Utah volunteers help turn 5,000 pounds of ugly apples into juice and hard cider

Mountain West Hard Cider Company and The Green Urban Lunchbox team up to make a hyperlocal hard cider and prevent food waste.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Over 5,000 pounds of apples were pressed Oct. 21, 2022, to make hard cider during the annual collaboration between Mountain West Cider and The Green Urban Lunchbox. About 300 Salt Lake County homeowners donated Grade B apples to be pressed into limited release, small-batch Green Urban Lunchbox Hard Cider with varieties of local apples from Salt Lake County.

On a cool, sunny Friday in late October, volunteers gathered in the courtyard at Salt Lake City’s Mountain West Cider with a mission — to turn 5,000 pounds of apples, gathered from orchards and backyards all over Salt Lake, into apple juice and, eventually, hard cider.

“In past years, [during] production of the cider, over 20 different varieties of apples were identified as contributing to the juice,” said Jeff Carleton, owner/founder of Mountain West, based at 425 N. 400 West in Salt Lake City.

The apples were gleaned by volunteers with The Green Urban Lunchbox, a nonprofit that maintains a small farm in South Salt Lake. It also gathers excess produce from residential farms and orchards, and distributes that produce through free farm stands at seniors’ centers as well as community-supported agriculture groups, or CSAs — including a canner’s CSA and fruit-only CSA.

For the last five years, the nonprofit has delivered thousands of pounds of apples to Mountain West for its Green Urban Lunchbox cider, a “hyperlocal” brew that took home a bronze medal last year at the NABA International Cider Awards in Idaho.

“Green Urban Lunchbox teams up with them to utilize B-grade or imperfect apples that we harvest in our FruitShare program,” said Hannah Hoggin, who directs that program. “So every year, we take about 5,000 pounds of apples over to Mountain West, and we recruit a bunch of volunteers, and we basically have a big apple-pressing, cider-producing party.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Soni Scheig, Alysha Carmien, Hannah Goggin and Jessica Collette with The Green Urban Lunchbox share a laugh as they make juice for hard cider, Oct. 21, 2022.

Because there are hundreds of apples that grow in Utah, Hoggin said, identifying them can be difficult. This year, though, there were more red than green, which usually results in a sweeter and crisper cider, she said.

Carelton said that in commercial orchards, 70% of apples are sent to grocery stores for baking and eating, and fetch the highest prices. The remaining 30%, he said, go to make apple juice.

“In a backyard environment, the percentage of eating fruit is much smaller since the trees most likely have not been pruned or sprayed for pests,” he said. “In the past, most of that would have been discarded, but GULB volunteers take the time to press the juice, and now the nonprofit organization receives a percentage of all sales of this locally produced cider. So… they’ve turned waste into money to support their nonprofit efforts.”

Gathering apples starts about a month before the cider pressing, Hoggin said. “Sometime in September, we’ll be like, ‘OK, it’s time to start hoarding B-grade apples.’”

Some of them are stored in GULB’s fridge on the farm; some go straight to Mountain West. Some stay in storage in South Salt Lake and then get taken over, batch by batch, week by week, to the cidery.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Golden apple juice, center, is pressed from over 5,000 pounds of donated apples. For the last five years, The Green Urban Lunchbox has delivered thousands of pounds of apples to Mountain West for its Green Urban Lunchbox cider, a “hyperlocal” brew that took home a bronze medal last year at the NABA International Cider Awards in Idaho.

On cider-pressing day, volunteers start the morning by washing and sorting the apples, which are then fed into a grinder and shredded to pulp, which makes it easier to extract the juice. The pulp is loaded into mesh bags, and make two rounds under the pressing plate of the cider press to make sure all the juice is extracted. The juice trickles into a big stainless steel bin, and the pulp goes back to the farm to be composted.

Volunteers wear old clothes, because they know they’ll end up getting sticky. But they know they also get to take home some fresh-pressed cider.

Once the juice is extracted, “the cider is fermented with natural yeast that are prevalent and natural to the trees from which they’re harvested, so each batch will generally be different from previous years,” Careton said.

GULB hard cider is also bottle conditioned, he added. That means that after a first round of fermentation, they add more juice and start the fermentation process again.

“The bottles are capped and the CO2 that’s a natural byproduct of fermentation naturally carbonates the cider,” Carleton said. “Champagne is probably the most well-known application of bottle conditioning.”

This year’s harvest, he said, produced about 275 gallons of juice, which is now fermenting.

“The cider will be ready for release just before Thanksgiving,” he said. “Once this batch has been sold, there will be no more GULB until next year’s harvest.”

Hoggin said that many of these apples would go to waste otherwise. Saving them from backyards and orchards all over the city means a mix of different varieties, and a cider that can taste wildly different from year to year. It’s also about as hyperlocal as food can get, she said.

“From start to finish, all of these things happen in Salt Lake County,” she said. “The apples that were harvested were just grown right here in Salt Lake. The cider’s being made right here in Salt Lake. All the volunteers are from Salt Lake. So it’s just really a big communal event, and it really highlights that local food can taste good, and it’s completely possible as well.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Golden apple juice from the pressing of over 5,000 pounds of apples that would otherwise go to waste.

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