GRANVILLE | The future of Hicks Orchard is growing.
With 2,000 new trees planted this month, and with another 2,500 planned for next year and 3,000 more in 2017, Hicks Orchard co-owner Dan Wilson thinks he’ll be better able to weather the kind of hardship that struck his operation in 2012.
That year, an early spring warm-up got apple trees blooming fast, only to have those blossoms killed by a hard freeze in the late spring. It was a tough season for all of the region’s growers.
“We had maybe 30 percent of our crop,” Wilson recalled. “One of the reasons I’m planting so aggressively now is I would like 40 percent of a crop to be enough apples, and then deal with the problem of having too many apples in a good year.”
Too many apples will also be far less of a problem for the orchard, if its hard cider operation — the Slyboro Ciderhouse —continues on its present growth track.
“We’re selling a lot (of hard cider), and our sales are really strong in New York City,” Wilson said. “The challenge for us is meeting that demand.”
The cidery, which launched in 2007, has grown from producing around 300 cases its first year to an anticipated 6,000 cases for the coming season, Wilson said.
By the time trees planted now reach maturity, Wilson will need to invest in a larger cider house.
“We’re kind of busting at the seams,” he said. “The only thing we can do right at this point is kind of schedule our tank time.”
A new hard cider facility could be built at the orchard, which encompasses 350 acres. Of that, about 60 acres are planted with around 15,000 trees — after this year’s planting. Other aspects of the farm include blueberries, tart cherries and the various attractions enjoyed by U-pick customers, Wilson said.
“I’d like to (expand the cidery on-site),” he said. “That’s my hope. Traditionally, we like to do things right on the farm, but we’ll just have to consider the best options for that.”
Wilson said the day may be coming when the hard cider business surpasses the fresh fruit side of the business.
“For Hicks Orchard — the U-pick operation — we’re very much tied to the local economy,” he said. “We’re not big enough that we distribute our apples much beyond this area; we’re in a few stores, and we’re relying on people to come to the farm.
“That’s kind of a fixed population. Even though we get regular customers from New York City and from outside the area, it’s pretty much tied to the local economy, whereas hard cider is a rapidly developing industry, and it’s a national market.”
Cider also has the advantage of being a great use for fruit that a lot of U-pick customers might overlook due to blemishes. And blemishes could be a reality of a harsher climate, if fears about climate change are borne out.
“If I can get an apple to hang on a tree long enough for it to get ripe, even if it might have a little bit of insect damage from some invasive new pest that we might struggle to deal with, or a few dings from hail stones in an earlier storm of the summer, I can still use those (to make cider),” Wilson said.
Most of the trees planted in recent days are early-season varieties, with fruit that should be ready around Labor Day, once the trees mature, Wilson said. The trees are a mix of fruits that will be good for making hard cider and for U-pick sales, he said.
“With some of these varieties of apples that are only used for hard cider, they’re pretty bitter, and kind of astringent,” Wilson said. “You wouldn’t eat them, but when you ferment them, they have a lot more interesting dimensions to add to the cider for structure and more wine-like characteristics.”
Wilson is on the board of directors for the United States Association of Cider Makers. He said the hard cider industry is the fastest growing segment of the alcoholic craft-beverage market, and innovation is following the path blazed by craft beer makers.
Some cideries are even adding hop flavors to their creations, and Wilson has experimented with ale yeasts (hard cider is conventionally made with wine yeasts).
Though he admittedly has a lot at stake, Wilson said he doesn’t think there is any danger of the hard cider market becoming saturated.
“There will be some winners and losers, as with anything,” he said. “But the thing with the craft brewing industry that I find so encouraging is that there was really rapid growth, and then there was some fallout, and now it’s growing again.
“I think people sense, and the business models show, that it is not a fad.”
Saratoga Apple, which has a 40-acre orchard in Schuylerville, is awaiting a license to launch its own cidery, according to owner Nate Darrow.
He said the hard cider endeavor was launched when his son, Eric, joined the business and saw opportunity in the craft beverage industry.
The orchard has filed its application for the license with the state, and stainless steel fermenting equipment is awaiting its first batch, Darrow said.
“Some of (the tanks) are just big enough where we can’t use them until we get our commercial license,” he said.
If things go well, Saratoga Apple could launch its own brand of hard cider in the winter.
“We may have a little something available for the busy season, but I don’t want to disappoint people,” Darrow said.
As for this year’s crop, Darrow and Wilson both said the blossom and pollination phases of growth went very well this year, and it should be a strong crop, provided no weather disasters strike between now and the fall.