Three generations make cider at Bear Swamp Orchard
Story and photographs by Leslie Lynn Lucio
In the hilltowns of western Massachusetts, in the small town of Ashfield, you’ll find Bear Swamp Orchard, a small organic apple orchard run by the Gougeon family. Jen Williams and Steve Gougeon operate the orchard along with their sons, Aidan and Elliot. The orchard offers pick-your-own during the early fall months (starting in mid-September), hosts hard cider tastings throughout most of the year, and they make and sell both organic sweet and hard cider made from their own apples.
Bear Swamp Orchard is located on land that has nurtured apple orchards for over 100 years. In the 1950s the whole area was entirely apples, but toward the mid-1970s, some of the orchard was cut and burned and switched over to pasture. As time passed, woods took over the old orchard. Any apple trees that remained were embraced and hidden by the trees that grew around them.
When Steve was young his parents, Melinda and Richard, moved to the site and built a house right next to the old, still-hidden orchard. In the mid-1980s, an apple-growing neighbor helped out when he came through and cleared out the trees that weren’t apples, enriched the soil, and planted new apple trees.
Many years later, when Jen and Steve finished school, they moved back to the area, their family, and the orchard. Steve, who’s also a carpenter, built a second-family addition to his parents’ home, bringing three generation to live on the property. Jen and Steve decided to return the orchard to its former productive state.
“It was sad to see all these apples fall on the ground and just rot. So we decided we wanted to try and take care of it,” says Jen. They knew there were more apple than they could consume, so in 2006 they began selling apples and offering pick-your-own apples as well.
They have since put in five acres on two fields and planted more varieties of apple. This is an exercise in patience, as the trees will take years to produce fruit. The Gougeons have worked since the beginning to make sure the orchard is growing in a sustainable and holistic manner. The apples share the land with their animals: a llama named Fern and some Shetland ewes, which help by grazing the pasture and orchard.
Putting ideas in place
Steve and Jen had been making hard cider for themselves for many years.
“We realized we could share a lot of the fruit with other people, but the thing about organic production is that the majority of apples are not dessert-quality fruit, people aren’t buying them in stores. So you need to have some plan for all those apples that people don’t want to just pick and eat. That’s where hard cider comes in,” says Jen. They had already done the organic hurdle, so now it was a matter of time overcoming the level of paperwork that involves the selling of alcohol. It was a lot of work, time, and patience, but they knew it was worth it.
“Ten years [of cider experiments] gave us a lot of time to try out different varieties,” says Steve. “A lot of the varieties we have aren’t necessarily the varieties that most people would use to make cider, so we had to really figure out which ones were good and which ones weren’t.”
The process they use to make their hard cider is a traditional one. They ferment the juice with wild yeast and use lots of wild organic apples that are harvested when fully ripened. They also don’t interfere with fermentation by filtering or by adding other processing and fermenting aids. Steve says, “We did many yeast trials and we realized that none of the yeast you could buy gave us a better ferment than leaving it alone and letting it ferment by itself. Our process has always been simple.” There are six varieties to choose from, including New England Hard Cider, Sparkling Organic Hard Cider, and Hop Hard Cider.
This year, they put in a new production building and tasting room. They offer hard cider tastings and you can purchase cider, baked goods, and other local products in their shop. Steve is now a full-time cidermaker and orchardist and part-time carpenter. Jen teaches part-time when she is not working the orchard and cidery. They do most of the work themselves, but are able to bring in family or friends when they need a little extra help. Their two boys, Aidan, and Elliot, help out as well, but Jen and Steve keep their ages in mind, so they don’t put too much on them. But the boys like to lend a hand when they can.
It has taken time to build Bear Swamp Orchard to where it is today. Like the slow growth of an apple tree, their efforts have taken time to yield fruit. Thanks to their passion for the orchard and the cidery, the Gougeons’ relationship with their land is one that will endure.
Bear Swamp Orchard, Ashfield | 413-625-4829 | BearSwampOrchard.com
Visit the website or call for tasting room hours, Pick Your Own information, and details about ciders.