Something Good From a Few Bad Apples: Jack's Collaborations with Mike Sturges

Through our involvement in the craft cider community, we’ve met a lot of really cool people, both from our region (Gettysburg in Adams County) and from the valleys beyond. Certainly one of the most interesting and passionate folks we’ve met is Mike Sturges, a Pittsburgh-based cider fanatic who is part of a community group, A Few Bad Apples, that’s focused on sustainable community cidermaking. Mike and his crew take apples from old farms, old orchards and private residences that would not otherwise be used and use this “forgotten fruit” to make cider and build a relationship with these landowners and help them to maintain these trees.

“We like to think that our cider process is a hands-on lesson which encourages people to start thinking about food waste, food security, sustainability, land use and what we are putting into our bodies,” Mike said. “It’s a lot more difficult to get someone to think about these issues when you hand them a knobby, pitted piece of unsprayed fruit, but give them a glass of naturally sparkling cider made from this fruit and you can make them a believer.”

To help spread the word, A Few Bad Apples donates a lot of its cider to events that promote local and national nonprofits and use tasting events as a platform for educating the public. Once such popular event is its annual Cider Fest in Pittsburgh. Some of the cider is highly experimental (think beet and mushroom cider), which exemplifies Mike’s innovative and fun approach to cidermaking.

To get a better sense of Mike and his mission, check out the TEDx talk he gave last spring:

We first met Mike when he came to visit us at the Hauser Estate Winery in October 2016. A Few Bad Apples is slowly working toward establishing a cidery, and Mike wanted to learn more about commercial cider production. We had so much fun hanging out that we decided that we needed to get together again and work on collaborative ciders.

This past April, Mike came back to Jack’s Hard Cider with fellow cidermakers Jordan Miller and Greg Seaman. When we all sat down to discuss making collaboration ciders, we decided that we’d harness Mike and his friend’s out-of-the-box style by making concept ciders. The intention for the finished product was to serve these ciders as boldly flavored one-ounce pours, to be presented at the PA Cider Fest.

Together, Jack’s and A Few Bad Apples conceived four special ciders:

Common Routes: This root cider used sassafras root, wintergreen leaves and eastern hemlock needles with Jack’s juice as a base and sweetened with honey sourced by Jack’s. Mike said, “This is the sentimental cider of the collaboration, as I foraged the wintergreen and hemlock in the Hudson Valley in New York where Jack’s head cidermaker Joe Cuneo-Tomasi was raised, where my father’s family came from and where my interest in hard cider was born. The sassafras roots came from my childhood home north of Pittsburgh.”

Blackberry Knotweed Cider: Again, starting with a Jack’s juice base, A Few Bad Apples added Japanese knotweed foraged in undeveloped land in Pittsburgh, and Jack’s-sourced blackberry juice. Mike noted, “This is the educational cider of the collaboration—Japanese knotweed is an invasive plant found in 39 of the 50 states and it poses a very significant challenge to Pennsylvanian ecosystems and native plants like blackberries and black raspberries. Rather than celebrating this plant, this cider is hoped to raise awareness of this issue so that those who drink it may play their part to prevent its spread.”

Celery Apple Beet (C.A.B): Organic beets grown by the family of A Few Bad Apples cidermaker Jordan were used with celery and Jack’s juice base to make this innovative blend. Mike added, “This is Joe’s brainchild … celery apple beet was nicknamed “Cab,” as the juice color of the initial juice resembled Cabernet Sauvignon due to the red hues added by the beet.”

Crabapple Serviceberry Firkin: This is a spin-off of traditional German Apfelwein, and uses Jack’s base cider and Jack’s juice. A few crabapples and native serviceberries were added to the juice and then introduced to the firkin in a bag to age, resulting in a dry, tart and moderately astringent cider. Mike said, “This is the historical cider. Some speculate that Johnny Appleseed got his apple seeds from German cider mills in Pittsburgh, and I could imagine these same berries and fruit may have been used by early German immigrants to substitute for the European fruit and to emulate this European style.”

These ciders were all debuted at the 2017 PA Cider Fest, and were well-received. Among the amazing cideries at the festival, these creative collaborations stood out., As Mike puts it, “If people did not like what we were going for with one of the ciders, it wasn’t too difficult for them to gulp down the one-ounce sample, smile and walk away.” The Blackberry Knotweed and Celery Apple Beet ciders seemed to get the most positive responses, but Mike says his favorite of the bunch was the crabapple serviceberry firkin. “This was my first opportunity to work with a firkin and I enjoyed thinking about some of this country’s earliest cidermakers coming here and trying to make cider with native trees and plants,” he says.

Will we do this again? You bet. As Jack’s head cidermaker Joe said during one of the collaboration meetings in the test kitchen, “This is the fun stuff.” Mike agrees. “Playing with flavors and concepts that are close to your heart, without fear of whether or not you will gain mass appeal or whether it will sell, is a lot of fun.”

Keep your eyes peeled at the 2018 PA Cider Fest for more awesomeness from Jack’s Hard Cider and A Few Bad Apples!

Jack’s Hard Cider — Produced from Pennsylvania Apples. Pressed On-Site. Never from Concentrate.

Emily Kovach

Photos, top to bottom: Mike Sturges; Brian Bolzan; Mike Sturges (remaining photos)