Pick your own apples in the Twin Cities

Pick your own apples in the Twin Cities
Alma Guzman

Check out our photo tour of Afton Apple Orchard...

For most Minnesotans, the harsh winter of 2011 was an interminable inconvenience. For local apple growers it was rotten to the core.

"Conditions were definitely less than ideal," says Mike Perbix, co-owner of Sweetland Orchard in Webster, Minnesota. "Last year's crop was a 90 percent loss for us. Lots of small, disgusting-tasting apples."

But with apple-picking season upon us again, Perbix is happy to report that last year's bad apples did not spoil this year's bunch. This past winter was relatively normal, if a little long, which helped to knock out insects and limit the damage they cause. The late start to spring made for heavy-laden branches.

"That combination results in a very big, heavy crop," Perbix explains. "Varieties that are usually miniature apples, like the Chestnut Crabs, are coming in the size of regular apples."

Variety is the name of the game for Sweetland, which is owned by Perbix and his wife Gretchen, who run the orchard with the help of their parents and farm dogs. Where many of the other pick-your-own ventures put a lot of energy into building corn mazes and maintaining petting zoos, Sweetland prefers to focus on the 70 plus varieties of apples grown there. Visitors can load up on local favorites, such as Honeycrisp and Paula Red, or sample some uncommon strains, such as Northern Spy, Bonnie Best, and Jonathan, a brightly acidic variety popular on the East Coast but rarely seen here.

"I always say Minnesota-bred apples are like utility knives, meaning they have a lot of versatility," says Perbix. "Almost all of them are good for baking, eating, and saucing."

Check out our photo tour of Afton Apple Orchard...

Perbix notes that Cortland apples make a very aromatic sauce, and they they don't brown much so they stay crunchy and beautiful in salads and other raw dishes. Shamrocks, a light green variety with a yellow-red blush, are sometimes overlooked but make for a good and sweet eating apple. Melindas, a great-grandparent of the Honeycrisp, are hard and prolific, a reliable all-arounder.

Perbix identifies Bonnie Best as one of his favorite apples for baking, but points out that most successful pie fillings, or "pie innards" as he calls them, are made of a mix of different apples. If you want to come test his theory in person, Sweetland is holding a blind taste test of apple pie filling on October 12.

In addition to pick-your-own apples, some lawn games, and a picnic area, one of Sweetland's biggest draws is its farm-brewed hard cider. They have made and sold small batches in the past, but this year marks the first true public release of Sweetland's four flagship ciders, albeit in a limited amount.

"Because of last year's crop loss we only have 50 gallons or so to sell this season," says Perbix. "[For next year] we're aiming to make 1,000 gallons."

Sweetland sells its apples at several Twin Cities farmers markets including Kingfield, Fulton, and Bloomington, but the hard cider is only available onsite at the orchard. The ciders range from dry to sweet, starting with the Northern Spy, a champagne-like cider that Perbix encourages drinkers to pair with food. The Scrumpy Original is an off-dry, easily drinkable blend, while the Scrumpy Sweet is a touch sweeter, and as Perbix describes, "not so challenging to the palate as the Northern Spy." The Roundabout is a hopped cider, Sweetland's answer to beer drinkers who might otherwise balk at apple cider.

The apple-picking excitement certainly doesn't end there. Sweetland Orchard is just about 45 minutes due south of Minneapolis, but there's great pick-your-own action in all directions.

If you're headed southeast of the cities, plan to make a pit stop at the perennially popular Afton Apple Orchard in Hastings. Take a tractor-pulled hayride out on the 190-acre farm and fill your bags with Cortland, McIntosh, Paula Red, and Zestar apples, all currently available for picking. Afton hosts its annual Apple Fest during the first three weeks of October, featuring fireworks, cider-pressing demonstrations, live bluegrass music, and face-painting. As always, the Cafe à la Apple will be open and selling caramel apples, fresh cider, apple fritters, warm apple doughnuts, and whole take-and-bake apple pies.

About 45 minutes southwest of the cities is Deardoff Orchards, a charming family farm in Waconia that also offers the pick-your-own experience. The lakeside location is picturesque, and the adjoining Parley Lake Winery, also owned by the Deardoff family, hosts $5 and $10 wine tastings. The orchard grows 13 different varieties of apples, including Zestar, Honeycrisp, and McIntosh already ripe for the picking, plus a new crop of Haralsons on the way. Deardoff keeps early-season varieties cool, crisp, and ready for sale in its store, so if you thought you missed out on SweeTango, the U of M-created crossbreed of Zestar and Honeycrisp apples, or William's Pride, a juicy, deep-red variety, you can still get them here.

If you like to stick a little closer to home, consider Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake, just a 20-minute hop, skip, and jump northeast of Minneapolis. You can't actually pick your own apples here (though later in the season you can pick your own pumpkins), but you can buy 20-plus varieties by the basket from the orchard store. The onsite bakery alone is worth the trip for its batches of cider chip cookies, flaky pies made from a family recipe, and glazed apple turnovers. Another part of the fun at this particular orchard is getting to watch the picked apples tumble onto the conveyor belts and move through all the processing machinery. Lakeland, Virginia Crab, and McIntosh are available now, with Regent, Fireside, and HoneyGold all set to spring up in mid-October.

Check out our photo tour of Afton Apple Orchard...

Take your pick: Local apple orchards are ready for your fall visit

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