As a youth, my family and I would, yearly, go to Spee's Apple Orchard to buy a bushel or two of apples, some gallons of freshly pressed cider, hot, fresh cinnamon and sugar doughnuts, and to play in the barn or get a ride on the farm's tractor. It never failed to capture my attention, the frying of the doughnuts and the pressing of the cider.
As I grew older, I yearned to re-create the experience and so I desired to know more exactly what it was that made cider ... cider. To that end, in this article, I recount my meeting and speaking with the owners of Barthel Farms. I will discuss apple farming, cider processing, and other interesting facts and tidbits associated with the art of apple cider.
Like a fine champagne or coffee, apple cider is blended using a variety of apples in order to achieve a particular taste profile. This immediately intrigued me and when I met Nino at the Farmers' Market that fateful Saturday morning, it was the first question from my lips. Nino was pleased to grant me an interview and teach me, briefly, what it takes to make cider.
Barthel Farms is licensed by the state government and continually inspected for cleanliness of the equipment and materials used. All of the apples used are sorted and washed prior to and also during their use. Apples used in the cider-making process are hand-picked as the ripe apples that fall from the tree are not allowed to be used. Barthel's is also one of the few places left where you can purchase unpastuerized cider. This means that the cider is not heated up and held at a certain temp to kill off any particular harmful bacteria that may or may not be present in the brew. I'll bring light to the reasoning behind this later in this article.
The apples begin the process by going through the grinder or food chopper. This frees up the apple and their juices. The apple mash is then moved up and separated onto plastic racks. The racks are each covered with a special coarse fabric cloth and the racks stacked and staged. Then they are pressed together using hydraulic force to express the juices from the mash.
The juice is captured below in bins and is then piped to a non-refrigerated holding tank and, from there, bottles are gravity-fed for filling. In about a week, Barthels may squeeze up to 600 gallons of cider! Their press can squeeze about 4 gallons of cider from one bushel of apples.
Most impressive about Barthel's cider, is how uniquely they've captured the tart and snappy bite of early season apples and toned and rounded out the taste with sweeter apples and those from later in the season. As the season moves along, it becomes more difficult to use the tarter apples as they mature and develop into sweeter tasting portions. Barthel's tart apples may be any of the following: Macintosh, Jonathon, Pippin, and Idas. And the other half -- the sweet half -- will contain: Paula Red, Golden, Spartan, and Honey Crisp.
The farm wasn't always an apple farm and mill. It began in 1839 as, like many of the surrounding farms, a dairy farm. New laws and regulations regarding sterilization forced a move to other farming areas, hence the introduction of fruit trees. Over twenty years ago, Bob Barthel "bought the farm" -- no, really, he purchased the farm -- and then added the cider mill.
The farm, strong at about 45 acres with a couple of acres of pears, is all manually harvested. The Pippin apples, a smooth-textured and voluminous apple that bakes exceptionally well, was hand-grafted into the farm. The level of commitment and care that Bob and Nino express clearly shines in light of the quality of the final beverage. A sparkling, semi-spicy, pleasingly snappy and sweet, rich coloured juice. Nino feels that pastuerization, while inevitable, leaves the brew with too much brightness and a lack of depth that only non-pastuerized juices can ever obtain. I most certainly agree, what with having tasted too many blaise ciders found at the local grocers. And she reminds me, during our time together, that -- at least here in Wisconsin -- not a single incident of e-coli poisoning has been reported or attributed to non-pastuerised cider.
So, hop on over to Mequon, Wisconsin. Meet Bob, the Cider Meister, and all of the wonderful folks at Barthel farms. Stay for the best cider you've ever had.