ALFRED, Maine — It has been months since customers at Gile’s Family Farm have had a taste of the good stuff.
Last fall’s paltry apple crop halted production at the year-round cider mill from May to August. But the taste for autumn’s elixir didn’t diminish.
“They hound us all summer,” said Frank Boucher, co-owner of the farm stand and pick-your-own orchard in Alfred.
The pent-up demand for apple cider from York to Aroostook County is palpable this year as orchards start to awaken with a bounty of shiny red orbs. The early bumper crop of Macintosh, Paula Red and Cortlands has meant a spike in cider sales at Gile’s, where apples have been pressed into cider since 1940.
“If you make it, they will come,” said Boucher.
On a recent morning, workers, some of whom have been engaged in cider making since they were teenagers, brought the cider press barrels to life. Bins of just-picked apples were squeezed to a pulp, passed through tubes overhead, bottled and sent out the door.
The hydraulic press runs from sunup to well after sundown seven days a week during the height of the season, but to meet demand from customers, Gile’s makes cider all year.
Because federal guidelines require custom pressers such as Gile’s to pasteurize or irradiate cider through ultraviolet light, it’s a costly endeavor.
Similar to vintners, cider makers select a fruit blend, which changes along with the season. This time of year Paula Red, ginger golds, Macintosh, Cortlands and a few “oddballs” such as blondees go into the mix at Gile’s. Soon, macouns and honeycrisps will be tossed in the hopper.
Though Boucher doesn’t have to think about it much anymore, “it’s second nature,” he knows which apples add nuance, tone and depth.
“This is not apple juice. Apple cider has body,” he said. “Too many golden delicious and it gets icky sweet, like candy.”
Giles also does custom grinding for orchardists from Rochester, N.H., to Standish, and each has a different blend. As fall starts to progress, cider, like foliage, gets better.
At Thompson’s Orchard in New Gloucester, apple cider has been made on site since the mid-’70s.
“I know what works when certain apples are in season,” said Mike Thompson, whose great-grandfather opened the orchard in 1906. On top of his Macintosh, Cortland and Paula Red blends, he adds a touch of wealth.
“Wealthy is an old-school apple. You add two bushels of apples into a cider press and you can taste it,” said Thompson. “There is a bit of an art to it. I can mix my apples to get the flavor that I want.”
Making or buying fresh, preservative-free cider from a Maine orchard also means that hard cider enthusiasts have an easy way to make the alcoholic quaffable at home. Hard cider is among the simplest home beverages to make — all one needs is a gallon of cider, some flavoring such as orange peel, vanilla or cinnamon, some yeast and a few other easy-to-find home brewing ingredients.
There’s another popular treat that uses cider as an ingredient: cider doughnuts.
At Thompson’s, the sugar-dusted discs of dough baked with cider are top sellers.
“There are a lot of people that leave without apples and cider. There are very few that leave without doughnuts,” said Thompson, whose doughnut-making machines attract customers far and wide. “They don’t stop all day long. Kids will stand there and watch for quite a long time.”
Like many orchards throughout the state, Thompson’s also has hayrides, sleigh rides and a full bakery to lure families. But the real draw is something that can’t be bottled or packaged.
“Honestly, apples are a byproduct. They are going for the experience. They are going to be together and spend an hour in the orchard. It’s all about family time. They want to be out in the fresh air,” he said.
Up in Hope, they come for romance.
Amid the rolling hills, 6 miles inland from Camden, Hope Orchards is a cider Shangri-La. There’s a reason this quiet, picturesque spot was listed as one of the most romantic places to visit in the fall by Cosmopolitan magazine a few years back.
On Fridays in October, when Brien Davis presses russets, Jonathan, Baldwin and golden delicious apples into cider, it becomes all the sweeter. As one of a few orchards making unpasteurized cider, its product is prized.
“People like fresh juice,” said Davis. “We put really good apples in there, but there is a certain amount of nature at work.”
As orchards evolve — new types of apples seem to appear every year, as do corn mazes and agritourism — cider remains a constant.
“For some of our customers, it’s nostalgia. It’s something they’ve done since they were a kid,” said Davis, who works the 40-year-old machine in a two-bay garage, and noted that he sometimes throws in a few pears.
For others it’s about seeing your food produced, he said.
“You can watch this apple get chewed up squashed out into a jug and get to taste it right there.”
If you want the best cider, the experts say to wait a few weeks.
After the first frost, apples get sweeter which produces a tastier, more balanced cider.
“The best cider overall is Thanksgiving to Christmas. That’s when it’s at its peak of flavor,” said Boucher.
But who can wait?
At Sweetsters Apple Barrel and Orchards in Cumberland, there are 49 varieties of apples from which to choose. Its tonic is made with a few hidden gems — northern spy and Rolfe, an old Maine apple planted around the Revolutionary War. Though they sell their own blends, it’s made at Gile’s.
“People love it. They have asked to ship cider all over the country, some have tried to take it back to Florida,” said Rommy Holman, Sweetsters’ market manager.
She recommends finding the blend of cider you like and freezing it to keep all winter.
But as any apple lover will tell you, cider is to autumn as eggnog is to winter. Going on a cider excursion in the fall makes it taste better.
“It’s part of the ambiance of our farm,” said Davis. “People can buy apples anywhere, but they have to come to the farm for the experience.”