From backyard to bottle: Branch Out Cider utilizes unique community orchard model
December 10, 2016
This fall, Wendell Nelson had more apples from the fruit trees he planted 40 years ago than he knew what to do with.
In the past, the retired Colorado State University veterinary professor and former restaurateur utilized fruit from his Windswept Farm north of Fort Collins, Colo., for pies at his eatery, sold them as produce at a local farmer's market and donated apples to a nearby elk farm.
With this banner 2016 crop, he donated apples to the food bank in Wellington, Colo., gave apples to his family and friends, and made gallons of apple sauce and pasteurized apple juice. Yet he still had hundreds of pounds of apples left over, even too much for the compost pile for his large garden. That's where Branch Out Cider comes in.
The cider enterprise utilizes a business model that is likely unique in America, according to the U.S. Association of Cider Makers. The company does not own an orchard, and no apples are trucked in from outside of north central Colorado. Local residents register their backyard trees for Branch Out Cider pickers to pluck and later ferment into hard apple cider.
Pickers harvested some 3,000 pounds of Jonathan and McIntosh apples from trees at Nelson's home.
Branch Out Cider, established in 2012, uses the model of a distributed community orchard to create hard cider sold in the region. The business turns fruit waste in northern Colorado into a viable income stream, food source, educational tool and locally sustained product, explained Jennifer Seiwald, who purchased the enterprise from sustainable-minded founders Aaron Fodge and Matt Fater.
"It's quite unique as a business model, and they seem to be doing it right," said Nelson, who is no longer able to do much picking. "Not when I'm 81 years old; I keep my feet on the ground as much as possible. I would have never been able to touch the amount of apples on those trees. They hung like grapes this year."
Like many of the people who register their trees for the Branch Out Cider community orchard project, Nelson nurtures a strong emotional attachment to his apple trees and loves to see the wide trees in full bloom.
"That's why it's wonderful to connect people with their food, and we really want to be part of that," said Seiwald, also general manager of Scrumpy's Cider Bar, Sandwiches & Sweets in downtown Fort Collins.
Branch Out Cider has grown to 300 members, who have registered some 700 trees, and this season 10 workers harvested 36,000 pounds of backyard and old orchard fruit from August through mid-October, picked mostly in Larimer County but also some in Weld and Boulder counties. Northern Colorado produces a wide variety of apples such as Winesap, Granny Smith, Portland, Empire, Transparent, Red and Yellow Delicious, crab apples and even older varieties difficult to identify.
In 2017, Branch Out Cider will expand thanks to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture local foods promotion grant for the purchase of a costly mobile apple processing trailer made in Austria, Seiwald said. She believes the trailer will be the first in use in the region and will help quadruple the company's harvest volume next picking season. Some of the grant funding will be used to educate tree owners, engage more CSU horticulture and forestry students in the learning program and educate the community with demonstrations at local events and farmer's markets.
Aside from increasing efficiency and decreasing transportation costs of the cider operation, the side benefit of the new juicing trailer that washes, mills, presses, pasteurizes and bottles the underutilized fruit will be the ability to leave behind fresh, sweet apple cider with small local orchard owners.
At the hard cider making operation inside a converted 1905 building in downtown Fort Collins, the apples are fermented for six months to become sparkling cider at 6 to 7 percent alcohol by volume. The tasty beverages are available at Scrumpy's and other regional restaurants and liquor stores. The new Branch Out Cider series lineup for 2017 will include four varieties: semi-sweet, dry, semi-dry with plum, and hard cider with peach and plum.
CSU horticulture graduate Lucas Thompson was the first full-time employee when Branch Out Cider began to outgrow the original processing site in the basement of co-founder Fater's house. Thompson calls the company an educational and fun community effort that also teaches tree owners how to graft, deblossom, irrigate, fertilize and take care of their trees naturally.
"A handful of families have never picked from their trees. That's the most satisfying to let people know their apples are great to eat," Thompson said. He said 20 to 50 percent of the tree owners might use only 20 or 30 pounds of their apples. Picking the apples also helps owners with bear issues, the cidermaker said.
"Northern Colorado has a lot of historic orchards. Some trees are from the turn of the century. Orchards with 15 to 50 trees are largely sitting idle," Seiwald noted.
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
Co-founder Fodge said the company's original goal was to prevent food waste while keeping good food local. The distributed orchard model has sparked interest from other states.
"Tree owners are usually super thankful that someone is going to come help and put the apples to use. They want to be part of the community effort," Fodge said.
"The idea of getting the community involved and using a resource that's there, that's what sets Branch Out Cider apart," said Dick Dunn, president of the Rocky Mountain Cider Association,
Even the apple pumice, left over after juicing, is put to use as livestock feed. Apparently hogs go wild for the leftovers.
Jake Takiff, with Eagle Canyon Farm out of Lyons, said a diverse natural diet from pumpkins to acorns to apple pumice produces flavorful and sweet pork. He hauled away some 8,000 pounds of apple pumice through the late summer and early fall to feed his animals.
"The pigs love it. They eat it right up, and it offset feeding costs for me," Takiff said. A former banker, stockbroker and financial planner for 22 years, Seiwald now works long hours in the restaurant and cider making business. But she enjoys seeing more people tied to their rural and urban agriculture history.
"The biggest thing for me," Seiwald said, "is that connection and the sustainability of utilizing what you have locally and enjoying it." ❖