 80 percent of apple cider growers are contracted,” said Carla Snyder, Penn State agriculture entrepreneurship and marketing educator. “They are either fresh market growers or cider apple growers. There isn’t a lot of growing for juice like we have here. The main difference is that they use mechanical harvest, which saves a lot of labor cost.”
Snyder explained that contract growing has solved a lot of the issues faced in the apple industry, just as contract growing of grapes solved issues for the wine industry. A well-written, comprehensive contract includes details about the length of the contract, available apple cultivars, environmental practices, chemical use and harvest method. Due to the long-term nature of the fruit growing industry, most cider apple contracts are for 20 years. Snyder says that’s why it’s important to find someone to work with long-term, and suggests using an attorney for such contracts.
The University of Vermont gathered facts based on the UK cider industry, where cider sales have continued to grow. Snyder noted that UK apple growers specialize in growing for either the hard cider market or the fresh apple market. Hard cider apples are grown as a commodity and the crop is handled with as much mechanization as possible.
“They emphasize selling out the varieties grown, growing practices and the harvest process,” said Snyder. “They looked at the Allied Grape Growers Association in California, which represents grape growers and provides assistance to growers in checking out contracts. They suggested adding additional management expectations for the broker or vineyard that are agreed upon ahead of time and factored in labor and other costs.”
In the past, contracts included cider makers sharing the cost of trees, but the industry has moved away from this practice and now encourages the two parties to concentrate on their own specialties – either making cider or growing fruit.
The UK study also emphasizes terms of sale. “Over there, the cider maker purchases all of the apples in a contracted area,” said Snyder. “It might be a block or a full orchard. However, in the grape industry, it’s typical that they specify tonnage. Grape growers also place limits on the amount that will be purchased for juice, so if weather conditions prevent a certain yield that year, growers are responsible for finding an alternate source.”
Long-term contractual considerations can also include the potential of the grower having to replant a diseased orchard, the possibility of production costs rising and if the market remains low, how will that affect the terms of a contract? “Always think over the lifetime of the contract,” said Snyder. “As far as pricing goes, in the UK, prices are based entirely on volume. There’s no restriction on the volume for the grower. It’s in the best interest as a grower to maximize yield.”
As with any contract, it’s critical that the contract is mutually beneficial and that both parties remain in communication. It’s important for the growers and cider makers to understand each other’s perspectives, issues and challenges.
Snyder noted that quality standards for apples are very important, and many UK growers work on a premium system. Very poor quality apples can result in a deduction from the minimum price per ton. “It’s very important to have an agreed-upon testing method to determine quality standards,” said Snyder. “The UK recommends that cider makers go by tannin content over sugar or acidity, because sugar or acidity can be adjusted fairly easily and inexpensively where you wouldn’t be able to adjust tannin content in the juice after pressing.”
Growers are encouraged to experiment with a variety of cider cultivars and since high juice yields and tannins are among the most desirable traits, these two factors should be tracked. Factors outside of the fruit itself, such as mechanization, are also important. “Innovation in the industry is moving ahead,” said Snyder. “If you have a 20-year contract, you want to make sure you can adjust for potential mechanized harvest. Maybe down the line that will affect labor costs or future costs to the grower.”
A recent meeting at Maple Lawn Farms in south-central Pennsylvania brought together cider makers and apple growers to discuss various aspects of their operations, including current and future needs. Ben Wenk, a grower at Three Springs Fruit Farm in Adams County, Pennsylvania, talked with current and potential cider makers. He explained that Three Springs has recently added six acres of cider apples to the 250 acres of existing orchards.
“In the short term, we’ll be using a lot of the apples for ourselves,” said Wenk, adding that his plan is to make hard cider. “We have six acres in the ground now, and I want to add more acreage for cider apples. We are confident that we know how to grow them, and we’ll know a lot more about how to grow them after we get through this first block.”
Wenk established a six-acre cider orchard in a 10’ x 18’ free-standing arrangement with interstem rootstock, “My dad’s thinking was that if we don’t know anything about these scions, we know that the 9/111 rootstock is very productive in terms of volume and yield,” said Wenk. “We knew that because others needed juice, we could be aggressive in planting. At the same time, as our business starts to grow, I don’t know how much we’re going to need. Some of the apples we planted are dual-purpose, so I can grade those and sell them at market. We planted them for us, but knew that there’d be a robust market of buyers if we planted more than what we need.”
Although Wenk planted the first trees two springs ago, it wasn’t as simple as putting trees in the ground. “We contracted with a nursery two years before that to get the trees we wanted,” he said, predicting that cider apples may eventually be worth more than fresh eating apples. “We’re five years invested now but don’t have anything to show yet. Some of the scions aren’t compatible with certain rootstocks, and some of the scions aren’t disease indexed and are susceptible to fire blight. Most bloom late. They’re a different beast to work with.”

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