During fall foliage season, the town of Sperryville, Va., was once the place where travelers stopped at roadside stands for jugs of locally made apple cider. The sweet drink was as important as the fall colors as they headed west on Lee Highway to the Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive.

Sizable orchards are still up in the hollows, where this time of year trees weep under the weight of ripe, red fruit. But today, such fresh cider is harder to come by.

The town's two apple-processing warehouses have become huge antiques stores. Twelve years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rappahannock County had nearly 1,000 acres in apple production . Now that number is closer to 300 acres.

This season, only five area families are selling cider by the roadside. Not only has the number of apple trees in the countryside dwindled, but farmers say that inexpensive, imported apple juice concentrate is the seed of the problem.

"On the road, these days, pretty much what you see is clear, bottled cider that will keep till doomsday," says Roger Jenkins, a lieutenant in the Rappahannock County Sheriff's office. His family has sold apple beverages at a roadside stand on the eastern edge of town since the early 1960s.

The juice that Jenkins is talking about is not "cider" but rather filtered apple juice that is made from concentrate and bottled elsewhere. On the road or in the supermarket, apple drink terms can be confusing and vary from coast to coast (see cider FAQs, above) and there are no national standards to distinguish cider from juice.

For the most part, in the Washington area, apple juice refers to the clear, amber-colored, filtered and pasteurized product on the supermarket shelf. It does not need to be refrigerated before opening.

Cider refers to the cloudy, caramel-colored, unfiltered, pressed juice of apples. Most often, fresh-pressed apple cider is refrigerated when displayed in the produce section of grocery stores or sold at roadside stands.

Cider, as we know it on the East Coast, has seen sunny days. Early English settlers brought apple seeds to America and established the first orchards for juice production. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cider consumption reached its peak in this country in the mid-19th century. But in 2003 and 2004, only 1.5 percent of U.S. consumers drank apple cider, according to the NPD Group Inc., a market research firm that tracks American food trends.

Clear apple juice production in the United States has been in decline for five consecutive years, a U.S. Department of Commerce survey shows. At the same time, the USDA estimates for 2003 and 2004 a record import of 320,000 tons of low-priced apple juice concentrate, principally from China. But certainly not all from China. Tropicana's 100% Apple Juice, for example, lists Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungry, Argentina, Chile, Turkey, Brazil, China and the United States as the combined source for the reconstituted juice in the bottle. Apple juice concentrate is also the base of many blended juice drinks, such as Nestle's Juicy Juice brand.

Locally, the impact can be seen in both Virginia and Maryland. In Frederick, in the warehouse/sales shop at McCutcheon Apple Products, a musky apple scent hits the nose, as well it should. Through a window, visitors can watch as trucks dump bins of red, yellow and green apples into a wide trough of water called the receiving pit. Many of the regular customers know that during the pressing season, every fall, they can bring their own jug and fill it with fresh, tangy apple cider.

"[Apple juice] comes in cheaper from China and Chile than I can buy the apples for," says company president Robert McCutcheon III whose family buys apples from local farms rather than maintain their own orchards. In the early 1990s, McCutchen says his company processed 15 million pounds of apples per year. This year, it will press approximately 3 million pounds.

The imports have not gone unnoticed nationally. In 2000, U. S. apple industry complaints led the U.S. government to impose anti-dumping duties on all imports of apple juice concentrate from China. Much of this protection for American farmers was removed when China appealed the decision in December 2003. Now, according to the U.S. Apple Association, a national trade group based in Vienna for growers, packers, shippers and processors, the extended result is that more and more American apple farmers are going out of business and bulldozing their orchards because they can't compete with the imports.

Apple cider has its own problem. In the 1990s, there were several reported cases of food-borne illness and death from tainted apple cider linked to E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. The FDA responded by issuing new safety regulations for juice producers. The rules have been phased in over the past several years and went into full effect in January of this year.

In short, large juice processors are required to have procedures in place to reduce cider pathogens. Various methods can be used, but the prevailing technique is thermal pasteurization -- heating the juice to a minimum of 160 degrees for six seconds.

The FDA rules allow small cider producers who make less than 40,000 gallons per year and sell directly to consumers to label their product unpasteurized with a warning that it "may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems."

Still, many cider connoisseurs consider this drink a rite of fall. They know that the flavor of the cider has everything to do with what varieties of apples are pressed and mixed together. Some say that unpasteurized cider is sweeter and richer-tasting. The standard formula is two sweet apples, such as Red or Yellow Delicious, for every tart apple, such as a Stayman or Granny Smith.

Sunnyside Farms in Washington, Va., which was recently designated as the first commercial apple orchard in Rappahannock County by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, uses 24 apple varieties to make an exceptionally sweet and tangy cider. Some are heirloom cultivars such as Cox's Orange Pipin, Bramley's Seedling and Rockberry Russet.

A tiny producer, Sunnyside sold 2,000 gallons in 2003. The apples are pressed and the juice pasteurized by McCutcheon in Frederick. Their fresh cider, this season, is available at Sunnyside markets in Sperryville and Washington, Va., as well as at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm farmers market on Sunday mornings.

At Williams Orchard in Flint Hill, Va., a pretty, winding lane through a working orchard and farm leads to a sales shed on a hilltop. On a recent Saturday afternoon, as soon as one customer departed another arrived. Most were after a jug of Williams's super-sweet cider.

"We sell all we can make," says Tommy Williams, who, with his brother, Eddie, sells about 4,000 gallons of unpasteurized apple cider a year. Bottles are labeled with the required safety advisory. "People who come here don't want that stuff from concentrate, from China, that's been stepped on."

The brothers say they always use two or three varieties of apples. They prefer a combo of Red Delicious and York "because you get a special flavor that's hard to describe with a York," says Eddie. They never, they say, use apples in their cider that have been on the ground. Once, the majority of orchards in Rappahannock County pressed and sold their own cider. Now, Williams is the very last one.

"The only way to survive in the apple business is to be in a niche market," says Eddie. "But we'll continue on, making juice, with the help of family and friends."

Along the way, apple cider has lost some of its seasonal appeal. At left, a 1935 stand in Nicholson Hollow, Va., in Shenandoah National Park. Below, a fresh batch is hauled to the store at the Williams Orchard in Flint Hill, Va.ANOTHER ROUND: The tender crumb and mellow tang of apple cider doughnuts; cider FAQs PAGES 5-6