CLINTONDALE – Minard Farms Beverage Company is tearing through bins of apples and truckloads of plastic bottles like there’s no tomorrow.
That’s because ‘tis the season for the Hudson Valley’s premier wholesale cider mill.
Between now and January, Minard will press about 75 percent of its annual production of bottled cider to meet a demand that is as much a part of the season’s harvest as the apples themselves.
At the same time that the mill is filling pints, half gallons and gallons of cider for such evergreen customers as farm stands and grocery stores, it is also filling tankers for such new ones as cideries and distilleries.
Over the course of a year, more than 12 million pounds – 15,000 bins – of apples from Hudson Valley orchards will be turned into one-million-plus gallons of cider.
“We’ve grown 231 percent in the past five years, and we just put in a new filling room and rethought our production line so we can grow some more,’’ said Fred DeMaio, co-owner of the family business. “We’ve got triple the capacity now.”
Most valuable partner
DeMaio and his wife, Diane Minard DeMaio, purchased her family’s 1860s homestead and adjacent cider mill five years ago from the entrepreneur who had bought the fourth-generation orchard from her retiring parents – and then decided he wasn’t cut out to be an apple farmer after all. Cousins purchased the other portions of the business.
Since then, the couple, their two children, Christina and David, and a crew of 24 have turned the cider mill into a most valuable partner to the Hudson Valley’s apple farmers, expanding as other mills were sold or closed and as orders, particularly from craft beverage producers, multiplied.
More than 35 growers in Orange, Ulster, Dutchess and Columbia counties – four of New York’s top 10 producer counties – depend on Minard to buy their culled and surplus apples.
“This region has always grown for the fresh market, but not every apple is perfect enough for sale to retail customers. And yet growers still need to sell those apples, so Minard is a critical outlet for them,’’ said Dan Donahue, the tree fruit expert at Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Added Chip Kent, co-owner of Locust Grove Fruit Farm in Milton: “We need them to make the industry work here.’’
DeMaio, formerly general manager for Hudson River Fruit in Milton, said the family prides itself on producing what he calls “an extra-virgin apple cider,” borrowing a phrase from the olive oil industry to signal that the fruit is only pressed once.
“Our No. 1 goal is to make a good product and we won’t compromise on anything that doesn’t support that goal,’’ said DeMaio. “We use good apples, a cold environment from start to finish, and clean equipment in clean rooms.”
Part and parcel of that philosophy is a cold ultra-violet treatment that kills pathogens to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements and yet preserves a fresh apple taste.
“Cider that is pasteurized, that is heated, has a cooked taste,’’ said DeMaio. “It’s a different product; it’s not what we’re making.”
Sweet, tart, body
Minard blends apples with three different characteristics – sweet, tart and body – to produce its cider. The names of the varieties change over the course of the harvest but not those qualities.
“About 90 percent goes out as a blend of three to 11 or 12 varieties – the more, the better,’’ said DeMaio.
“For our fermenters – the customers who are making hard cider or apple jack or flavored vodka and gin – we may go a little heavier on sweet apples since they’re looking for sugar.”
Kyle Sherrer said the ability to source cider from Hudson Valley apples for a Hudson Valley business has been a boon to three-year-old Graft Cidery in Newburgh.
“They’ve kept pace as we’ve scaled up, sending us a tanker every other week and more in our busy season, the warm months,’’ said Sherrer.
Minard bottles private-label cider for such supermarket chains as Adams Fairacre Farms and Stew Leonard’s. The latter also buys single-variety ciders, pressed from Honey Crisp or Gala apples, to sell at a premium.
Half-gallons are the most popular size for retailers, DeMaio said, adding that the mill will go through at least 15 truckloads of 36,000 custom-made bottles in a year.
Minard buys apples known as culls, the apples that computerized packing-house lines reject because of size, shape, color, or pock marks from hail, to provide supermarkets with the uniform appearance they insist upon today.
It also buys countless bins of graded apples that growers couldn’t sell or that it needs to fill custom orders. What it does not buy – and what growers don’t sell in the first place – are apples that are diseased or rotten or collected from the ground.
Bins are being delivered at a daily clip now, and they are stacked in cold storage if the apples are not being pressed immediately.
The first step in the production line is to wash the apples, free them of any leaves or twigs, and then give them a manual inspection before sending them on another conveyor belt to a grinder.
The grinder mashes the apples and pushes the pulp to a belt press that squeezes out the cider. A vibrating filter removes any remaining particles and pipes the cider to a refrigerated 7,000-gallon silo.
Temperatures are maintained as close to 32 degrees as possible at every step in the process.
From the silo, the cider is pumped into a set of tanks that provides the ultra-violet treatment and then into another set that feeds the filling room.
The last step is to fill and label bottles, pack them in boxes and whisk them into cold storage to await buyers or delivery.
“They make a very good product; and they’re very fussy, very fastidious, in how they go about it,’’ said apple farmer Kent.
“Plus, they’re easy to deal with and they always pay us a fair price – and sometimes a little extra when they want something special.”