Start your heirloom apple and cider tour at Alber Orchard
Kim Bayer | Contributor
Head to our local apple museum
Pretend you’re in your Model T when you drive out in the country to Alber Orchard and Cider Mill near Manchester. Inside the iconic red barn you’ll find a historic Mount Gilead cider press, installed in 1890, nearly two decades before the first Fords rolled off the line.
Originally purchased by the Alber family in 1881, the orchard of more than 1,600 trees is still growing more than 100 apple varieties, many that were popular way back when.
Alber Orchard is not just a regular orchard, it's also an apple museum — an open air living laboratory of antique apples not available in stores. At Alber you’ll find rare varieties like early ripening Red Astrachan along with Kingston Black, Wickson Crab and Dabinett, prized by hard cider aficionados.
Because of the odd weather this year, orchardists are saying "everything is two weeks behind where we usually are this time of year." But this year is better than last, when a late frost killed most of the Alber crop. They've got a good bunch of apples this year, and will have many heirloom varieties, all listed on their website.
Old time apples
Alber has so many kinds of apples they keep an index file for people who want specific varieties. They give a call when your Northern Spies, Newtown Pippins or Tolman Sweets are ready.
Recently staff from Greenfield Village came to pick up some old timers, including the Hubbardston Nonesuch, Maiden Blush, Baldwin, Rhode Island Greening, and Graham's Golden — to make cider. At Alber you can get old favorites like Macoun, Liberty and Jonathan, along with your newfangled Honeycrisps.
Some apples ripen early, like the Red Astrachans, some come mid-season, and some are late, like Granny Smiths, ready around Halloween. We don't think of this much any more, but specific varieties of apples were developed for different uses beyond eating out of hand. Some are best for drying, some for applesauce, some for baking, some for cidering, and some for keeping as long as possible through the winter. Alber Orchard co-owner Terese Bossory says good keeping apples include Crispin, Melrose and Ida Reds.
The varied tastes and seasons of over 100 varieties of apples are what make people drive for miles to get some sweet Alber's cider. You need both sweet and tart or even bitter apples to make good cider. Before (and during) the Prohibition years, those many apples made Alber famous for its hard cider — when a railcar came from Chicago for the sparkling drink.
Cider - hard and sweet
In England, "cider" means the alcoholic kind, so it's confusing to people buying cider in the States. But of course, we add "hard" to signify the adult version of the drink. A desire to bring back unique hard ciders is part of what hooked Mike and Terese Bossory on buying the place in 1999. They were the first people outside the Alber family to own the 48-acre property.
With recipes in hand from his mentor Al Alber, Mike’s goal is to start making hard cider for a commercial market.
Hard cider is an artisanal product, like wine, that reflects the character of the fruit, the terroir, and the preferences of the maker. The best ones are a balance of sweet and acid, fruit and mineral flavors. Different apples supply different nuances in cider, hard or sweet. In fact, many varieties of apples grown in cider orchards are too harsh or bitter for eating out of hand.
But for now, apples good for eating straight from the tree and that old-fashioned sweet cider are paying the bills. Mike Bossory told me you can make 200 gallons of cider from 40 bushels of apples. During the season, the 120 year old Mount Gilead cider press is hard at work on the weekends. It has to be cleaned within three hours of starting and then three hours after every pressing.
Alber doesn’t offer pick-your-own apples — they have too many varieties that ripen at different times mixed in together. But the orchard is a beautiful place for a walk or a picnic on a brilliant fall day.
And it's a lovely place for a wedding. They're working on having a place for receptions. They have a pumpkin patch and a corn maze, and they bring in donuts and pretzels from a local bakery. I hear they have a little pig and three baby lambs in the barn.
And they're picking Cortland, Red Free, Honeycrisp, Priscilla, Empire, Golden Supreme, Gala, and Macintosh apples this week. Load up the bushel baskets in your rumble seat for the drive home.
Proprietors: Mike and Terese Bossory
Address: 13011 Bethel Church Road, Manchester, MIâ€¨
Season: Labor Day through Thanksgiving
Hours: Tuesday-Friday noon-6 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Growing practice: Conventional
U-pick: No, but many varieties of apples for sale. Cider for sale in one-gallon and also five-gallon carboys (bring your own carboy).
Special events: Alber hosts weddings, they have horse drawn wagon rides, a corn maze and a pumpkin patch.
Getting there: Directions and Map
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.