I love apple picking, because I only do it a few times a year and follow it with, maybe, a cold beer or a bottle of hard cider or hot dinner by the fireside. Would you believe me if I told you that, right in our own backyard, there’s a place where you can do all of that at once, and more? Saratoga Apple, located on Route 29 about a half mile from Downtown Schuylerville, is more than just your run-of-the-mill apple orchard. Of course, DIY apple picking is available (there are more than two dozen seasonal varieties of apples onsite), as is a storefront with fresh New York produce, honey, maple syrup and a host of other locally made artisanal products.
But that’s only the beginning of what Saratoga Apples does. The orchard uses its apples for almost everything made in-house: sweet apple and hard cider; deliciously fluffy, apple cider donuts (it’s so easy to eat a dozen of them in a single sitting); freshly baked apple pies; candied apples; and, of course, their most popular product, apple chips (baked over applewood, cut from the orchard—waste not, spare not, right?). “They have a satisfying crunch like a potato chip, except they’re not—they’re an apple, and nothing’s added,” says Nate Darrow, the proprietor and founder of Saratoga Apple. The apple chips are a healthy alternative to potato or corn chips; they’re not greasy and they have just one ingredient: apples. “They were our first market-driven product,” Darrow says. “They’re supposed to be seasonal, but this year, we noticed we were going to run out almost immediately. So we really had to work hard to catch up with the demand.”
Darrow grew up on his family’s farm, Green Mountain Orchards, in nearby Putney, VT. He’s been growing and picking apples literally his entire life, working up and down the East Coast, as far south as South Carolina, where he helped plant a commercial orchard of 1,000 Granny Smith trees. Eventually, he made his way back up north to Schuylerville where, in 1994, he bought what had been Bullard’s Orchard. Says Darrow: “I knew when I moved back to New York that I didn’t want to do wholesale apples anymore.” So he had to get creative and do something the other orchards weren’t doing. One of the very first steps he took was to offer fresh apples year round using a longterm storage method called “Controlled Atmosphere” (CA). The practice is nothing new; CA has enjoyed widespread agricultural usage in the US since the mid-1950s. It’s basically refrigerated storage but with a low oxygen environment. “It sort of puts the apple to sleep, slows it down,” explains Darrow. “You can open up a room in February, March or April, and the apples are crisp and juicy.” According to Darrow, it’s the most benign or natural way to store fruit and produce longterm. Only in the past couple of decades have technological improvements allowed CA to become more accessible and affordable to small farms. Adding CA storage to Saratoga Apple allowed it to stay open year-round, offering apples and apple products that tasted just as crisp and sweet as they did when they were first harvested.
Things really began to change for Saratoga Apple about two years ago when it opened up a beer and cider tasting room. In addition to this, the company unveiled its own brand of house-made hard cider called, appropriately enough, Saratoga Apple Hard Cider. And let me tell you, the stuff is dangerously sweet and delicious. There are two flavors: the flagship hard cider, which is lightly carbonated and strikes a sophisticated balance between sweet, tart and dry; and there’s the Scrumpy flavor. The latter’s a whole other story. Scrumpy’s an archaic word used to describe a more natural and traditional method of making hard cider (the flavor pays homage to the kind of hard cider that our founding fathers most likely enjoyed). Darrow says the orchard’s hard cider has really gained in popularity in the last year. Both flavors are available at Price Chopper, Healthy Living, Four Seasons and many other local stores.
The tasting room is rustic, friendly and open from 9am to 6pm daily and always has a rotating selection of six New York hard ciders and six beers on tap (who says 9am is too early to enjoy a little hard cider or beer?). And if you can’t decide what you want, just get a sampler of four and sit back and enjoy the peace and quiet of the orchard life with a few apple chips on the house. This past winter, Saratoga Apple also expanded a dining area beside the tasting room and added a new fireplace. They’re getting serious about creating an authentic restaurant and pub experience and even recently teamed up with 9 Miles East Farm, a diversified farm and food business that grows its own crops, harvests and packages its own food products and then delivers them to peoples’ homes and local businesses. (You may have seen their GO Box! salads, entrees and soups at local grocery stores.) 9 Miles East also doubles as an amazing “pizza restaurant and delivery service.” With the help of 9 Miles East, Darrow’s orchard has begun offering pop-up dinners and farm-to-table meals every Friday and Saturday. Because most of the food for these meals comes from just about a mile up the road, each weekend’s menu is a different dining experience. One of their recent pop-up dinners featured Korean-style slow-roasted pork shoulder or tofu (for the vegetarians like me), with scratch-made miso soup and salad with ginger-miso vinaigrette. All this at a small apple orchard in Schuylerville.
It’s hard to believe it, but next August will mark 25 years since Saratoga Apple opened its doors and started offering apples and all its other goodies year-round. Darrow says there’s a big celebration in the works. He hasn’t finalized exactly what he wants to do yet, but he tells me you can expect live music, good food, fresh cider and plenty of apple picking.