An Apple That Fell Close to the Tree

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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.

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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.

Juicy Recipes

Apple Cider Caramel

Crispy Pork Belly with Braised Apples and Cabbage

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.

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“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.

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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.

Changing Times, Changing Toasts: A Valley Beer, Mead, and Cider Tasting

By Christopher Peter Ehnstrom | Photographs by Dominic Perri and Carole Topalian

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The Pioneer Valley is home to a wealth of locally produced, lovingly fermented beverages. It wasn’t always so. When I first came to the Valley, the microbrew movement was just getting under way. Very few craft brews existed and those of us with an adventurous palate turned to homebrew. A toast with local beer, cider, or mead featured beverages we brewed ourselves, with results that ranged from comic to tragic.

Times change. Now when I raise a glass with friends it’s more likely to be filled with an offering from one of the Valley’s professional fermenteers.

My cohort back then consisted of a ragtag band of twenty-somethings—our relationships ranging from housemates to coworkers to partners-in-crime. We liked to grow, gather, hunt, cook, can, and ferment many of the things we consumed. These days, my rounds of good cheer happen with a collection of fairly new fathers. One evening—after tucking in the toddlers—we gathered to sample some of the Valley’s fermented offerings.

We tasted a few hard ciders to start. I remember the days when hard cider was, to me, something spontaneously created in the walk-in refrigerator at one restaurant or another. Whenever autumn was winding down, there were inevitably a few plastic jugs of apple cider forgotten in some corner. On a slow evening, someone would discover them, inflated and ready to explode. By the end of the shift most of the staff would be in a festive mood—fueled by clandestine trips to the cooler to sneak a belt or two of the sharp, boozy beverage.

These days, the Valley’s cider makers offer more intentional fermentations.


 

West County Cider (Colrain)

McIntosh Pura Vida

This single-varietal cider is a wonderfully drinkable bottle. The color is a pale straw and the aroma straight McIntosh. A light body, good carbonation, and a clean finish make it quite refreshing. Its flavor is crisp and bright, capturing the quality of the apple perfectly.

Headwater Cider (Hawley)

New England Dry Cider

This somewhat heartier offering has a floral, fruity nose that hints at its nicely complex taste. A light body spreads slowly across the palate and a long finish delivers ever changing tones of sweet, sour, and tangy apple.

Bear Swamp Orchard (Ashfield)

Sparkling Hard Cider

This certified organic cider sparkled nicely out of the bottle, though it had gone a bit flat by the end of the glass. Its wild yeast fermentation gives it a musky nose and an earthy flavor overall. Dry and lightly acidic, with a sour note, this cider delivers an untamed, meaty essence.

Back in the day, a few of the guys kept bees. Trying our hand at making mead seemed like a good idea. It was a fun project for a midsummer day. Honey, water, yeast—what could be simpler? It turned out that mead was, in fact, a bit more complicated. One evening as we were sitting around the living room, we became aware of an intermittent rumble. There were bursts of quiet drumming coming from somewhere in the house. About every half hour, at first, but then their frequency increased until a muted drumroll was heard every few minutes. We finally tracked down the source—it was coming from behind the door where the mead was aging. Unchecked bacteria had run amok, and one by one the bottles were ejecting their corks to ricochet about the closet. Filtering your backyard honey is important, we learned.

Our recent tasting included a pair of local meads. By virtue of still being contained in the bottle, they started out with a distinct advantage over any I’d tried before.

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Green River Ambrosia (Greenfield)

Liquid Sunshine Mead

True to its name, Liquid Sunshine pours with a deep, clear, golden color. Similarly, its flavor is pure and simple. It is not overly sweet, yet has a full body that accentuates the taste of honey. This straightforward honey essence makes it a great candidate for midwinter mulling with one’s favorite spices.

Green River Ambrosia (Greenfield)

Bourbon Barrel Cyzer

In contrast to the simplicity of Liquid Sunshine, Bourbon Barrel Cyzer is remarkably complex for a mead. Combined with local cider and aged in bourbon barrels, this pale amber mead’s depth is evident immediately in the nose. The fruit flavor is quite forward, with floral, honeyed notes and a heady edge of bourbon.

Beer is the one beverage with which I can claim a modicum of success—though the homebrewing victories are still outweighed by the defeats. One early effort to make a porter ran into a snag when (due to ongoing prank warfare) it was discovered that someone’s hat had been boiled, unseen, in the tar-black wort. After some grumbling and temple rubbing, it was decided to go ahead and finish the batch. Months later, with great trepidation, we ventured to taste the finished product. Surprisingly, beer made with hat tasted remarkably like feet.

Nowadays, I’m happy to leave the brewing to others, and there are plenty of Valley professionals brewing on our behalf.

Element Brewing Company (Millers Falls)

Interval Ale: Altoberfest

This seasonal selection opens up with a thick, persistent head above a clear amber-brown ale. Toasted malt is prominent in the nose. The grain flavors are balanced by a hint of bitterness without being too hoppy. Element delivers as billed: the mellow profile of an Altbier with the fuller body of an Oktoberfest.

Lefty’s Brewing Company (Greenfield)

Oktoberfest

Lefty’s Oktoberfest can only be described as a true representative of the style. The ale’s ruby brown hue tints its thick head, and its many malts are evident in its aroma. The flavors of smoky malt and caramel are very forward without being too sweet. A bit lighter on the palate than many Oktoberfests, this a very drinkable ale if the plan is to share a few rounds. 

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Paper City Brewing Company (Holyoke)

Fogbuster Coffee House Ale

A robust beer for a cold winter’s evening (or morning), Paper City’s Fogbuster Ale is a standout for those who love the darker side of the brewing world. Inky black to the point of opacity, it pours with a full, heavy head that clings doggedly to the sides of the glass. Rich coffee smells precede each opulent swig. Dark roasts of malt and coffee hang around on the tongue with notes of chocolate for a good, long while at the finish of this one.

The People People’s Pint (Greenfield)

Shortnose Stout

Brownish-black and turbid beneath a short, brown cap, a glass of Shortnose Stout looks dressed for the winter. There is sweet licorice in the nose, which closed off a bit as the head receded to the rim of the glass. Hints of raisin, fig, and prune blend with the sweet malt. The body is on the thin side for a stout, but it finishes with a pleasant nuttiness.

Brewmaster Jack (Northampton)

Hop Essence Series: Hallertau Blanc

A single-hop brew is always fun for the hop lovers, and the latest in Brewmaster Jack’s series doesn’t disappoint. The name “blanc” belies the deep amber hue of the beer, which pours with a fine, lively head. One can spend a while with their nose stuck in the glass. There’s a lot going on in that one hop. Fresh, grassy resin, citrus tones, a tiny floral note, a bit of pepper—the longer one smells the more one finds. A subtle malt complements the single hop nicely, and the long finish leaves a pleasant bitterness.

Howler Brewery (Hatfield)

Billy’s Pale Ale

From one hop to two, Billy’s promises Cascade and Nugget hops in this pale ale. It pours a slightly cloudy, copper color with a good head. The Nuggets dominate the nose, giving a perfumy, lavender bouquet. Light on the tongue, the sweet, bready flavor of the malts and a slight yeastiness outweigh the hops more than one would expect in a pale ale.

Scantic River Brewery (Hampden)

Totally Massachusetts Ale

Scantic takes “local” up a level by sourcing this ale’s ingredients exclusively from Massachusetts. Misty and golden in the glass, with an aroma that suggests a Wiesen’s yeast along with lemon notes. The biscuity Vienna malt is evident, along with very earthy overtones.

Berkshire Brewing Company (S. Deerfield)

Czech Style Pilsner

For those who prefer lighter beers, BBC has perfected a Pilsner. It is crystal clear amber in the glass, with a dense, fluffy head and refreshing carbonation. The clean, zesty bitterness of Saaz hops is unmistakable in the nose. With a crisp, simple balance of light malt and grassy hops and a dry, refreshing finish, many consider this more a beer for summer. But if your holiday revelers include “macrobrew” drinkers, this is a great one to ease them over toward beer with flavor.


Times change. Back then, after a tasting like this, the gang would fall asleep on chairs, sofas, perhaps the floor. Some would rise bleary eyed, a few hours later, and drag themselves off to kitchens and bakeries to suffer through a shift. Others would wake and forego coffee for another pint—fortification against the coming winter’s chill.

Back to the present. By the time we reach the final bottle, the group has slowly dwindled away—“early lecture”, “baby has a cold”, “promised the wife 11 o’clock” ... There’s no razzing, no teasing; we share similar situations. Times have changed. Still, those changes have brought many new reasons to raise a glass, and many local offerings to fill it with.

We did, however, throw a homebrew into the evening’s mix… hope springs eternal.

Christopher Peter Ehnstrom is a Cape Cod native who was transplanted to the Valley in 1992. He is a former chef and bread baker, a current daddy and tech geek, and an eternal lover of all things fermented.