Before crates of apples come into focus in the cool darkness of the walk-in, Leigh Reeves is already rifling through freshly picked crab apples and tiny, rotund pears. The aroma of apples wafts out the door, earthy with the smell of newly cut wood.
“This is a good one,” she calls out, after heaving crates around the cooler. It is almost perfectly round, about the size of a golf ball, with a bright shade of red bleeding into a yellow tinge on the other side.
The varieties of apples found in Southwest Colorado, some plucked from trees more than 100 years old, some small enough to fit in your hand and some still unnamed, are perfect for making hard cider. And Elizabeth Philbrick and Jared Scott are tapping into the largely unused local resource to craft hard cider at their new business in Dolores, EsoTerra Ciderworks.
“Our counties are literally dripping with these apples – they’re dripping with potential,” Philbrick said.
EsoTerra is in the old Mountain Sun Juice Factory, which used to be the largest manufacturer of organic juice in the world. Montezuma and La Plata counties have the highest number and diversity of old apple trees in the state, documented by the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project.
Philbrick, who was trained by White House chef Roland Mesnier, and Scott, who has received 14 international awards for his cider, pick the apples themselves from several orchards in both counties, as well as some backyard and roadside trees with unique fruit that would otherwise be left to rot on the ground.
This time of year, the small, sour apples rotting on the side of the road is a common sight. But Philbrick and Scott are paying the owners of these trees for the chance to use the rare varieties and make hard cider.
EsoTerra is more than a bar – it is also a custom crush facility where people can take their apples to make their own cider legal to drink or sell under a custom brand name and label. And if people are interested, Scott is offering to teach them about each step of the process.
“He’s extremely patient, and he loves to teach,” Philbrick said.
Scott will pore over an eight-volume encyclopedia of apple varieties late into the night.
“He’s apple-obsessed,” Philbrick said.
Philbrick and Scott met at graduate school in Fort Collins. Philbrick asked him to bring wine to dinner one night, and “like every Colorado dude, he brought his home-brew instead,” she said.
But the home-brew was a hard cider that was “so delicious, light and effervescent,” Philbrick said. “I’d never had an American hard cider.”
Hard cider used to be the alcoholic drink of rural America, and Philbrick laments that its revival has been spearheaded by beer manufacturers using sweet, artificial flavors and colors based on the apples people buy in supermarkets.
“That’s nothing to brag about,” Philbrick said, as apples like Granny Smith and Red Delicious make “thin, weak cider.”
But the cider of the Southwest, made with pre-Prohibition fruit trees, is a crisp cider that should be treated like a wine, Philbrick said. EsoTerra ciders have no added sugars or colors, and capture the natural flavors of multiple apple varieties.
In the 1920s and ’30s, when Prohibition banned the production and sale of alcohol, many of Colorado’s diverse apple trees were removed to prevent the making of hard cider. Other market factors, such as the increasing profitability of alfalfa and beef, also contributed to the loss of the county’s orchards, according to the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project.
But Montezuma and La Plata counties were largely left alone because of how remote and isolated they were.
The name EsoTerra means “obscure land,” and Philbrick and Scott chose the name because this corner of the state was “so far off the map, trees didn’t get ripped out of the ground.”
Some apple trees in Mancos and Durango predate Prohibition and the replanting of apple orchards meant for grocery stores. These feral apple varieties are what Philbrick and Scott are after.
Gravenstein apples and Jonathans, as well as a specific local variety of Red Delicious have “made good ciders” that will be featured at EsoTerra, Philbrick said.
Montezuma County’s remoteness and lack of infrastructure has kept the pre-Prohibition apples from being competitively priced for buyers outside the region, so many of the orchards and roadside trees have become unkempt and neglected.
Currently, only 10% of Southwest Colorado’s local apples are making it to market, and only 3% are used in existing cideries. But EsoTerra has the capacity to ship its product to 39 states, and has received interest from customers as far away as Massachusetts.
With the help of the Southwest Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs, the couple is “putting these apples back to work.”
At first light and as the sun disappears behind the apple trees, Scott and Philbrick travel to old orchards from McElmo Canyon to Bayfield to pick the apples for the cider.
“By paying orchardists what their apples are worth, the trees again will be seen as valuable assets, and care for the regional orchards will improve,” Philbrick wrote in a news release about their new business.
And the more cider EsoTerra sells, the more apples it can buy.
“If we were to put 100% of our apple trees back to work, we could own 1% of the nationwide cider market without ever planting a new tree,” Philbrick said.
Paintings by local artists already adorn the walls, and the setup was driven mainly by volunteers from the community who strongly believe in the mission of the business.
One of those volunteers is Leigh Reeves, who will be cooking gourmet food in a food truck on the patio named after her dog, Zoe the Tail – who has an unusually short tail for a poodle.
Her food is a unique alternative for the area – tapas, lamb, cheese plates, salmon and Italian food are planned for the menu, along with handmade gelato from mint, strawberries, rhubarb and other ingredients in Reeves’ garden.
Reeves also is developing a cider to sell on the East Coast with Scott and Philbrick’s help – Pencil Hound Cider, with a photo of her dog on the label.
The patio is 1,200 square feet, with room for socially distanced diners. Inside, the facility is 750 square feet.
The owners of EsoTerra also published a paper in the Journal of Beverages with the Fort Lewis College Chemistry Department, which led to the donation of over a half-million dollars in scientific equipment to the college so research fellows could study regional fruit potential.
“Chemists are the best-paid people in the industry,” Philbrick said, and this collaboration with FLC will open students’ eyes to this career possibility, one that is locally grown.
“This will be the Napa valley of cider,” Philbrick said. “That’s what we’re trying to do for the industry here.”
EsoTerra Ciderworks opens officially at 11 a.m. Friday, Sept. 25.