Jared Scott and Elizabeth Philbrick have joined a regional effort to restore a vibrant economy in Southwest Colorado revolving around the apple.
EsoTerra, their startup company that will produce craft cider, also is designed to close an economic loop started more than a century ago when Southwest Colorado was a prime apple-growing region. Local apples principally were grown to produce cider for miners in the then-booming mining industry.
The rise of commercial orchards in Washington state combined with an early 20th-century mining bust and the rise of Prohibition combined to destroy a once-vibrant regional apple orchard and apple-processing economy.
But Southwest Colorado’s golden era for apples left something behind: hundreds, maybe thousands, of orchards, that despite neglect and the ravages of time, continue to produce fruit.
“We have a handful of contacts with orchards, but we need more,” said Scott, who plans to have his first batch of commercially produced hard cider from local apples ready for sale in spring or summer 2020.
EsoTerra was a member of the 2019 class of the Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs and is seeking $150,000 in startup capital to fund operational expenses in its first year before sales start, to set up a headquarters, build out its production facility and distribution channels and begin a wholesaling effort.
Equipment to produce the cider is already purchased thanks to an early investor, and Scott and Philbrick, co-founders of EsoTerra, are examining locations to open their cider operation.
The leading candidate for EsoTerra’s home is the old Mountain Sun Juice factory at the east end of Dolores. The apple juice factory closed its doors in 2012, and Philbrick said the building seems a natural fit for EsoTerra.
“Rebuilding the apple-supply chain is part of our mission statement,” said Philbrick, who will serve as the chief business officer for EsoTerra.
At its height, she noted Mountain Sun was an economic engine.
“They used to run trucks out of there 24 hours a day. Longtime Dolores residents will remember taking milk bottles to fill up with apple juice, like growlers,” she said.
Scott, who will serve as EsoTerra’s lead cider maker, said the building is plumbed for cider making because it was originally designed to produce apple juice. It will need a few modifications to produce cider, and EsoTerra needs only about half the old juice factory’s space. The site will include a tasting room that will honor the building’s history.
They estimate 90% of Southwest Colorado’s apple crop is left to drop on the ground, unused. The company seeks to support orchard owners who have found few alternatives to letting their apples rot.
“It’s important to us that we give credit to the apple growers. We want to support them. You can only make great cider if you are near great trees,” Philbrick said.
It takes five to 15 years for an orchard to mature, and Philbrick notes EsoTerra, a name that combines Greek and Latin words that mean “obscure” and “land,” will benefit from orchards that were planted mainly in the 1880s through 1940s.
Unusual varietals still found in Southwest Colorado, such as Gravensteins, which ripen in July and are prominent in Hermosa Orchard, make for a more complex and better-tasting cider than factory ciders made with commercial varieties like Red Delicious, Philbrick said.
Philbrick said mass-produced ciders typically use dessert and culinary apples or juice concentrates and have less complex flavors, colors and aromatics than ciders produced from regional apples that largely were planted with cider in mind.
Often, mass-produced cider will add non-apple flavors and sugars to make their ciders more palatable, steps that won’t be necessary using blends from the unusual varieties found in Southwest Colorado.
Apple varieties in Southwest Colorado can’t compete in the eye test with commercial apples, which are genetically modified for their spectacular grocery-store good looks.
“Americans eat with their eyes first, and they’re not going to accept our funky, little, gnarly apples. The great thing about cider is you can make it great-tasting, and you never know what the original apple looks like,” Philbrick said.
Besides the availability of local apples, other trends benefiting EsoTerra are the growing popularity of craft beverages and a movement toward locally produced food sources.
According to research by Scott and Philbrick, heritage ciders have seen double-digit sales growth in recent years – 41% growth in 2017 and 30% growth in 2016.
Dan Carnes, owner of Hermosa Orchard, is working with EsoTerra to provide fruit for its ciders. Carnes is also working to restore the orchard to a commercial operation. It was one of the area’s first orchards, planted in the late 19th century to support miners in Silverton.
The orchard has been dormant since the 1980s. As the north Animas Valley began being subdivided for homes, Carnes said, “big, ugly” animal fences protecting the trees from marauding bears came down.
Since then, bears have ravaged much of the orchards in the north Animas Valley, but Carnes, whose family has owned the property since 1969, has now prepared the ground and is ready to begin planting new trees.
“I’m old and retired, and I like the ability to help young people starting out, like Jared and Elizabeth,” Carnes said
Scott said EsoTerra is possible because of the history of the region as an apple-growing area.
“If you prune an apple tree every couple years, and protect it from bears, it’s pretty hard to kill,” Scott said.