Hidden Star Orchards Turns Food Waste into Cider Gold

Hidden Star Orchards Hard Apple Cider (CUESA)

Apple season is underway, which means apple trees are raining bushels, and farmers market stands are filled with a new assortment of heirloom varieties every week. But many apples never make it to market because they’re undersized or oversized, misshapen, or blemished.

For small-scale organic farmers like Johann Smit of Hidden Star Orchards, that potential waste means a significant loss of resources, labor, and income. “All these fruit would potentially end up on the ground, wasted, or get sent to the juice market, which frankly doesn’t pay you enough to pick it,” he says.

Those less marketable apples present a creative challenge, and Johann discovered the true value of value-added agricultural products early on in his farming career. “Every single apple is used on our farm,” says Johann. “If it’s not sold fresh, it’s juiced, fermented, sauced, or dried.”

Now Hidden Star Orchards is closing the food waste loop with a boozy new product, and contributing to California’s hard apple cider revival in the process.

Johann Smit of Hidden Star Orchards
Johann Smit of Hidden Star Orchards (CUESA)

Lemons into Lemonade

As Dutch immigrants, Johann’s parents started a dairy farm in Linden, California, near Stockton, in the 1960s. But by the 1980s, the dairy industry was rapidly industrializing, shifting from small farms to large corporate dairies.

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As an agriculture student at CalPoly in the 1980s, Johann saw the writing on the wall for his parents’ farm. For his senior project, he worked in a lemon orchard and saw a huge potential in value-added products. “I ended up making a bunch of lemonade, because there was no way of being able to sell the raw commodity in its entirety,” he says.

His family applied for a federal buyout program designed to help smaller farms get out of the dairy industry, and to reduce the milk surplus. In 1986, his family sold off the herd and started planting apple trees. They bought a belt press to make apple juice and cider (unfiltered juice). They began marketing their apples and apple products through farmers markets like the Ferry Plaza. They planted cherry and pomegranate trees and blueberries, and by 2005, the family started converting some of their orchards to organic.

“As your farm grows or diversifies, you do research about how to take care of the waste and figure out what else you can do with that product,” explains Johann. Over the years, the farm expanded to making applesauce and apple butter, and fruit extracts from the other fruits grown on their farm.

To close the zero-waste loop, any remaining byproducts such as cores, skins, and pomace are sent to the nearby Riverdog Farm, where they become delicious fodder for pigs.

Back to Cider’s Roots

Cloyingly sweet, mass-produced ciders have dominated the American cider market for years, but craft hard apple cider is now experiencing a renaissance in California, with farms like Devoto OrchardsThe Apple Farm, and now Hidden Star pioneering the way. These farmstead cider makers are helping to reestablish true cider making ways, and restore the beverage’s reputation in the American market.

“There’s a difference between the farmstead ciders we’re doing and what I call ‘cider sodas,’ which are back-sweetened and force-carbonated,” says Johann. “It’s not cider at all.”

Many of those mass-marketed ciders use concentrate diluted with water and sweetened with sugar, and sometimes have added flavorings, in contrast to the traditional way of making cider from freshly pressed apples. “That’s the thing that chaps my hide a little bit,” says Johann. “People getting into the marketplace without really understanding the significance of what cider is.”

But fortunately, as the demand for artisanal cider has grown, there’s been a backlash against these faux ciders. “When people taste the difference and taste these farmstead ciders, they’re packed with flavor and aromas,” says Johann. “The market is ripe for high-quality ciders.”

Hidden Star Orchards apples
Hidden Star Orchards apples (CUESA)

A New California Gold Rush

After visiting cideries along the East Coast, Johann discovered the Goldrush variety, which he describes as “a more intense Pink Lady, tarter and sweeter, hard and juicy, with a lot more depth of flavor.” He planted four acres of Goldrush trees five years ago, and just started harvesting the fruits for cider.

“It’s a very organic-friendly, easy-to-grow apple that makes a dynamic cider base,” says Johann.

So far, he’s been experimenting mostly with single-varietal ciders, debuting four hard ciders this year: Goldrush, Gravenstein, Sour Apple (crabapples), and Treeo (a Pink Lady, Aztec Fuji, and Granny Smith blend). The first batch of Goldrush cider just won a silver medal in the Mendocino Apple Show’s California Cider Competition.

Hidden Star’s ciders range from sour to semisweet, and they are unfiltered (slightly cloudy) and pétillant, meaning that they are slightly and naturally sparkling through the fermentation process (no added carbonation). Ciders can be made with wine yeasts, champagne yeasts, beer yeasts, and even wild yeasts naturally present on the fruit (though the latter yield unpredictable results). For his initial batches, Johann opted for a lager yeast, which requires a 45-degree cold fermentation, allowing the cider to slowly ferment for six months. Next, he plans to try a new apple cider yeast from Normandy, France, derived from bacteria on the fruit.

“I don’t want to imitate a wine,” says Johann. “I want a cider that is just a true cider. It’s not a wine, it’s not a beer. It’s truly in its own category.”

Doubling Down on Hard Cider

Johann hopes this is just the beginning of the gold rush for farmstead hard cider. This summer, he finished building a cidery and commercial kitchen in San Leandro, complete with an Italian bottling machine, where he hopes to not only bottle the farm’s own cider but also coproduce cider for other small apple growers in need of facilities.

This year Hidden Star is also starting a new orchard in Green Valley in Solano County, and anticipates planting 50 antique and heirloom cider varieties. Johann hopes to make this new site an educational resource for the community and for other farms to learn about cider apples.

Digging deep into the apple’s gnarly roots in American soil, Johann’s long-term dream is to support a statewide movement for California apple farmers and cider makers. “I’d love to get together with other farms and basically start a California cider association,” he says. “Oregon has one, Washington has one. This state grows a lot of different products that can all be fermented, so we need to focus on getting that done.”

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Find Hidden Star Orchards’ ciders on Saturdays and Tuesdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and Sundays at Jack London Square Farmers Market.

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