A Pittsburgh group named A Few Bad Apples has three missions.
The first is to teach people the lost skills of making use of homegrown fruit.
The second is to support local nonprofits.
And the third? Make lots of homemade cider — then drink it.
“It's really opening up a larger conversation, and that's exciting to me,” said Mike Sturges, a Stanton Heights resident who helps run the group. “And the cider is really fantastic, right?"
(It is, indeed.)
On a recent sunny autumn evening, Sturges was joined in the Morningside neighborhood at a modest brick home by Ryan Utz, a professor at Chatham University, and Matt Rychorcewicz, a cheesemaker.
Sturges stood on a ladder, while Rychorcewicz used an apple picker, which looks a bit like a lacrosse stick, to grab fruit of the tree. Utz played with Sturges’ toddler picking up apples off the ground.
“This house is one of our favorites,” Utz said. “There’s a pear tree in the front and an apple tree in the back, and this apple tree really isn't maintained. It's not sprayed or anything, and it's producing some amazing fruit, some of which could pass for a grocery store item.”
“But most of them don't look [like a grocery store fruit],” Sturges said.
“Most of them don't look quite so good,” Utz agreed, “but that's OK, because once it turns into cider you wouldn't know the difference.”
The group ventures all around the city and countryside to find fruit trees; once they get the owners’ permission, they prune the trees and harvest the fruit. Then they turn the apples into hard cider and give it away at nonprofit events.
“Our slogan is ‘Utilizing forgotten fruit for sustainable community cider making’ and ‘Hard cider for hard times and good living since 2005,’’ Sturges said. “The forgotten fruit [part] is just talking about that disconnect and people forgetting ... how to use fruit, losing a connection with the trees, with the seasons that produce the fruit.”
Relearning how to live off the land
Pennsylvania has a long history of growing fruit trees and making cider.
“Johnny Appleseed started his first Pennsylvania orchard in Warren,” Sturges said. “And there are rumors that he started a nursery here in Pittsburgh on Grant’s Hill.”
But as people moved away from farms and agriculture, homegrown fruit started to scare people. It wasn’t nearly as perfect as the stuff in the grocery store.
Utz held up an example. Mostly red, with just a hint of green.
“This apple here looks pretty perfect, right?” he said. ”See that little spot right there that is about the size of two pinheads? That would be rejected by the grocery store because of that.”
“And that one looks pretty, but if you look at some of these ones that are really ugly, there’s no way they’re going to get anywhere close to a commercial market. But we sure could use it.”
Finding a way to use the ugly fruit is a key focus for the group.
Sturges pointed to his 3 year old, Katie, busy munching an imperfect apple.
“As she gets older, she is going to realize there is so much waste that happens. There are so many issues with food security, with feeding people who are hungry, and there is so much that could be done to fill that gap.”
The group picks the apple and pear trees clean, bringing hundreds of pounds of fruit back to Sturges’ house in Stanton Heights.
That’s when the fun starts.
Fruit into booze
The group usually lets the apples sit for a few days, which helps increase the amount of alcohol in the eventual cider. (Most of their cider ranges between 3 and 7 percent ABV, which is equivalent to beer.) They then wash the fruit and pulverize it using a massive 140-year-old grinder they got from a distant relative of Utz’s in North Carolina.
Then they have to get creative.
Most commercial hard cider is made from cider apples, which are bitter and sugary, but those are hard to find in the Pittsburgh region. Most trees Bad Apples find produce regular eating apples like Macintosh, Jonathans and Red Delicious.
“Most cider makers would scoff at us for trying to make cider out of Red Delicious,” Sturges said.
He balances sweeter Red Delicious apples with more tart crab apples. Its name? Crab Delicious.
“I like to call it an arm-wrestling match between the two fruits,” Sturges said.
Once off the trees, they press the pulverized chunks, pasteurize them and add supplements like quince, serviceberries and raspberries for nonconventional flavors. Beer and wine yeast dictate the style, and after the batch ferments, they have hard cider.
Utz said his crew is on the lookout year-round.
“When you do this for as long as we have, you can spot an apple tree — whether it has fruit on it or not — just by the shape and the hue,” he said. “There are a lot of fruit trees in people's yards around here, and the sad thing is, those fruits aren't harvested and nothing is done with the fruit, despite the fact that it's some of the best you can get.”