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Washington State University researchers are looking into the need to automate harvest with machinery in order to make cidering economically feasible.<br />

Washington State University researchers are looking into the need to automate harvest with machinery in order to make cidering economically feasible.

WSU researchers moving apples from orchard to hard cider culture

April 5, 2012 | 0 comments

Where can hard cider connoisseurs roam the countryside, traveling from estate to estate and sampling the artisan crafts of local producers?

Western Washington will be the venue for such activity, if Washington State University researchers have their way.

Their goal is not just improvement of production and harvest techniques, but creation of a "hard cider culture," with thriving producers and ardent consumers.

Carol Miles of the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center (NWREC) in Mount Vernon is leading a team that has identified two of the objectives necessary for establishing a Washington hard cider culture.

First, researchers need to evaluate the characteristics of apples and their juice to determine their suitability for cider making in the Pacific Northwest.

Second, they need to automate harvest with machinery in order to make cidering economically feasible.

The character of cider apples

All apples are not created equal. Some, like Gala and Honeycrisp, are scrumptious when eaten out of hand. These staples of the grocery basket, however, are not particularly suited for fermenting into hard cider.

Instead, cider making requires bittersweet apples, such as Dabinett and Chisel Jersey, and bittersharp varieties, including Kingston Black and Brown Snout, to add desirable flavors and mouth feel.

These varieties are used by traditional cideries in England and France, but are little known on this side of the Atlantic.

The starting point of this project is the hard cider apple orchard at the NWREC. Planted in the 1970s, it has expanded to around 60 varieties thanks to plantings by research scientist Gary Moulton.

Miles and her colleagues will analyze juice from 50 varieties of the research orchard's apples. They will select four candidates to make cider for further evaluation.

They will collect these varieties from five regional commercial orchards, analyze the juices and compare the results.

Miles also will assemble a cider sensory evaluation panel to help producers evaluate and understand their own products.

Cideries can use this information to produce different styles of cider, as some consumers prefer a sweet cider while other tastes tend towards more robust, astringent ciders.

Sensory data also can help educate consumers about different cider varieties.

Mechanical harvest

The second part of the project is to reduce labor costs by refining mechanical harvesting of apples.

"Harvest is one of the primary costs of cider making," said Miles.

To mechanize the harvest in the system Miles is testing, trees first must be grafted to strongly dwarfing rootstocks and trained in trellis rows, so that trees grow in "walls," rather than branching out in all directions.

The low fruiting wall makes is possible for a repurposed raspberry harvester to drive along the rows and knock apples out of the trees and onto a conveyor belt.

Mechanical harvesting bruises apples, but Miles has found that bruising appears not to affect cider quality, even if the apples are stored for up to two weeks.

There are additional hurdles that must be overcome for mechanical harvesting to work efficiently on a commercial scale.

For instance, researchers will alter the way trees are trellised, providing support while still allowing enough motion to shake fruit from the branches.

Since apples are much heavier than raspberries, researchers will increase the force of the "beater bars" that knock fruit off the trees. They also will change configuration of the conveyor belt so the apples don't jam the line.

The economics of hard cider

Cider offers the potential for apple growers to diversify their orchards, profitably utilize apples that can't be sold as fresh fruit and gain another source of income.

At the same time, cider apple growing requires fewer inputs, such as pest-control chemicals, since superficial blemishes don't harm an apple's cider quality.

Raspberry harvesters are busy in the summer, but sit idle in the fall during apple harvest, so raspberry growers can earn revenue by using their expensive harvesters to pick apples.

Some Pacific Northwest hard cider producers import juice for their cider, so increased regional cider apple production would keep money in the local economy.

"Long term, we want to create a critical mass of cider producers that will attract customers from around the region and country," said David Bauermeister, executive director of the Northwest Agricultural Business Center and one of the collaborators on the project.

He added. "Washington producers have developed a really robust wine industry in the warmer parts of the state and are looking to create a cider industry in the cooler parts of the state."

As cider apple grower and research collaborator Drew Zimmerman pointed out, hard cider is the fastest growing category of the alcohol beverage industry.

With WSU's scientific research and outreach, the state of Washington and the growers of its iconic apples will be well positioned to take advantage of this trend.

This research is supported by grants from the Washington State Department of Agriculture/NABC, the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Washington State Wine Advisory Committee and the Northwest Cider Association.

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