- By Kara Larson - This is a wild orchard. The meandering paths aren’t cleanly mowed and tidy, the weeds grow tall amongst the trees, a lively buzz of tiny insects fills the air, and healthy apples of all colors and sizes weigh down 25-year-old tree branches. The feeling you get strolling through an orchard like this one is far from a perfectly scheduled Saturday afternoon orchard visit complete with hayrides and corn mazes. Here, you feel the quiet of the picturesque views, the virtue of honest growing practices, and the passion of people who work hard to keep this orchard authentic in every sense of the word.
When we arrived at Sweetland Orchard in Webster, MN, we were first greeted by two bouncing dogs, Boris and Fletcher. After dropping a toy at my feet, Fletcher excitedly jumped in place, insisting that I toss it far, far away. As the official greeter at Sweetland Orchard, Fletcher had done his job impeccably for the day. He ran off and out of sight as Mike and Gretchen Perbix, the owners and operators, stepped in.
Mike and Gretchen are some serious apple people. It’s easy to perceive their integrity and intention—they live with purpose. This purpose: growing, pressing, and fermenting apples. And they do it well. They take pride in their transparent growing practices, their impressive 49 varieties of apples, and their platform to share knowledge and information on the process of making cider.
As this expert duo walked us around their orchard, they talked about the trees and the apples and the pests and the life they’ve built around this place. They plucked ripe apples, giving us a taste of the various varieties they’ve taken care of for years.
Part I: Planting Grafts It all began with Gretchen’s elementary school music teacher, Alice McDougall. She and her husband, Gary, have a beautiful orchard called McDougall’s Apple Junction and played a large role in Gretchen and Mike’s initial interest in apples. It was 2007, Mike had just finished his Chemistry degree through the University of Minnesota and was working at 3M, and Gretchen was working as a professor at Minnesota State University in Mankato.
At that time, the couple would routinely sit down with Alice and Gary every few months to talk about the orchard business. These conversations included educating Gretchen and Mike on the tough lifestyle of running their own orchard, and also, as Alice and Gary neared retirement age, an opportunity for them to think about their future plans. After some time and thoughtful consideration, Gretchen and Mike expressed interested in taking over the McDougall’s orchard. Having known Alice and Gary for a long time, they loved the idea of running this orchard and envisioned themselves in this place, growing apples, a family, a legacy. However, it wasn’t as simple as that. Alice and Gary, not quite ready to retire, made the choice to keep the orchard in the family.
So, Gretchen and Mike had a decision to make. Entering the apple orchard business was no longer about taking over this familiar orchard; if they wanted to do this, it would be a much larger undertaking and completely on their own. Is this what they really wanted to do? Gretchen shares, “We decided it was. And that was the first real conscious step.”
Gretchen heard about an orchard that was previously for sale called Bob’s Bluebird Orchard, but it had been taken off the market. She got in touch with the owner and in November of 2008, they drove down to Webster to take a look at the property. “It was all brown, but it felt really good,” Gretchen begins. “Then it took from November to the end of June 2010 to finally nail everything down, finish the deal, and move in. In that time, we were learning about the orchard from Bob and taking courses at the U on organic fruit production and managerial economics. There was a good, long buildup and time to learn about it.”
Part II: Growing Roots Not yet settled into their new property, Gretchen and Mike started taking care of the orchard in February 2010. From the very beginning, and somewhat to their own surprise, hard cider became a major focus. They did all the pruning that year and planted cider varieties in April. With 2010’s harvest, they began experimenting with single variety and yeast trials to figure out which varieties and yeasts worked well together. At last, with 2011’s crop, they made hard cider, got licensed and began selling in 2012.
Even though they quickly found themselves on the hard cider path, Gretchen relays that they were making it without knowing there would be a market for it. She offers, “The market for it ended up being bigger than we would have thought. We were just thinking that we wanted to do it and if some people bought our hard cider, that’s great. But we were not aware at all that it was a big deal on the east coast and the west coast.”
Yet, they decided to embrace hard cider. After Mike took an extensive cider making course at Cornell in 2012 from a cider expert from the UK, Gretchen flew out to join him. They made plans to visit two cideries out there—Bellwether and Eve’s Cidery. Gretchen says, “These are both really well known cideries out there with completely different approaches—we learned a ton from those visits. That’s also where we learned about the National Cider Conference that we have attended since 2013.”
Those first couple years of attending the Conference in Chicago, Gretchen and Mike came away feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work to be done to make their cider dreams come true. However, they were far from discouraged. On the contrary, they were more motivated than ever.
With this healthy base of knowledge, they started to form their own growing philosophies, chisel their cider craft, and perfect their process. As they learned more and more about cider development and production around the world, they found themselves eager to map out a new way to grow apples and make cider. Gretchen explains that there are basically two ways people are making cider at present. The first resembles the practices of a winemaker, and the second resembles the practices of a beer brewer. For Gretchen and Mike, it’s about balance. Their methods fall somewhere between those of a beer brewer and those of a wine maker.
“At its quickest, we could pick the apples, juice them in September, ferment them, rack them, and it could be possible to turn around a batch of the Scrumpy ciders in two months. But what’s more typical is that after the cider is done fermenting, we rack it, hold on to it, and let it mature. That maturation time can vary from six weeks in our fastest turnaround to months—6 months, 9 months, 12 months even.”
This is a patient process that works for them. Gretchen laughs, saying that a large cidery on the west coast would find this timeframe ridiculous; however, if anything, she’d like to slow it down. Beyond this production side of cider making, there is a development side that Gretchen and Mike find far more interesting. “We really like doing the development aspect of it. And I’d say that’s a strong suit of Mike’s. Doing wild ferments, aging in oak, using different apple varieties, using different yeasts, fermentation at lower temperatures, which usually results in better flavor development. We’re really interested in all of the other techniques.”
Mike has been able to experiment some of these innovative techniques in a recent collaboration with Minneapolis coffee roaster, Dogwood Coffee, and also, in a few seasonal specials like the Minnesota Mule, the Roundabout, a batch-numbered cider that changes every season, and the extremely young hard cider only available at the orchard in the fall, Whippersnapper.
Part III: Bearing Fruit All aspects of development and production aside, the Sweetland Orchard process begins with the apples. Gretchen and Mike are proud to source the most important component of their cider from their own backyard. She begins, “That is the ideal situation for us. The thing that matters most: the apples. That’s why we’re planting all these varieties.” She adds, “Growing it here, we know everything. We know what we did to manage the crop that year, we know how much rain we got, how many sunny days we had, we know what the high temps were—and we know when to harvest them.”
This last one is key. They like to harvest them as late as possible to get all the sugar and flavor development possible. Gretchen admits, “And we know our cider tastes better with our apples. So, is it the soil? Is it purely the time that we pick them? Is it that we’re not blanketing the orchard with really toxic pesticides? I don’t think it’s just one of those things—I think it’s everything working together.”
It’s coming back to the balance of honest growing practices. They shy away from an overly interventionist approach, respecting the land and the trees and everything in between, and yet, they understand that without any intervening, the power of nature would diminish their yields. For Gretchen and Mike, this balance is important because resources are finite. “We need to be very careful not to take all these resources for granted because there is so much change afoot. It’s our responsibility to renew the soil and to not use toxic materials all over the place.”
And with this respect and appreciation and sensibility, Gretchen and Mike’s ideas of growing here go beyond their own orchard. In growing interesting, unique apples outside of the usual 10-12 hard cider varieties grown on other orchards, they hope to inspire a new kind of narrative for a distinctive Minnesotan style of cider. Gretchen begins, “The apples that we grow here are distinctive and I think that there’s a lot of promise in that. I think a lot of cider makers are pinning their hopes on growing more of the bona fide cider varieties and that’s a little bit misguided. Sure, cider makers in England have been using them for such a long time, but the qualities of the apples grown there are different than the qualities of the same varieties grown here. So we need to be really cognizant of that.”
This is the larger goal—encouraging other apple growers to look beyond the tried and true hardy varieties and expand into the innovative realm of creating a distinctive flavor profile unique to this place. Gretchen and Mike believe in the potential of growing apples and making cider in this region. Blazing trails with their unique farmhouse ciders, Sweetland Orchard is now hosting exciting events and cider tastings with other cideries around the state, expanding the boundaries of Minnesota cider. And yet, on a quiet weekend afternoon, the orchard is also a perfect place for a charming fall outing with the family—complete with some of the tastiest apples in Minnesota and sweet, non-alcoholic cider made right there.