FOUR years after buying an old apple orchard in Harcourt Valley, Drew Henry considered ripping out the old apple trees and planting wine grapes.
Sixteen years on, after watching fortunes slide in both eating apples and grapes, Drew is relieved that he tried a “third way”.
It took a few years but the Henrys of Harcourt cider business run by Drew, his wife Irene and their son Michael is now booming – so much so the family can barely keep up.
Their home-grown, home-bottled cider is in great demand from restaurants, bars and IGA supermarkets in both central Victoria and Melbourne. This week they arranged their first export to China.
It’s a farcry from when they walked on to the 100-acre property 20 years ago.
Having spent most of his working life in the mining industry and academia, Drew knew nothing about growing apples.
After some chin-scratching, thinking and consultation with helpful locals, Drew decided to stick with apples and planted new varieties – pink lady and fuji.
But about four years in he noticed a lot of fruit from local orchards was being juiced as growers got crunched on price for their apples.
That made him think about cider. So they borrowed some gear and “started fiddling around in the shed”, he said.
“The first batch was terrible, because we were using red delicious and golden delicious apples.
“Then we used pink lady – and that was pretty good.”
In Easter 2003 they “bit the bullet” and decided to just grow cider apples and pears to make cider and perry (pear cider). “And we’ve been making cider ever since.”
The Henrys have grafted all the fujis to English and French cider apples – “proper” apples for cider making – and is in the process of grafting the pink ladies.
“You can’t make pinot noir with sultana grapes, and you can’t make cider out of eating-apples,” he said.
“It can be light and refreshing, but it won’t have the colour or flavour of good cider.”
Their 15-hectare orchard has 4500 trees planted with 43 varieties of apple for cider and four varieties of pear for perry.
The Henrys now produce about 50,000 litres a year.
“We are selling every drop we can make,” Drew said.
Their tree management is more ‘pragmatic’ than ‘organic’, Drew said, but it is highly focused on soil health and minimal use of inorganic substances such as sprays.
Trees are fertilised at one tonne per hectare with chicken manure every spring to feed microbes in the soil.
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They also feed trees with seaweed, fish emulsion and molasses, and add calcium and potassium.
“I hate spraying things and putting fertiliser on, but I am in the fruit business and we have to manage fungus and coddling moth,” Drew said.
“I do spray with soft chemicals, but only as and when required.
The main emphasis is to build up the bugs in the soil.Drew Henry
“The main emphasis is to build up the bugs in the soil.”
The three Henrys do most of the fruit picking. They also crush, press and bottle the fruit into cider and perry on-site.
When the family started cider production everyone in the valley was growing eating apples. But the major supermarkets kept driving prices for apples ever downwards, until it cost more to grow the apples than growers were getting for them.
As a result many of Harcourt’s apple growers have left - some simply walking away from dead orchards.
”It would have happened to us as well unless we made the change,” Drew said.
They began selling cider at farmers’ markets and the cellar door but over time have found and nurtured retail clients in central Victoria and Melbourne.
Instead of being a price-taker, the Henrys business sets its own market price.
And 18 months ago the Henrys added another business, in a joint venture with two other Harcourt businesses, Bress and The Little Red Apple.
Harcourt Perry and Cider Makers Pty Ltd makes a sweeter commercial sparkling cider on sale in many retail outlets, “and it’s booming,” Drew says
Henrys of Harcourt, at 219 Reservoir Road Harcourt is open for the Harcourt Applefest this Saturday between 10am and 3pm.