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Happy Valley Orchard expands to meet growing hard cider demand

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Posted on October 27, 2016 |
By Gaen Murphree



StanandCiderPress2528.jpg
STAN PRATT, OWNER of Happy Valley Orchard in Middlebury, stands near the press he uses to make fresh cider, most of which goes to Citizen Cider’s hard cider facility in Burlington. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Hard cider has literally changed the face of Happy Valley Orchard in Middlebury.

For years locals have known Happy Valley as a friendly U-pick orchard. Visitors could be sure to find owners Stan and Mary Pratt pressing cold cider in a small room at the back of the orchard’s retail farm stand, out tending to trees and fruit, or at the cash register selling pies or doughnuts.

And while those things remain, things have changed.

These days the Pratts press cider by the tanker-load not the gallon.

Visitors can’t help but notice that behind the farm stand and the small weathered farm shed that were for years the only two structures on the property, a warehouse-size structure now dominates the back lot. Built and expanded on over the past four or so years, that giant shed is the central processing facility for the fresh, local cider behind the hard cider label Citizen Cider.

Twice a week, Citizen tankers pull in and fill up. Pratt estimates that Happy Valley now sends around 12,000 gallons of fresh cider a week to Citizen’s fermenting facility in Burlington.

A CITIZEN CIDER tanker truck fills up with fresh cider at Happy Valley Orchard in Middlebury Wednesday morning. Happy Valley expanded its orhards and produces about 12,000 gallons of cider per week for Citizen Cider.

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

For Citizen, it all started on a sort of proverbial dark and stormy November night in the fall of 2011. The three Citizen founders, Justin Heilenbach, Bryan Holmes and Kris Nelson, were ready to leap from basement batches to their first real production facility, but they needed some fresh cider.

Pratt gave them — yes, gave — 5,000 gallons.

“They seemed like energetic young people to me,” Stan Pratt said. “And I have always made a little hard cider myself, a little bit. All the orchard guys do — they put some in their basement or whatever. And for years I wanted to be able to start that business, but I never had time for anything. And these guys came around, and I said right away, ‘Whatever I can do to help.’

“So the very first year, I called them up because we had leftover cider in our tank, and we were closing. And I said, ‘Come get this cider if you want it.’

“They came here, I gave them cider, and that was their first year.”

Since that first 5,000 gallons, Citizen has increased production dramatically every year.

In 2012, it produced 32,000 gallons; in 2013, 150,000 gallons; 250,000 gallons in 2014 and in 2015. This year the company is on track to make 500,000 gallons, according to company spokesperson Cheray MacFarland.

Citizen’s success has been good news for Happy Valley and for other local orchards, as well.

“When we started five years ago, cider fruit was $3 a bushel,” said Pratt. “It went to $4 the next year. It went to $5 the next year. It’s been $6 a bushel the last couple of years. A lot of people deal in pounds, and it was like 3 or 4 cents a pound and now it’s easily 12 to 15 cents a pound.”

Having a stable market for culls — apples grown for table fruit that aren’t perfect enough for today’s retail consumer — has been a boon to orchardists around Addison County, Vermont and in nearby states (to learn more, read “Cider boom lifts county orchards” in the Oct. 29 edition).

Previously, said Pratt, “it was hard for the orchardist to find it profitable enough to get that fruit that they can’t use because it’s barely worth harvesting.”

The cider boom has also meant that orchardists can even sell fruit rocked by hailstorms, or other acts of nature.

Pratt noted that orchards pummeled by hail in the Peru area and in the Champlain Valley north of Addison County have been able to sell that fruit this year for cider making.

PRODUCTION PROCESS

The cavernous storage area of Pratt’s fresh-cider-making facility is stacked tall with 12- and 20-bushel wooden crates of apples, each stamped with the name of its originating orchard. Addison County apples, from such growers as Peter Ochs in Orwell and Sunrise Orchards and Kent Ridge Orchards in Cornwall, are stacked up alongside apples from Chazy, Hester Briggs and Johnson Fruit Farm orchards in New York state. Each huge crate is tagged by type of apple and where that crate is headed from the field: fresh, juice or process.

A forklift scurries around, moving crates.

A series of machines spills the apples onto a beltway to be washed, then sends them on up the line to be ground into pulp. From there a giant press squeezes the cloth-wrapped stacks of pulp into cider, which is then pumped into tank after tank, waiting for the Citizen truck.

Pratt said that Happy Valley makes local apples into cider four days a week, each day starting at around 6:30 a.m.

Since becoming “fresh cider central” for Citizen Cider, Happy Valley has expanded its acreage, adding 20 acres on Pearson Road in New Haven to its 14 acres in Middlebury.

Pratt uses the Pearson Road orchard as an “experiment station” to try out different growing methods and over 75 different varieties, including some heirlooms that are good for both hard cider and eating.

While some of these varieties did grow in Vermont in centuries past, for the most part they’ve not been grown commercially for more than a century.

“We don’t really know what root stocks and varieties are going to grow that well in our area, so we’re planting all different kind of varieties and root stocks to see what might succeed — all the different kinds of russets or the Spitzenburg or the Cox’s Orange Pippen or the Baldwins. There’s all kinds,” said Pratt.

Alongside the economic partnership that has benefited Citizen Cider, Happy Valley and other local orchards, Citizen has honored Pratt in a way unique to its industry: with a cider dedicated to and named after him.

“Stan Up” is a limited-availability cider, made 100 percent from heirloom Happy Valley apples. Claims Citizen Cider, “Stan’s years of hard work and knowledge come through in every bottle.”

Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected]

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