Some people call it hard cider because of the alcohol content. But all cider is hard to make, considering that you have to plant and graft and prune the trees, protect them from all sorts of weather and pests, pick and press the apples, ferment it, and then blend and bottle it.
Aaron Sturges loves doing it.
What started as a small experiment in 2015 when his son, Nate Sturges, came back to help at the orchard is growing into a bigger part of the family’s agricultural business.
Their spread now has 16 acres of apple trees. Each year, Mr. Sturges plants several hundred more trees, lately focusing on more tannic varieties known as “spitters” because you can’t really eat them. But their tannins and acids make for much better cider than the adulterated sugar water being dispensed by many national and international brands. There’s more cider than ever, but not all of it is as good as his.
Sturges Orchards and Farm Market near Fombell is Beaver County’s second licensed limited winery, a status it applied for so it could start selling hard cider in 2015. Mr. Sturges bet that it would bring in more young people than just his son. The bet is paying off. At some farmers markets where he sells it, such as the Market Square Farmers Market in Downtown, he always sells out. It’s a good problem to have.
“I ferment cider all fall and winter,” he says. “I blend and bottle all year. I press cider all year as well. My challenge is time in the growing season to make it since I usually sell out during the summer months.”
Most apples aren’t ready until late summer or fall. Mr. Sturges says he likes to pick them at night, for no other reason than he has enough other work to do under the hot sun for the other tree fruits and vegetables he grows.
The apples go into a power washer and then a power chopper, where they’re turned into a saucy “pomice” that gets layered between sheets of fabrics and then is pressed so that the juice escapes without the solids.
They add sulfites to kill all the natural yeasts, which are too wild to consistently work with, and then the next day add a French yeast that they know, from trial and error, works very well.
As Mr. Sturges puts it, “I like the way it finishes. I like the way it keeps. It behaves well.”
Two weeks later, they have cider that’s about 7 percent alcohol by volume, some of which they adjust to a lower alcohol volume of just over 4 percent. Those are their only two varieties. “I like to store it for three months to let it mellow out,” but consumer demand sometimes precludes that.
They sell it for $20 for a 950-milliliter amber glass jug.
But this fall, they will be experimenting with new blends, using new apples that are just starting to produce, such as Kingston Black and Jouveaux. “It’s all about the apple,” says Mr. Sturges.
They’re growing some 40 varieties. “That’s ballpark. I’m sure it’s more,” he says. “The [cider] is not the same product we started out with three years ago.”
Truth be told, he says, hard cider isn’t that hard to make. “It’s a challenge. How does that sound?”
He doesn’t carbonate his cider, doesn’t sell it to bars and restaurants, and doesn’t plan to bottle or can it for mass distribution.
“I want to keep it simple,” he says. “I’m an apple grower. That’s who I am.”
You can find Sturges Orchards from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays on 18th Street in the Strip District, as well at various farmers markets, including Bellevue’s (3-7 p.m. Wednesdays). Sturges also sells at the Market Square Farmers Market, Downtown, on the first Wednesday of each month and other days as invited.
Sturges Orchards is at 868 Route 288, Fombell (16123). For more information, visit its Facebook page or call 724-624-0383.
Other sources of local cider
Arsenal Cider House and Wine Cellar
The first post-Prohibition cidery in the region opened in 2010 in Lawrenceville and now has satellite locations at Soergel Orchards in Franklin Park and Trax Farms in Finleyville. 300 39th St., Lawrenceville (15201) www.arsenalciderhouse.com
Part of the Nova Destinations trail of drinks destinations across Lawrence County. 600 Main St., Volant (16156) www.knockinnoggin.com
Stonewall Cider House and Meadery
You may have seen Joshua Niece’s table at the Verona Farmers Market. He’s set to open any day now at 723 Allegheny River Blvd., Verona (15247) www.facebook.com/stonewallciderhouse
Threadbare Cider House and Meadery
This sister business to Wigle Whiskey opened in 2017 in Spring Garden. 1254 Voskamp St., North Side (15212) www.threadbarecider.com
Makes traditional ciders named for Ben Franklin and George Washington. 1229 Main St., Volant (16156) www.volantmillwinery.com
A Few Bad Apples
Mike Sturges (no relation to Sturges Orchard) and friends make cider with foraged apples and other ingredients in and around the city and with other cider makers. He’s planning collaborations with Stonewall. His main event is the fourth A Few Bad Apples Ciderfest on Saturday, Oct. 27, in the WBU event space at Spring Hill Brewing. Tickets are $20. “It’s a fundraiser for Allegheny CleanWays and we use it as a platform to talk about sustainability, food security and community-building and to share our cider with attendees,” he says. Learn more and buy tickets at https://afewbadapples.brownpapertickets.com.
Find other producers via the Pennsylvania Cider Guild at www.paciderguild.org.