A question for apple cider makers

From New England to North Carolina to Washington state, any region that grows apples is also home to cider mills or presses. Whether you prefer sweet or hard cider, it has been considered a treat for centuries.

Cider differs from juice in that the pulp is filtered out to produce the clear qualities of juice; regional variations are common. Hard cider is a fermented beverage. In recent years, the biggest issues have surrounded cider’s safety.

In the mid-1990s, E. coli was traced to juice. In response, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new regulations requiring pasteurization for most juice and cider makers. Beginning in January 2002, large producers were required to enact a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Plan (HACCP) that delivered a five-log [logarithm] reduction in pathogens. A five-log reduction means a reduction in the number of microorganisms by 100,000-fold, or 99.99 percent. For example, if a juice product contained 100,000 pertinent (highly resistant and potentially harmful) microorganisms, a five-log reduction would cut the number of pertinent microorganisms to one. Thermal pasteurization or UV processing are the currently approved methods to achieve this reduction.

Cider makers who sell directly to consumers were not required to make these changes. However, their products must bear an FDA warning: “This product has not been pasteurized and, therefore, may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems.”

Land-grant universities and trade associations have assisted with workshops and other resources to aid producers. Some state governments have enacted their own legislation regarding cider safety. The FDA’s regulations don’t completely ban unpasteurized cider, and some say that’s a good thing.

Naturally produced cider

Leah Nesbitt-Miller, whose family owns and operates Nesbitt’s Nursery, Inc. (www.nesbittsnursery.com) in Prescott, Wis., says the big benefit of not pasteurizing is preserving a natural taste.

“Heat pasteurizing will cook the pectin out, and as a result of that the cider will lose its flavor,” she says.

To advise consumers of their methods, the Nesbitts affix the FDA warning on their products. In addition, by law, 1 ounce of potassium sorbate for every 10 gallons of cider is required as a preservative. Nesbitt cider is certified by the Food Alliance, which emphasizes sustainability and socially responsible practices.

By choosing not to pasteurize, the operation is limited in its sales potential. Cider is sold at farmers’ markets and at the nursery and to restaurants for use in cooking. Off-site vat pasteurization has been considered, but that involves the risk of another producer’s cider being mixed with the Nesbitts’ product. Nesbitt-Miller says the operation isn’t large enough to justify purchasing its own pasteurization equipment. She remains hopeful that natural production can continue without additional government regulation.

With the current consumer concerns about food safety, you might expect that unpasteurized cider is difficult to market. However, Nesbitt-Miller says that another big trend, the desire for locally and sustainably produced foods, results in heavy demand.

“Our sales grow every year because the word is on the street that we have ‘real’ cider that is all-natural, healthy, flavorful and still has the pectin,” she says. While the Nesbitts don’t cater to the increasing preference for organic produce, surrounding markets are eager to buy from regional producers. “What I hear from those people is that they would rather buy from me—I am known as the ‘apple lady’—because I am local, than buy organic from California.”

The Nesbitt family entered the apple industry in 1996, initiating a spruce tree business at the same time. They grow Wealthy, Jerseymac and Viking varieties, among others. In addition to cider, fresh apples and value-added products such as apple butter are produced.

Keeping cider safe

The University of Wisconsin is working with the industry to produce cider that is safe for consumers. Among their recommendations:

  • Process cider in a separate, enclosed area.
  • Close or screen windows and doors to prevent pest infiltration.
  • Cold and hot potable running water must be available.
  • Use tubing approved for food use and position it for self-draining.
  • Ensure that all equipment is in good repair.
  • All equipment and supplies must be sanitized after use.
  • Dropped apples are not recommended for cider production, particularly if it is not pasteurized. Damaged fruit should also be excluded.
  • Wash apples before chopping. Do not reuse the water.
Apples selected for cider production should be top-quality fruits.

In addition to E. coli, several other microbes can be harmful. Washing and brushing fruit and pasteurization can control salmonella. Patulin-producing molds haven’t been documented culprits in human illness, although they have resulted in disorders in rodents. For that reason, the FDA recommends it be controlled. Methods include using fungicide-treated apples; use a postharvest fungicide if fruit is stored at 40 degrees or more for an extended time. Avoid decayed fruit. Discourage mold growth on equipment through regular sanitizing. Segregating animals and animal waste from orchards can control Cryptosporidium parvum, which may cause diarrhea and similar illnesses. Ensure that potable water is used in processing. Pasteurization also is recommended.

Although Nesbitt’s Nursery plans to continue making unpasteurized cider, unless regulations ban the product, Nesbitt-Miller says those who are considering the industry should decide if they are willing to make a full-scale commitment. Due to the costs to develop, she suggests that the cider business is best suited for those who have large orchards and are willing to complete the HACCP process. She adds that producers should consider purchasing their own pasteurization equipment, enabling them to make cider on-site. That allows for quality control and lends itself to educational and marketing opportunities.

To pasteurize or not to pasteurize? For wholesalers, there is no choice, but retailers, along with consumers, may come to their own conclusions. For those who prefer making independent choices about food production, it’s nice that there are options.

Jenan Jones Benson is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.

FDA: www.fda.gov
Apple Cider User Group:
Wisconsin Apple Cider Safety Site:
All About Apples:
Hard Cider:
Michigan Cider Makers Guild:
U. S. Apple Association: