“The identity of this area as an apple region has been processing fruit, mostly for applesauce and other products, like juice,” said Ben Wenk, whose family has tended orchards in Adams County since 1901.
John Musselman and his two sons, John Jr. and Christian, founded Musselman’s in 1907. A group of farmers established Knouse Foods Cooperative, another integral part of the region’s growth, in 1949, and Knouse eventually bought Musselman’s in 1984. Over the past 25 years, farmers shifted to a larger variety of apples to eat fresh, with Rice Fruit Company becoming the top packer of fresh fruit on the East Coast.
The smokestack sporting the Musselman name still stands along the eastern edge of Biglerville, Pa., the small town known as “Apple Capital USA” — not to be confused with Wenatchee, Wa., known as the “Apple Capital of the World.” But, said Wenk, those retail packs of applesauce simply don’t sell like they used to. “There has to be a next thing.”
For a few growers, at least, that thing is cider. Jack’s Hard Cider, Reid’s Orchard and Winery, Ploughman Farm Cider and Big Hill Ciderworks, all based in Adams County and started within the past 13 years, are slowly but surely expanding the local apple market to include cider production. And Good Intent Cider, based 100 miles north in the town of Bellefonte, Pa., also sources most of its apples from Adams County.
Earlier this year, Anxo Cider, based in Washington, D.C., opened up its production facility in Chambersburg, Pa., in neighboring Franklin County. “I just joined the Pennsylvania Cider Guild,” said Sam Fitz, who is one of the owners of Anxo Cider. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity with them to really show what this region is all about, and this region’s apple history is really tied to Biglerville and Adams County.”
Troy Lehman bought his farm in Gardners, Pa., in 2010, specifically to make cider. “If I’m going to produce hard cider, then I want to grow the best fruit I can,” he said. “The South Mountain fruit belt is the place to do it.” Lehman and his business partner Ben Kishbaugh, who has his own orchard as well, started Big Hill Ciderworks back in 2013 and opened up their new taproom in Gardners in September 2020.
The region is an easy drive from the District, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even Pittsburgh and New York City. “There’s no reason that this area can’t become as worthy as a trip to the Finger Lakes or to Napa Valley,” Lehman said. “But we have to establish the value.” It’s not that there is nowhere else in the world to grow great tasting apples, he added. “But as far as what makes our area special? It’s the rock that we’re growing it on.”
The soil is rich with quartz and limestone, said Ploughman cider maker Edwin Winzeler, while the South Mountain often shields orchards from damaging weather. Explained Wenk, who owns Ploughman, “The sloping hillsides provide this air drainage that on more than a couple of occasions has helped protect apple blossoms from cold and frost damage. As far as the East Coast is concerned, as an apple growing region, Adams County is probably the most reliable in terms of having somewhat near a full crop every year despite other areas occasionally losing crop to frost.”
Also going for it is that Adams County is warmer than, say, New York, Vermont and Michigan, which means not only a longer growing season, but more sugar in the fruit, which ferments nicely into alcohol. “We sit from a climate perspective in that middle ground that shares a lot of the favorable characteristics of Virginia-grown fruit, but also with those conditions of cooler areas,” explained Wenk. “Some of the Brix that we have pulled off Wickson and Spitzenburg would be highly unusual in colder climates,” he said, referring to the measurement of the apple’s sugar content.
The location also protects growers, for now at least, from climate extremes. “Apples can take on a much lower temperature in the winter than grapes,” said David Reid, who has been farming with his wife, Kathy, in Orrtanna, Pa., about 15 miles from Gettysburg, since 1976. (Disclosure: I’ve worked at the Reid’s stand at two Washington, D.C., farmers markets for 10 years.) “The fruit industry has thrived here for so long because we have that stability. And the change in the climate has affected that stability.”
While a farmer can replant a decimated vegetable crop the next year, if extreme winds or a tornado wipes out an orchard, it’s not just losing the fruit, it’s the trees that take years to grow. “I do think this specific area where we are, even though we see effects from climate change, in some ways we’re insulated from the worst of it,” Lehman said. (Compare it to the West Coast, which faces extreme heat, wildfires and drought.)
Adams County sits in the foothills of the Appalachians in Pennsylvania, and the weather generally follows the contour of the mountains. “When we get these storms coming from the west, they hit the hills and they tend to break up unless they’re super strong,” explained Reid. “That is the saving grace of Adams County. The hills. That’s why we’re here.”
In 1991, there were 10 cideries in the United States, Dan Pucci and Craig Cavallo wrote in “American Cider: A Modern Guide to a Historic Beverage.” As of 2020 there were nearly 1,000 cideries in the country. By contrast, according to the Brewers Association, there are nearly 9,000 breweries, including craft and lager. “Beer is made from water, wine is a higher price point, cider’s not good enough for a lot of wine drinkers, and we’ve ended up at a beer price point,” Lehman said. “We’re not made of water, we’re made from juice. We have more dollars in every gallon produced, less margin, and that’s a lot of the reason why cider is only as big as it is.”
As Reid says, “People aren’t used to paying for apples. But it takes forever to pick those little apples to fill a bin.” Recreational apple picking for an hour or two on a weekend outing is fun. It’s much less idyllic when it’s a humid 90 degrees and you spend months doing it, or if you’re away from your family for much of the year, as is the case for the agricultural visa holders who work in many Adams County orchards.
For a region steeped in apples, cider has no default audience. The industry was built on the York Imperial and Golden Delicious, planted together for pollination and processing. “We have so many people that work in agriculture and work around apples,” Wenk said. “We grow 7.8 million bushels of apples on average over 10 years, but that doesn’t translate to people knowing much about the apples themselves or especially cider.”
“That’s ultimately, in terms of large and abstract goals, what I envision we’re doing,” Wenk said. “We want to make cider the native beverage of this area.” Although cider as a commercial product is relatively young in Adams County, cider making is nothing new. “When I first moved up here, people would make a barrel of cider every year and let it ferment on its own,” Reid said. “When it would freeze, it would get pretty alcoholic, and it also took a lot of the funkiness out. And that’s how it was done.”
More growers are cultivating apples specific to ciders, such as Dabinett, Manchurian and Wickson. “I tend to like bittersweet apples, where the sugar and the tannins are balanced,” said Winzeler, the Ploughman cider maker. “The more sugar that builds up, the more balanced it becomes.” Others, such as Esopus Spitzenburg, are good for cider but also fresh eating. “It’s your favorite apple flavor but dialed in to 11,” said Wenk.
Stayman Winesap also does well in Adams County. It’s good for apple pies but quite tasty when fermented spontaneously with wild yeast, as is done at Ploughman. “We’ve been working a lot on seeing which apples grow in this climate and how they turn out,” Winzeler said. “Some grow but they don’t produce the kind of fruit we want. Others really thrive.”
Fermenting those apples into cider creates a whole new set of flavors, while blending varieties forges even more. One cider may have salty minerality — remember that rich soil — while another exhibits burnt caramel notes. Another might start bright and acidic but finish rich and buttery. But for the newer cider drinker, it often comes down to sweet versus dry.
Educating managers and servers on how to talk about their cider in a welcoming way, especially when asked which one is the sweetest, is so important, Wenk said. “Because, really, we don’t make a cider for that person,” he said. “That isn’t to say that they can’t find something that we make that they like, but you have to talk about it the right way.”
Big Hill ciders bridge the divide between sweet and dry by fermenting some with berries or finishing with fresh cider, yielding a sweeter drink that has slightly less alcohol, between 5 and 7 percent alcohol by volume compared to the drier ciders, which hover between 6 and 9 percent alcohol by volume. “I think a lot of people have this idea that if they make modern ciders, it’s going to tarnish their image,” Lehman said.
“I guess with a certain percent, those people will tell you that everything else is junk. But I probably don’t care about selling them cider anyway, because it is about being inclusive. For me, it’s how can I get my neighbor who just likes that farmhouse berry cider to try something else,” Lehman said. “That’s where you’re creating cider fans for life. You’re not making someone feel like they’re not good enough to drink your best stuff.”
Adams County cider is still young and, for some growers, it’ll take decades to find the apples and blends that will define their success. “A lot of apple people are like this,” Winzeler said. “You might not ever see the benefits of your work. You pass it on to somebody else.” Winzeler and Wenk grafted more than 500 scions of rootstock at the start of the season, of which two-thirds took. “If we have 200 varieties we’re testing, I would consider it a success if we find eight out of 200 that we really like,” Wenk said.
Their work also helps preserve many of the old varieties of apples of which, thanks to the nature of the fruit, there exists a seemingly infinite amount. “What we have here is a gift,” Lehman said. “We can create a region that is internationally known for the quality of cider and the quality of the fruit. I know it can happen,” he concluded. "It’s just a matter of will I get to see it in my lifetime. But I’m going to play a part in that.”
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