Drive a few miles from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and you’ll encounter orchards lined with peach, apple, plum and cherry trees, along with farms growing all manner of berries and vegetables. Even in the dead of winter, when the bare branches stand guard over the snow-covered ground, the rolling hills of Adams County’s South Mountain Fruit Belt are a sight to behold. Many things grow well here, but apples reign supreme.
“The identity of this area as an apple region has been processing fruit, mostly for applesauce and other products like juice,” says Ben Wenk, whose family has been tending orchards in Adams County since 1901. John Musselman and his sons John Jr. and Christian founded Musselman’s in 1907. A group of farmers established Knouse Foods Cooperative, another integral part of the region’s growth, in 1949; Knouse bought Musselman’s in 1984. In the last 25 years, farmers shifted to a larger variety of apples for eating fresh, with Rice Fruit Co. becoming the largest packer of fresh fruit on the East Coast.
The smoke stack sporting the Musselman name still stands along the eastern edge of Biglerville, the small town known as “Apple Capital, USA” (not to be confused with Wenatchee, Washington, the “Apple Capital of the World”). But, says Wenk, retail packs of applesauce don’t sell like they used to. “There has to be a next thing.”
For a few growers, at least, that thing is cider. Jack’s Hard Cider, Reid’s Orchard & Winery, Ploughman Farm Cider and Big Hill Ciderworks, all based in Adams County and started within the last 13 years, are slowly but surely expanding the local apple market to include cider production. (Good Intent Cider, based 100 miles north in Bellefonte, sources most of their apples from the county, too.) And earlier this year, Washington, D.C.’s Anxo Cider opened a production facility in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in neighboring Franklin County. “I just joined the Pennsylvania Cider Guild,” says Anxo co-owner Sam Fitz. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity with them to really show what this region is all about, and this region’s apple history is really tied to Biglerville and Adams County.”
Troy Lehman bought his farm in Gardners, Pennsylvania, in 2010, specifically to make cider. “If I’m going to produce hard cider, then I want to grow the best fruit I can,” he says. “The South Mountain fruit belt is the place to do it.” Lehman and business partner Ben Kishbaugh — who has his own orchard as well — started Big Hill Ciderworks in 2013, with their new taproom in Gardners opening in September 2020. The region is an easy drive from the District, Baltimore, Philadelphia and even Pittsburgh and New York City. “There’s no reason that this area can’t become as worthy as a trip to the Finger Lakes or to Napa Valley,” says Lehman. “But we have to establish the value.”
It’s not that there is nowhere else in the world to grow great-tasting apples, says Lehman. “But as far as what makes our area special? It’s the rock that we’re growing it on.”
The soil is rich with quartz and limestone, says Ploughman’s cider maker Edwin Winzeler, while the South Mountain often shields orchards from high-impact weather patterns.
Explains Wenk, who owns Ploughman: “The sloping hillsides provide this air drainage that on more than a couple of occasions has helped protect apple blossoms from cold and frost damage. As far as the East Coast is concerned, as an apple growing region, Adams County is probably the most reliable in terms of having somewhat near a full crop every year despite other areas occasionally losing crop to frost.”
Also going for it: Adams County is warmer than, say, New York, Vermont and Michigan, which means not only a longer growing season, but more sugar in the fruit, which ferments nicely into alcohol. “We sit from a climate perspective in that middle ground that shares a lot of the favorable characteristics of Virginia-grown fruit, but also with the conditions of cooler areas,” explains Wenk. “Some of the Brix that we’ve pulled off Wickson and Spitzenburg would be highly unusual in colder climates,” he says, referring to the measurement of the apple’s sugar content.
The location also protects growers, for now at least, from climate extremes. “Apples can take a much lower temperature in the winter than grapes,” says David Reid, who’s been farming with his wife, Kathy, in Orrtanna, Pennsylvania, about 15 miles from Gettysburg, since 1976. (Disclosure: I’ve worked at the Reids’ farmers market stand at two Washington, D.C., farmers markets for 10 years.) “The fruit industry has thrived here for so long because we have that stability. And the change in the climate has affected that stability.”
While a farmer can replant a decimated vegetable crop the next year, if extreme winds or a tornado wipes out an orchard, it’s not just losing the fruit — it’s the trees that take years to grow. “I do think this specific area where we are, even though we see effects from climate change, in some ways we’re insulated from the worst of it,” adds Lehman. (Compare this to the West Coast, which faces extreme heat, wildfires and drought.) Adams County sits in the foothills of the Appalachians, and weather generally follows the contour of the mountains. “When we get these storms coming from the west, they hit the hills and they tend to break up unless they’re super strong,” says Reid. “That is the saving grace of Adams County, the hills. That’s why we’re here.”
In 1991, there were 10 cideries in the United States, note Dan Pucci and Craig Cavallo in their book “American Cider: A Modern Guide to a Historic Beverage” (Ballantine Books, 2021). As of 2020 there are nearly 1,000. By contrast, according to the Brewers Association, there are nearly 9,000 breweries (including craft and large). “Beer is made from water, wine is a higher price point, cider’s not good enough for a lot of wine drinkers, and we’ve ended up at a beer price point,” says Lehman. “We’re not made of water, we’re made from juice. We have more dollars in every gallon produced, less margin, and that’s a lot of the reason why cider is only as big as it is.”
As Reid puts it, “People aren’t used to paying for apples. But it takes forever to pick those little apples, to fill a bin.”
Recreational apple picking for an hour or two is fun; it’s less idyllic when it’s a humid 90 degrees and you spend months doing it, or if you’re away from your family for much of the year, as is the case for the H-2A agricultural visa holders who work in many Adams County orchards.
Despite being a region so steeped in apples, cider doesn’t have a default audience. For one, the industry was built on York Imperial and Golden Delicious, planted together for pollination and processing. “We have so many people that work in agriculture and work around apples,” says Wenk. “We grow 7.8 million bushels of apples on average over 10 years, but that doesn’t translate to people knowing much about the apples themselves, or especially cider.”“That’s ultimately, in terms of large and abstract goals, what I envision we’re doing,” he adds. “We want to make cider the native beverage of this area.”
While cider as a commercial product is relatively young in Adams County, cider making is nothing new. “When I first moved up here, people would make a barrel of cider every year and let it ferment on its own,” says Reid. “When it would freeze it would get pretty alcoholic, and it also took a lot of the funkiness out. And that’s how it was done.”
Today, more growers are cultivating cider-specific apples such as Dabinett, Frequin Rouge, Manchurian and Wickson. “I tend to like bittersweet apples, where the sugar and the tannins are balanced,” says Winzeler, the Ploughman cider maker. “The more sugar that builds up, the more balanced it becomes.” Other apples, such as Esopus Spitzenburg, are good for cider but also fresh eating. “It’s your favorite apple flavor but dialed in to 11,” says Wenk. Stayman Winesap does well in Adams County, too; it’s good for apple pies but also quite tasty when fermented spontaneously with wild yeast, as is done at Ploughman’s.“We’ve been working a lot on seeing which apples grow in this climate and how they turn out,” says Winzeler. “Some grow but they don’t produce the kind of fruit we want. Others really thrive.”
Fermenting those apples into cider creates a whole new set of flavors, while blending varieties forges even more. One cider may have salty minerality — remember that mineral-rich soil — while another exhibits burnt caramel notes. Another might start bright and acidic but finish rich and buttery. But for the newer cider drinker, it often comes down to sweet versus dry.Educating managers and servers on how to talk about their cider in a welcoming way, especially when asked which one is the sweetest, is so important, says Wenk. “Because really we don’t make a cider for that person,” he says. “That isn’t to say that they can’t find something that we make that they like, but you have to talk about it the right way.”
Big Hill ciders bridge the sweet-dry divide by fermenting some with berries or finishing them with fresh cider, yielding a sweeter drink with slightly less alcohol — between 5 and 7% alcohol by volume (ABV) compared to the drier ciders, which hover between 6 and 9% ABV. “I think a lot of people have this idea that if they make modern ciders, it’s going to tarnish their image,” says Lehman. “And I guess with a certain percentage, those people will tell you that everything else is junk. But I probably don’t care about selling them cider anyway, because it is about being inclusive.”
“For me, it’s how can I get my neighbor who just likes that farmhouse berry cider to try something else,” Lehman adds. “That’s where you’re creating cider fans for life. You’re not making someone feel like they’re not good enough to drink your best stuff.”
Adams County cider is still young, and for some growers, it’ll take decades to find the specific apples and blends that define their success. “A lot of apple people are like this,” says Winzeler. “You might not ever see the benefits of your work, you pass it on to somebody else.” Winzler and Wenk grafted more than 500 scions of rootstock at the beginning of the season, of which about two-thirds took. “If we have 200 varieties we’re testing, I would consider it a success if we find eight out of 200 that we really like,” says Wenk. Their work also helps preserve old apple varieties, of which, due to the nature of apples, there are a seemingly infinite amount.“What we have here is a gift,” says Lehman. “We can create a region that is internationally known for the quality of cider and the quality of the fruit.”
“I know it can happen,” he adds. “It’s just a matter of will I get to see it in my lifetime. But I’m going to play a part in that.”