Fernando puts his arms through the shoulder straps of the canvas apple carrier and pulls the cords to cinch up the bottom opening. His team does the same, ready for another day in the orchard. Today’s focus: Nittany apples.
It’s still early but the day promises to be hot. For now, dappled shade between rows of dwarf apple trees provides some welcome coolness.
Freddy, Toni, Alisha, Marco, and Arturo join Fernando in the orchard. Many have been working together at Gopher Glen for a nearly a decade, and Fernando has been part of Gopher Glen’s success for 38 years.
The team works through each row together, reaching through the branches to pick the ripe apples. As they pick the best fruit to place in their bags, their trained eyes also pick the fruit that won’t be sold and drop those to the ground.
Later, the ground-dropped fruit that’s not damaged will be collected, washed, and used to make their fresh pressed cider or hard cider. Damaged fruit is left to decompose back into the soil, completing the cycle of this organic farm.
Freddy climbs the aluminum orchard ladder tucked between the trees and picks the ripe fruit from the top branches. As each tree yields its treasures, he picks up the ladder and keeps moving it down the row.
Apple after apple is hand-picked and placed gently in the canvas carrier. When it’s full, it will weigh about 30 pounds, depending on the apple variety. As team members fill their bags, they walk back to the waiting wooden bins on the flatbed hitched to the tractor.
First, they take apples from the top of the carrier and gently nestle a layer of apples in the box. Next, they hoist their carrier over the box and loosen the cords.
“Apples are hard,” said Fernando, “but they’re not rocks. They bruise very easily if they’re just dumped in the box.”
With the bottom of the carrier open, they lift the bag and allow the apples to gently fill the rest of the box. Then they cinch the bottom of the carrier closed again and head back to the orchard.
The cycle repeats, for up to 10 hours a day.
From June through November, Fernando and his team pick the best apples for Gopher Glen from the three orchards that span 60 acres and grow more than 100 apple varieties, many of them heirloom or found only at the farm. Mohawk, Heavenscent and others were developed by Gopher Glen.
Once the boxes are unloaded at the back side of the farmstand, they apples will be sorted according to their final destination: organic fruit sold in the farmstand, fresh-pressed apple cider, and the farm’s newest offering: hard cider.
Gopher Glen’s Early Days
Since 1971, the orchards at Gopher Glen Organic Apple Farm have been producing heirloom and signature apple varieties. In fact, it’s the oldest commercial apple orchard on the San Luis Obispo coast.
Current owners Debbie and Bruce Smith moved to the area in 1981, and they raised their seven kids in the surrounding countryside. Debbie managed the farmstand for 25 years for the first owners of Gopher Glen, and when the owner sadly died, she and Bruce bought the farm in 2006.
Of all their children, Jake was the one who followed in his mother’s agricultural footsteps. Jake, with his wife Raven Lukehart-Smith, took the reins as Gopher Glen’s farmers, tending the apple orchards as well as the vegetable crops sold at the farmstand.
Jake’s twin brother, Jesse, is a chef and uses Gopher Glen produce in his creations for The Farmers Guild Catering company he owns.
Jake’s vision was to transition the land to organic farming, and Gopher Glen received its organic status in 2016.
Hard Cider Comes to Gopher Glen
Although fresh-pressed nonalcoholic cider has been a popular product since Gopher Glen was founded, the decision to make hard cider is a recent chapter in the farm’s history.
Eight years ago, when Jake and Raven took on the farming responsibilities for Gopher Glen, they started exploring more ways to use the goodness of the organic apples they grow.
“Our cider is hand-pressed right here; it’s fresh, raw, and fruitful, and nothing’s added or taken away,” said Raven.
As they began exploring ideas, they realized it’s rare for a hard cider maker to also grow their own apples and press the juice on site.
“We realized we had something special to share, so we decided to bring Gopher Glen Hard Cider to the market,” she said.
“It took a couple years to develop our process, and we’ve had great mentorship from others in the Central Coast hard cider community,” she said. “Mikey Giugni at Scar of the Sea and Tin City has been hugely helpful.”
The Press: First Stop on the Cider-Making Journey
The swinging wooden door off the main farmstand area muffles the sound of the press, but it doesn’t stop it.
Built by Raven’s father, using some parts that are 100 years old, the press transforms apples into juice (called cider, since nothing is added or taken away).
First, apples from the water-filled bin make their way up the conveyor belt, which takes them through the wash section and up to the chopper. From there, they drop into a chute that sits above a canvas-lined frame. The chute door is pulled open and the chopped apples fill the frame. When it’s full, the canvas is folded into a neat square, the empty frame is placed on top, and process repeats.
When several canvas squares are stacked, they’re positioned under press. Slowly, with 2000 PSI, the press descends and the apples release their juice. It’s pumped to the bottling area, where plastic bottles are filled and capped, ready to be sold in the farmstand.
The process to press the juice for their hard cider is a bit different. “We purposefully select the apple varietals that will make the best hard cider, balancing tannin with sugar,” said Raven. The juice is then pressed into the fermentation tanks or into a tank which can be transported.
Next Step: Fermentation
Once the cider is pressed, it makes its way to In Vino where Raven and Jake start processing the cider for fermentation. Over a span of three to four weeks, the cider is checked once or twice a week to make sure the fermentation process is running smoothly.
“Righteous Apple and Espana Sidra will be complete within two months, with the quick turn-around provided by the stainless steel containers and added yeast,” explained Raven.
“Field Run and Arkansas Black will take three to four months from fermentation to bottle, being oak barrel-aged and fermented using the wild yeast from the Gopher Glen orchard.”
As soon as the ciders are bottled and labeled, they can return home to the orchard for sales.
Gopher Glen currently makes about 500 cases of hard cider.
Sold inside the farmstand, Gopher Glen currently offers four hard ciders, alongside the 45 varieties of squash, heirloom tomatoes, and peaches grown by Jake, plus honey, olive oil, and gift items.
• Field Run. “We use 15 varieties of apples, which allows for some complex flavors to come through,” said Raven. Fermented in neutral French oak with native yeast, dry. Four months barrel aged and lightly filtered. Notes of oak, tart apple, citrus, nuts, mineral. 100 cases, 750 ml., 8% alc.
• Arkansas Black. “The Arkansas Black apple is a deep red/purple, almost black, with nutty and tea flavors. It’s also one of the last apples to ripen and is ready to pick in November.” Single apple heirloom varietal. Fermented in neutral French oak with native yeast, dry. Four months barrel aged and lightly filtered. Notes of leather and tea leaf. 60 cases, 750 ml., 8% alc.
• Espana Sidra. “This is a very refreshing cider, unlike any found in the county at this time.” It contains five heirloom apple varieties. Fermented in stainless steel. Dry and lightly filtered. Floral and fresh apple aromatics with notes of citrus, melon, pear. Made in the still (noncarbonated) style, as the Basque Spaniards enjoy their cider. Similar to clean, crisp white wine. 175 cases, 650 ml., 7.5% alc.
• Righteous Apple. “This is my favorite on a hot summer day, super light, bubbly, with notes of candy apple.” It’s made with five heirloom apple varieties. Fermented in stainless steel. Dry and lightly filtered. Floral and fresh apple aromatics with notes of citrus, melon, pear with effervescence. 175 cases, 650 ml., 7.5% alc.
“Because we grow our apples, we’ll always have rotating ciders to showcase different apples and ideas,” shared Raven. “We’ll also always do a single varietal cider, which are rare in the hard cider marketplace.”
Different apples bring different qualities, so Raven and Jake pick from among the 65 varieties they have at Gopher Glen. “Heirloom apples have more tannins and tart flavor,” she said, “and infusions are fun. This year, we’ll be doing a Gravenstein hard cider and we’re looking for a potential infusion.”
Looking Ahead at Gopher Glen
While Fernando and his team have just begun their day, my time in the orchard has sadly come to an end. As I say thanks to everyone, Fernando gives me two Nittany appples from the tree. What a gift. I can’t wait to taste them. And even after they’re gone, I will remember this day.
Back inside the farmstand, Raven’s waiting on customers but takes a minute to say goodbye.
She points up the hill, across the tree tops of the orchard where I was.
“We plan to build a tasting room that overlooks the orchard,” she said. “Gopher Glen is such a special place, and we want to share the beauty with our customers.”
And a bit further in the future, the Gopher Glen team wants to open a cider house in Avila.
We say cheers to that. Stop by Gopher Glen soon and pick up a bottle of one of their estate grown, branch to bottle hard ciders—and a bag of the apples they came from.
And taste for yourself at the SLO Hard Core Cider Tour on October 21.
Gopher Glen Fun Facts
• 100 varieties of apples grown on the farm
• Six-month growing season
• Orchards are terrace farmed
• About 60 acres are planted with apple trees, and spread among three orchards
• Dwarf trees make harvesting much easier
• Ongoing experimentation with developing new crosses and hybrids.
• Daily harvests can pick 3-4 varieties, with up to 500 lbs of fruit
• Each tree will have two to four pickings to harvest the ripe fruit
• Apple ripeness stages: grassy / starchy / bready / ripe with maximum sweetness
For More Information
Gopher Glen Organic Apple Farm
2899 See Canyon Road, San Luis Obispo, CA