Billingsley Cider Orchard was established in Stevensville, Montana, in 2010 by Western Cider co-founder Michael Billingsley and his wife Arielle. Its ten acres now support roughly 4,500 apple trees, mostly heirloom cider apple cultivars - bittersweets, bittersharps, sharps, and sweets - 50 distinct varietals in all.
When the Billingsleys bought the land, orcharding in the Bitterroot Valley was a rare enterprise. But apples had flourished here before, and Michael knew they could again. Billingsley Cider Orchard drew inspiration from French cidre orchards, Spanish sidra orchards, and English cider orchards, but its roots reached deeply into the apple-growing legacy of western Montana. The Bitterroot had once been synonymous with apple growing, and the Billingsleys’ orchard is a part of that renaissance.
Some of the first commercial apple orchards in the Bitterroot began producing fruit by the late 19th century, but its orchards truly flourished in the early 20th century. Western Montana Growers began shipping McIntosh apples to the lucrative New York market in 1900; two decades later, Bitterroot farmers’ shipments there peaked at 400,000 bushels. Hundreds of members of the Bitterroot Growers Association harvested enough apples to send more than a carload each.(1)
But expensive land prices and harsh weather caused a slow decline for the valley’s apple numbers. By 1966, the Montana Crop and Livestock Reporting Service discontinued its apple production estimates.(2) Not all of the legacy was lost, though. Some of the valley’s apple trees stayed rooted through the downturn, and still stand today at around 130 years old.
Like wine grapes, cider apples are grown specifically for the purpose of fermenting their juice. Cider apples are different varietals than culinary or dessert apples that you’d eat raw or use for baking, and are harvested when they’re much riper. While other countries have been growing apples specifically for use in cider for thousands of years, many of the varietals that Billingsley Cider Orchard planted had never been grown in Montana before. The valley’s short, intense summer growing season and the fall’s cold nights create something special in the apples. Even familiar cider varieties become charged, complex.
A cider is only as pristine as the fruit it comes from. It was crucial to plant a diverse selection of heirloom cider apples to achieve the nuanced ciders Michael hoped to ferment. Most cider is produced from a blend of apples, though exquisite cultivars can produce single-varietal ciders. In cider, fickle bittersweet apple varieties add body and color. Sharps lend their racy acidity. Sweets create hallmark apple aromas, calling to mind freshly-bitten fruit. And bittersharps, some of the most prized cider-making apples, are the full package, with balanced acidity, tannins, and sweetness.
Planting, staking, grafting, growing, pruning, and picking these trees is often a lesson in humility, but always a labor of love. Billingsley maintains that the juice that comes from his apples couldn’t be bought. If he didn’t grow these apples himself, the ciders wouldn’t exist. After he holds his breath through the spring’s potential for disease, the danger of fireblight, and the fall’s threat of frost - the harvest is much more than a time for picking apples. It is an exhale, a frenzied celebration of triumph over obstacles. To hold a harvested cider apple is to hold the raw materials of flavor, of terroir, of the past and future combined.
(1)From “When Tillage Begins: A History Of Agriculture In Montana,” by T.J. Gilles, published by UMP Publishing, 1977
(2)From Montana Agricultural Statistics, 1867-1976, compiled by the Montana Department of Agriculture and Montana Crop and Livestock Reporting Service, published 1978