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Backyard cider project

Unwanted fruit is expected to meet with high demand once it’s pressed and fermented into a limited-release, locally produced beverage sold at Ashland Food Co-op.

The flavor of Backyard Orchard Community Cider relies on the apples, pears and plums growing on residential properties around Ashland and nearby towns.

Apple Outlaw of the Applegate Valley approached the Co-op this summer with the idea, which will raise money for Ashland Food Project. Available for purchase early this winter, fewer than 1,000 bottles of hard cider are expected to be pressed from more than 1,500 pounds of donated fruit, says Apple Outlaw co-owner Blair Smith.

“It’ll have its own label,” says Smith, whose ciderhouse produces three primary flavors, several seasonal blends and a barrel-aged, “estate” line packaged in 750-milliliter bottles.

With a unique “character,” the cider is similar in concept to community cider projects elsewhere, says Smith.

Apple Outlaw employee Justin Skinnell brought the idea to the Co-op. The store on Ashland’s North First Street spearheaded fruit collection in bins outside its front doors over two weekends in August and September. The last collection drive is set for Friday and Saturday, Oct. 14 and 15, during store hours.

“We’ve kind of been pressing as we go,” says Smith. “It’s just such a nice variety of fruit.”

Overripe and windfall fruit that often goes into compost bins is perfect for cider, he says. And bug damage, he adds, is not a concern in foods that are fermented, a natural process that promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria and keeps out harmful microbes. However, the worst specimens in the donated lots were culled, just as they are from Apple Outlaw’s other batches, says Smith.

“It would be relatively clean," says Co-op media coordinator Laura Pfister of the typically minimal use of pesticides and herbicides on backyard fruit trees. The Co-op’s only requirement for the fruit, she adds, was containment in a cardboard box for easier transportation.

“The bin was, like, overflowing,” she says of the September collection drive. “It’s just a good project to be a part of.”

Although harvest has peaked, says Smith, this weekend’s collection should amass some late-season “keeper” varieties, such as Granny Smith, which impart acidity to cider. Apples and pears were pressed together, while the small quantity of plums was kept separate, so their juice can aid in adjusting the cider’s sweetness, he says.

Cider-specific apple varieties populate Smith’s 8-acre orchard off Thompson Creek Road. Wickson, Yarlington Mill, Nehou and Belle de Boskoop trees are among the property’s approximately 1,000 types, from commercial mainstays Red Delicious and Granny Smith to unknown heirloom varieties.

After pressing raw, organic cider for more than a decade, Smith and wife, Marcey Kelley, reinvented their business three years ago to capitalize on the growing demand for alcoholic cider. Like Oregon’s craft beers, the state’s craft ciders are finding favor in the specialty beverage market. Apple Bandit, renamed Apple Outlaw, was Southern Oregon’s first cider label.

The brand is gaining more local exposure through special events and partnerships like the community cider project, says Smith. Apple Outlaw will supply samples during this weekend’s fruit collection and also attends farmers markets in Ashland on Tuesdays, Medford on Thursdays and Grants Pass on Saturdays.

“It also gives us an opportunity to talk to people,” says Smith.

An insider view of Apple Outlaw’s production, along with tastings, will be offered during weekends this fall at the Thompson Creek Road property, says Smith. Hours and location will be posted on social media.

Representing less than 1 percent of Apple Outlaw’s output, Backyard Orchard is bound to sell out quickly, says Smith. The price per 16.9-ounce bottle hasn’t been determined, he says, but most of cider’s cost lies in manufacturing and packaging, rather than the fruit. For more information, see www.appleoutlaw.com.

— Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Heidi Jensen of Ashland drops off several boxes of apples from her fruit trees to the community cider bin at the Ashland Food Co-op. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta