By Scott Smith
---- — PERU — Good apples can be hard to find, but not up at McClure's Orchard, north of Peru, where the fall fruit is already coming into season.
The orchard, which boasts more than 5,000 trees and 80 different varieties of apple, has been a work of love for the McClure family. They took over a neglected property in the late 1990s, and have turned it into a north central Indiana destination.It has two gift shops, with a multitude of arts, crafts and gift items, ranging from classy to kitsch, but perhaps the most impressive feature of the orchard is the wine and cider operation.First offered to the public in 2010, the orchard's wines and ciders are starting to rack up awards at the annual Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition, going up against established competition from across the country and Canada.Jason McClure, son of founders Jerry and Paige McClure, is the driving force behind the beverage operations. He takes 800 lbs. of apples at a time, sometimes combining 15 or more different varieties, to create the flavor he's seeking.Run through a mill and turned to applesauce, then pressed through cloth, the resulting raw cider is fermented with yeast to create 16 varieties of cider and several varieties of wine, all of which are available bottled, at the orchard, and at a growing number of specialty wine and liquor stores (Kahn's in Indianapolis probably being the closest). Several of the ciders are also on tap at the orchard, and Jason and the staff (many of whom are family) are only too happy to offer free tastings.One of the orchard's most recent additions is more than a dozen Old World varieties of apples. Some are difficult to grow, and none have the eye appeal and thicker skins of the apples on display at supermarkets, but they possess a depth of flavor Jason is seeking."A Golden Delicious apple might have a high sugar content, but they don't have tannin, they don't have aroma, and they might not have much flavor," he said. "These [older varieties] have a complexity to them. We're hoping that instead of using 10 or 15 different varieties to create a style of cider, we can use just one of these to do the same thing."Visitors won't find Golden Delicious apples at McClure's but they will find varieties like the Purdue-developed Pristine apple, a bright, crisp, juicy variety, colored yellow, with just a hint of pink blush. One taste, and one wonders why they aren't sold everywhere.Jason McClure has his theories, which center around the fact big growers can't afford to mess with dozens of different varieties, all of which come ripe at different times. They hand-pick everything at McClure's, using cloth picking baskets which release at the bottom, allowing a picker to avoid bruising the fruit. That care also allows the orchard to grow varieties with skins too thin to be transported long distance, or to hide blemishes.The Pristine might be on the sweeter side of many of the apples grown at McClure's, some of which are of the tart variety, desirable for cooking or cider making.The ciders, distinguished by the fact some of the live yeast remains in the bottle, versus the wines, where it is killed off prior to bottling, are "British-style" ciders, meaning the apples aren't combined with a large infusion of sugar."It's not cloyingly sweet; it's crisp and dry," Jason said during a recent tasting.Even the Bon Bon, which McClure's calls "an expression of our sweeter side" won a good review from Portland, Ore. resident John Griswold, who was traveling to a family reunion in Wabash."I have an aversion to mass-produced sweet cider, stuff that tastes like you're drinking Boone's Farm," Griswold said. "This is a more austere taste, it's not an overwhelming apple flavor."The cider trade, which has now moved into an aging process involving old bourbon barrels, is just part of a growing business which has expanded to include two gift shops, a petting zoo, a trolley and an entertainment stage.When the McClures took over, Jason said, there were impassable thickets between the rows of trees, and the previous owners had sold off every crate on the property. It was a good place to hunt pheasants, he said, but there "probably weren't two apples in the entire orchard.""We had Purdue come up, look the place over, and suggest some things,” they said, "Prune hard, and spray, and maybe here in a couple of years you'll have some fruit.Now there are berry bushes, peaches, pumpkins, gourds and other pick-it-yourself offerings, and row upon row of well-tended trees bursting with fruit. Each tree will be picked multiple times to make sure they get the apples at maximum ripeness. They've even got a few dozen bee hives on hand to ensure everything bears to its fullest potential."I think the trees just needed some love, because the next year, we had a huge crop. We didn't have the first crate to put them in, so we had to go up to Michigan and buy a bunch from orchards that had gone out of business. I tell you what, it was a sharp learning curve."Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at email@example.com