watercore: a natural additive for hard cider in the south

I remember my first encounter with the “serious physiological disorder” called watercore. I was at an heirloom apple event in New Zealand, staring at a table full of old British varieties trying to decide which one to buy and eat first. I settled on a little russeted apple called Pitmaston Pineapple and once in hand, I took a large bite out of it.  The inside, to my surprise, looked like this:
watercored_cox
Photo Credit to Adams Apples
The taste was very sweet. A different kind of sweet, though, and it took me a year to come back around to figuring it out. This variety of apple, along with many other varieties, is susceptible to a “disorder” called watercore.
To the dessert grower, this “disorder” is bad news. Most people don’t want to bite into an apple which appears to have a water-soaked flesh because we’ve been taught that anything other than the usual white-crisp-juicy is to be avoided. However! I’m here to tell a different story, potentially one for the watery underdogs. A hopeful cider apple story.
First, let me give you some background on watercore…
To the apple industry, watercore is considered a “nonparasitic disease,” where the apple appears to have a water-soaked flesh. This “disease” takes shape in all apple growing regions of the US and seemingly has a few variants:
  1. Caused by a lack of water or droughty conditions
  2. Caused by a combination of genetics, the fruit being mature or overly mature, and sunscald due to intense heat.  
  3. Low calcium in your soils (which could go back to genetics since there are some calcium hungry cultivars, like Albemarle Pippin, which is known for watercore)
Why is it considered a disease? The brunt of it comes down to long-term storage. Apple packing houses aren’t able to store the apples with severe watercore because the tissues will eventually start to break down, causing the flesh to turn brown (and thus marked as unsaleable).  Another reason why it’s a bit of a bother to the apple industry is detection. Aside from some relatively recent research on detection methods, watercore has remained undetectable by the apple industry without the use of a knife (or teeth) to cut into the apple.
Like with the other apple diseases affecting the US, those with watercore are deemed as waste and dumped.  In my affinity for looking at common diseases as heroes of value-added products rather than boons to the established industry, I’m excited about watercore. Here’s why:
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The area above that looks water-soaked is actually where the apple has flooded its air spaces with a solution of sorbitol,  a non-fermentable sugar alcohol which is not technically a sugar. According to Claude Jolicoeur’s Book, The New Cider Maker’s Handbook, sorbitol has a sweetening effect that amounts to about half the effect of white sugar. This means that when a cider or perry (cider made from pears) is fermented dry (the yeast eat almost all of the available sugar and convert it to alcohol), the presence of sorbitol would still have a sweetening effect on the dry cider (because it doesn’t ferment).
The idea of a completely dry cider with a nice, fruity, slightly sweet finish is very appetizing to me and happens to fall in line with my low-input management thoughts from fruit to bottle. Here’s my thought process (and some background story) on this one:
A long time ago, I was helping out in a cider house and they were sending a finished cider through a sterile (sulfited) filter to both strain the yeast from the bottle, but also to prevent any yeast that managed to slip through from reproducing.  I was asked to taste the water being sent through the filter to detect the sulfur taste and the very moment when that sulfur water hit my lips, I was struck with an immediate and very scary asthma attack. That day I learned that I’m in the 1% of Americans who are actually allergic to sulfites and ever since, I’ve been a canary in a coal mine with respects to unbound sulfites in alcohol and suffice it to say, I’m not a fan of the additive. It has ruined many a cider/beer/wine for me due to my lungs closing up.
But why the use of a filter soaked in sulfites in the first place? When a cider is fermented dry, there is little fear of the cider/bottle of cider becoming unstable because all of the sugar in the cider has been consumed and turned into alcohol.  If cider is bottled and has both alive yeast and sugar, the cider will continue to change in taste as the yeast convert the sugar to alcohol and more carbon dioxide is being created, which has been known to cause exploding bottles. In this situation, the sterile filter was being used because the cider was going to be backsweetened (the addition of sugar after fermentation) with apple concentrate to give the final product some sweetness (Americans love sweet). To recap: Backsweetening + yeast= off flavors and potential explosions. Backsweetening + filter + sulfites= a sweetened cider with less fear of re-fermentation.
What does this have to do with sorbitol and watercore? A higher presence of sorbitol in a cider means my cider can be fermented completely dry (free of sugar) while maintaining a minimal sweetness without fear of re-fermentation. Eliminating this fear of re-fermentation means that I can eliminate sulfites from the back end of my cidermaking process.
Watercore= Higher Sorbitol Content= Residual Sweetness in a Dry Cider With Less Chemical Inputs. ding. Ding. DING!
Ok, so let’s say that I’m sold on experimenting with this sorbitol/cider thing and I want to grow fruit in order to make this product. Being in the South, I have a lot of hope for achieving such a thing because the causal agents are: Intense heat, lots of sun (sunburn), low calcium, droughty conditions, and genetics.
In designing an orchard and keeping sorbitol production in mind, I would entertain the idea of going towards more of a dwarf set-up, perhaps even a trelli$ set-up on a southwestern facing slope. We’re talking steaming hot, dry, with the trelli$ed fruit being exposed to intense sun.  On top of that, the apple system would be on irrigation which would allow you to regulate the amount of water and when to apply it. I’d also layout the orchard in a way which would drain quickly (maybe even a keyline design ;-)). Next, I’d choose varieties which are prone to watercore and also those that tend to hang on the trees rather than drop (which is a good genetic trait for apples in the South, anyways). Apples heading towards being overripe are at risk of watercore, so those that hold on are perfect candidates.
If you wanted to experiment with trying to intensify sunlight into a non-trellised tree, I would still try and have super quick water drainage off your site and have a SW aspect, but you could also try some extreme things like spraying all the leaves off your tree in late summer. I’ve done this for reasons of reducing vigor by using a 501 biodynamic prep, which I sprayed in late summer and managed to burn a BUNCH of the leaves off the tree…on purpose. I think the trick with this is in having a very vigorous tree and also determining the point of no return for apple ripening (if such a thing exists). The spray I applied in mid-August slowed the ripening scheme, which doesn’t help my sorbitol thoughts. However! It makes sense to me that reducing the leaf load on the tree would certainly help the sun scald situation.
I’ve never heard of anyone trying to grow apples with watercore on purpose, but why not? In straying from dessert fruit growing, managing for a certain product like cider could give regions like the South a distinctive taste in their products. We often think about this in terms of varieties and landraces,  which are certainly a part of it. But let’s try and capture our environment and create a truly unique product which describes our place in every way.
*This essay has been in the works for far too long and I decided to push it through today. I’ll likely go back over it an link to things stored on my computer and correct spelling/grammar.*

 

 

Putting in my notice.

On my one year anniversary here, I put in my notice that I would be leaving by the end of the year.

It’s an exhilarating feeling to put in your notice, there’s a certain thrill when it comes to “what’s next.” At the same time, I’m in mourning. I had so much hope and energy to be here, had told myself that it was going to be a permanent move. I spent all of my savings on erecting a greenhouse and starting a nursery business, taking any security blanket away and throwing me into this crazy world. I have learned many things this year about myself, running a business and working with southern heirloom apple varieties. I had some really awesome days and some days where I felt so miserable that I wanted to just disappear. I have never been more stressed out, sleep deprived or lonely in my life, yet I still thought this was where I needed to be. I attribute this to my often ridiculous love for the trees, which blinds me at times.

When I worked with a very old man in Maine managing his 100 variety orchard, he had me spraying a fungicide on the trees with a wand sprayer as he drove the tractor up and down the rows. Having never sprayed this fungicide before, he assured me that wearing a rain coat was sufficient. I got so much of the fungicide on me that that my skin started to burn intensely and I felt physically ill (vomiting). I was confined to the bed for the remainder of the day and didn’t feel right until about a week later. The smell of this particular fungicide makes me ill to this day, much like certain hard alcohols make others feel after one bad night of overconsumption…you know, our body reminding us to stay the hell away.  I know that I was improperly clothed, but I vowed then and there never to be in a situation where I had to spray anything like that again. I also vowed to never be in a management position where I have someone spray those chemicals.

This is why I decided to head down the cider apple route. As an apple orchardist with an heirloom niche, it was a perfect transition for me to manage trees in a way that I thought would be more responsible for the farmer, the consumer, and the environment. It was a way to grow ugly apples and have them be valued for their flavors and nutritional content rather than their looks. Every tree is different and these old genetics have a thing or two to teach us, so I was excited to learn from the varietal collection here. Over the past year, I have learned a lot from the trees, some subtleties and some big picture items. Enough to have me convinced that I can grow within my own personal/environmental ideologies in order to produce a fantastic and all together healthy product if given the opportunity to keep working with the trees in what is nowadays seen as a careless, ignorant, and improper management approach.

At this time, “This is a business” is not a good enough excuse to get me to spray things I don’t believe are necessary given the goals and objectives. Especially when only 20% of apples in the cider are from the orchard (Aka: Why not use this opportunity to grow apples for cider, since the cider will still be made without them). I can’t concern myself with the now and turn a blind eye to what my impacts might be down the road on this landscape and other people.  That’s not responsible, I can’t let myself spray a tree with pesticides, fungicides, hormones and other chemicals without first knowing what the tree’s genetics and natural associations are capable of producing. Perhaps that is the definition of a radical these days.

Yesterday someone from a University came by the cider house and asked me what I had sprayed earlier that day. I hadn’t sprayed anything. She was smelling the residues left behind from the previous pressing of apples brought in from a conventional orchard. When I had walked past them last week, I could smell fungicide residue from 50 feet away.  Had there been any question, one could just go and look at the dusty film on the apples to confirm suspicions. Apparently this smell can linger 3 days in a parking lot, which is disturbing on a variety of levels.

I’ve been told that I should seek out this conventional dessert fruit orchardist’s advice, the one who delivered the above mentioned apples. I should have him look at my spray schedule in order to help me adjust it and make the right decisions, they said. Perhaps I’m just really naïve or ignorant, but it’s hard for me to believe that this person and I have anything in common other than the fact that we’re growing the same fruit that has more than 7000 known and genetically different varieties.

Eliza is very (might be tragically) wrong, but smart and innocent.”

That’s from an email haphazardly forwarded to me from a person concerned that I didn’t know what I was doing, so they sought out professional advice.

I will be the first person to tell you that I’ve only just begun to trust my gut when it says to go one way rather than another. This has no scientific backing without my ability to explain it in a scientific language, which I’ve only started to do.  I have an understanding of conventional horticulture, but I question many of the processes. I have no idea what is actually the right way to be doing things, given the broad scope of human-caused tragedies. But to be called “tragically wrong” when pushing the envelope… man, that makes me want to defend myself.

And I did. Without hesitation.  I called him up, read him what he wrote, and asked for him to please describe what he meant when he said those things. “You weren’t meant to read that,” he said. I grilled him on what he knew about the soils, the cultivars, the humid temperate rainforest climate in this area… “How could you say those things about me without walking in these shoes, knowing this soil, growing these cultivars? You have never experienced these conditions. In your statements, are you implying that all is universal?” He was upset that I was sent that email. He appeased me, but later called me disrespectful. Which I was, because I stooped to his level. I regret stooping to his level.

After having that confrontational conversation, I made the decision to accept those who will always criticize me and doom me to failure. Hell, in time, I might also find room to love these people because they don’t understand. Maybe they are right. Maybe my work will never amount to anything. But I’m not giving up because these people think this way and have these opinions about me and my work. I’ve only just started and this is my life’s fire.

Deep down inside of me, there is an unexplained energy that propels me forward with all of this and gives me a voice. It’s the same feeling I had 6 years ago when I was up in the tree, learning how to prune for the first time. It’s a purpose, as if every cell in my body thinks I should be doing this. I will keep learning from the landscapes and people around me. I’ll keep following my gut and trying to decipher why it steered me in that particular direction. I’ll do more fruit exploring in order to learn from the trees and the people who planted them 100+ years ago. I’m going to continue to ask hard questions, be insatiably curious, look beyond the orchards for solutions, and convince people to eat cosmetically blemished fruit (#eatuglyapples).

I’m prepared to fail terribly in pursuit of potentially valuable/viable horticulture gains.  With that, I put in my notice.  Lookout, world.

(we set a record this year for harvest, 7 tons per produceable acre. It was a good production year, but that number I just gave you, 7 tons per acre, was the amount we pressed. )