BAR HARBOR, MAINE — For the first time in more than 100 years, Maine farmers are making a living from growing apples.
The reason lies with the rebirth of interest in fermenting apples into hard cider, which has given rise to a cottage industry consisting of dozens of small cideries that are producing regional, European-style ciders. Though still in its infancy, Maine’s hard cider industry is expected to follow the robust growth trajectory of craft beer, and to diversify into the production of other types of alcoholic beverages, including spirits and brandy.
The science of hard cider will be the topic of an MDI Science Café and cider tasting on April 8 presented by Todd Little-Siebold, Ph.D., a history professor at College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor and Elli Hartig, a research assistant at the MDI Biological Laboratory.
In the presentation, entitled “Apple Culture: What Microbes Can Teach Us About the History of Maine Craft Cider,” they will discuss the elements that go into giving each cider its unique flavor and aroma, including apples, yeasts, fermentation conditions, aging practices and terroir, a term referring to the natural environment — soil, topography and climate — in which apples are grown.
Café attendees will have the opportunity to sample regional hard ciders, to “meet the yeasts” under a microscope and even to learn how to culture their own wild yeasts. The café will be held at 5 p.m. in the Maine Center for Biomedical Innovation on the campus of the MDI Biological Laboratory, 159 Old Bar Harbor Road, Bar Harbor.
Little-Siebold, an expert on local agricultural history, will talk about the history of apple culture in Maine. In addition to teaching a course on the subject, he is the author of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society publication “Apples of Eden: Diversity and Change in Eastern Maine’s Orchards, 1760-1930.” He will talk about the development of Maine’s apple culture over hundreds of years as a result of cross-Atlantic trade.
He will also talk about efforts to identify, rescue and reestablish heirloom apples, especially the astringent varieties best for hard cider. His research has played a part in the establishment of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA)’s Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity and to COA’s Down East Heirloom Orchard at the Peggy Rockefeller Farms on Norway Drive in Bar Harbor.
“There’s an enormous interest in heirloom apples,” says Siebold-Little, a self-described apple tracker with “tree radar.” “Every year, hundreds of Mainers bring apples from their heirloom trees to the MOFGA Common Ground Education Center for identification. For them, their apples are a palpable treasure that offer a direct connection to the past. They know they have something valuable.”
He will also discuss the role of the artisanal alcoholic beverage market in the preservation of some of the thousands of apple varieties that once thrived in Maine, as well as in the creation of new orchards consisting of heirloom varieties.
Hartig, who has a strong interest in science communications, will handle the science end of the program. She will discuss the role played by citizen science in tracking down heirloom apple varieties, the importance of genetics in identifying and tracing the origins of heirloom varieties and the diversity of yeasts and bacteria that give each regional cider its unique flavor.
Her talent for science communications has been a benefit to both the MDI Biological Laboratory, where she mentors high school and undergraduate students and helps teach courses, and to the larger community, where she has volunteered as a judge at the Maine State Science Fair, collaborated on science-related presentations with a local children’s theatre and actively promoted science on social media.
MDI Science Cafés are offered in fulfillment of the institution’s mission to promote scientific literacy and increase public engagement with science. The popular events offer a chance to hear directly from speakers about trends in science. Short presentations delivered in everyday language are followed by lively, informal discussion.
For more information, please visit mdibl.org/events/ or call 207-288-3147.
About the MDI Biological Laboratory
We are pioneering new approaches to regenerative medicine focused on developing drugs that slow age-related degenerative diseases and activate our natural ability to heal. Our unique approach has identified potential therapies that could revolutionize the treatment of heart disease, muscular dystrophy and more. Through the Maine Center for Biomedical Innovation, we are preparing students for 21st century careers and equipping entrepreneurs with the knowledge, skills and resources needed to turn discoveries into applications that improve human health and well-being. For more information, please visit mdibl.org.