Sweetland Orchard is a little family farm and cidery thirty five miles south of Minneapolis. To get there you take a dirt road that is sentineled by cats. When I arrived, a border collie came over and gently laid a pine cone at my feet. I understand the language of dogs, so I threw it as far as I could. The pine cone soon manifested itself back at my feet.“His name is Fletcher,” said Gretchen Perbix, who runs the place along with her husband Mike. “He won’t stop until you do.”
Gretchen and I exchanged pleasantries and walked to the orchard. A bevy of fluffy hens made way before us, pecking at the grass for things that are good for hens. “We used to have a rooster,” said Gretchen, “but we had to get rid of him.” I asked if this was because roosters can be rough with hens. “No,” explained Gretchen. “He thought that my daughter was another rooster.”
The orchard’s three thousand trees, representing every stage of maturity and a hundred strains of apples, were laid out sporadically rather than in algebraic straight lines. One chirped with birds. One gave shade to a hen who was tired of pecking for things that are good for hens. Another hid a little boy, who confessed that he was using it to sneak up on his mother. This orchard was full of far more than apples.
We headed into the cidery itself, a mercifully cold refuge from the hot midday sun. There Gretchen showed me the star piece of equipment, the press, a massive thing made of steel beams and wood plates on rollers. Containers fat with fermenting cider sat around. Brown bottles caught the bits of sun that peeked in.
Gretchen told me about small batch cider. “The bigger companies make their cider sweet. It appeals to more people that way. Small cideries like us make drier cider, because too much sugar overpowers the apples’ subtle flavors. That way you can taste the land.” This explanation was interrupted by the same little boy from the orchard, who had snuck up on his mother with a toy shovel that he held like a spear. A look from her foiled the charge.
We went to see the pigs. “This is our first year with pigs,” said Gretchen. “I decided not to name them.” I recalled my old neighbor Mr. Slack, who not only named his beef cows, but labeled their products accordingly: Willow – Heart. Our discussion roused the pigs, who left their sty to check their trough, oink to us, and wallow resignedly.
“We started this farm knowing a lot about apples, but not much else about running 20 acres,” said Gretchen. “We’re pretty pleased with the way things have turned out.” As I decided that I too was very pleased with the way the farm was, I felt a pine cone materialize between my feet.
Out of consideration for my devotion to research, Gretchen gave me several bottles of Sweetland Orchard’s cider to take home with me. While writing I have had two. Their Scrumpy flavored with cherry and rhubarb is fruity, tart, and a bit like drinking clear blue sky. Their Rustic Apple, which is earthy and ever so slightly acerbic, was as good as the Scrumpy, which is to say that it is very good. I regret that I can not drink their Perennial tonight, as it comes in a wine bottle and I have limitations. I expect that it will also be very good, tomorrow.
If you would like to drink Sweetland Orchard’s very good cider, you do not have to go to Webster to get it. It is available in the Twin Cities’ liquor stores, and also at fine establishments including The Bulldog, France 44, and Tilia. If you would like to go to Webster to get it, you are welcome to on Saturdays and Sundays throughout September and October at 26205 Fairlawn Ave. You can have a picnic right in their orchard, and they will have a jazz trio on some nights.
You can learn more about Sweetland Orchard and their fine small batch cider at sweetlandorchard.com.
By David Scheller