Apple ‘Heaven’ in the sugar shack, orchard boils cider into syrup

Editor’s note: Reporter Gaen Murphree covers the agriculture beat for this newspaper. In this new monthly column, she’ll be looking at an Addison County agricultural product up close and personal.
MONKTON — Open the door to the sugar shack off Monkton Road in the heart of Monkton, and you walk into a scent of apples so intense you can imagine being a bee inside an apple blossom, with the sun beating down on a hot May day. The scent is palpable, like walking into an apple cloud, and so intensely appley, you can smell not just the sweetness but the roots and soil and sunshine that created one of nature’s favorite fruits.
Boyer’s Orchard and Cider Mill is using its maple syrup evaporator to boil apple syrup.
Three generations of Boyers are on hand the Saturday before last. Christopher Boyer, a sophomore at Mount Abraham Union High School, is manning the evaporator itself. Chris’s job is to stand over the bubbling syrup and keep ladling it so that it maintains just the right temperature and achieves just the right viscosity without turning into apple jelly. Chris’s dad, Mark Boyer, decants the processed syrup into canning jars. Every so often you can hear them ping! as the lid seals. Grandfather David Boyer works the crowd and hands out small samples of the delectable syrup.
It is apple heaven.
The Boyers use a wood-fired maple syrup evaporator to make the apple syrup. The circa 1910 evaporator has been retrofitted with new stainless steel pans. David Boyer opens the door to the fire box with a stick he’s used for a long time during maple sugaring season that has just the right hook naturally on one end.
“I’ve used this stick for years,” says the elder Boyer, a man who knows the right tool for the job when his hand grasps it. “Somebody tried to put it onto the fire once, and I took it right out.”
Inside you can see where the logs have fallen into coals, putting out that distinctive wood heat.
The sugar shack is new and is paneled inside with white cedar logged off the orchard’s property. It does double duty as the tasting room for the Boyers’ line of wines and hard ciders, which include Frontenac Gris and La Crescent varietals and a sparkling hard cider. For the next few weeks, they’re offering a Vermont twist on Beaujolais Nouveau, a seven-week-old Marquette.
Later Mark tours me through the vineyard, planted just seven years ago. The slanting rays of the sun make the vines, now bare except for a single bunch that still clings to the vine, glow golden. The best part is a cedar post, drilled repeatedly by pileated woodpeckers.
“They love the Brianna grapes,” says Mark, who seems delighted to share with the birds hammering away at his grape posts.
Between the two facing hillsides planted in close to 20 varieties of cold hardy grapes is a new orchard, the trees barely waist high, planted in heirloom apples that the Boyers have selected both for eating and for making hard cider. Mark describes how his son and father worked together to graft the new trees onto root stock, using switches of old fashioned hard cider apples like Kingston Black, Chisel Jersey and Yarlington Mill taken from Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, N.H.
“Antique apples are important for English-style hard ciders because of how their tannins, acids and sugars provide structure and contribute to their unique cider flavors and aromas,” says Mark.
Next year’s buds are popping out all along the twig-like limbs in this young orchard.
Just west of the heirloom apple orchard is an abandoned beaver pond. Mark Boyer explains that the beavers moved in years back, made the pond, chewed it out and have since moved on to other quarters.
“My dad would haul in trees for them to build with, and then my parents would spend hour after hour just sitting by the pond watching the beavers,” Mark said.
Driving back through the main orchard toward the sugar shack, it strikes me that November is an especially beautiful time to visit an apple orchard. The trees are stripped bare of leaves, which makes them look a bit like trees drawn by kindergarteners — stark brown branches with red globes clinging. Underneath the trees lies a red Persian rug carpet of drops.
To make apple syrup, the Boyers’ first press cider up at the apple shed, using their 1859 apple press. The day I visit, the cider was pressed from a mix of Macs, Empires, Roxbury Russets, Northern Spy, Galas, Golden Delicious, and Cortlands.
“It’s hard to get a better apple than a McIntosh,” says David Boyer, who, with his wife Genny, purchased the original orchard from Walt Brown in 1976.
David believes that apple cider should be left unfiltered. The pressed cider is “trucked” the 160 feet or so down to the sugar shack and pumped 15 gallons at a time into the first chamberin the evaporator. As it condenses, the syrup makes its way through the four chambers, moving from one to the next as it reaches the right viscosity. Fifteen gallons has been reduced to three.
From the evaporator, the apple syrup goes into a large tub where it is either decanted into jars immediately or left to settle overnight to be reheated and jarred for consumers who might want a product that looks clearer and has less apple sediment.
Mark says it takes about 40 minutes to condense the cider into syrup.
Apple syrup can be used like maple syrup, as a condiment or as an ingredient in both sweet and savory cooking. Roast pork with apple syrup, anyone?
The Boyers grow over 50 varieties of apples. Visitors can purchase picked apples or pick their own. Boyer’s Orchard also raises plums, pears, raspberries, pumpkins and other vegetables and sells baked goods. Bite into a warm cider donut and you will not regret a single calorie.
The brief apple syrup-making season is over, but look for a chance to see it made at Boyer’s Orchard next year.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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