We're kind of known as ‘the cider people in Southwest Colorado,’” says Callie Cole, associate professor of Chemistry.
In a multifaceted collaboration between faculty, students, the FLC Chemistry Department, the Old Fort Orchard, local cider-makers, and national technology companies, Cole and her team of undergraduate Chemistry majors have been analyzing how chemistry can help make hard cider smell and taste better. Their findings have been featured in multiple publications and presented at the American Society for Mass Spectrometry Conference in June 2019, in Atlanta, Ga., and the Pittsburg Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy in March 2020, in Chicago, Ill. They were also featured on the cover of Beverages, an academic journal, in September 2020.
Like many luminous research topics, this one frothed up during a happy hour in 2018. While sipping a pint of Ska beer, Cole mused about the chemistry of fermented beverages with a few colleagues and local cider-maker and co-owner of EsoTerra Ciderworks in Dolores, Colo., Jared Scott. The conversation sparked an invitation for Scott to present a lecture to Cole’s class entitled The Chemistry of Making Cider: The Magic Behind the Craft.
“To make a good cider, you have to balance sugars and acids,” Scott explains. “Through chemistry, you can use data to identify what makes ‘a good cider.’ This has been done for wine and beer forever, but there’s not much quantitative research around cider. We’re not reinventing the wheel; we’re just using a different craft beverage.”
After the lecture, a few students trickled into Cole’s office, eager to hear more. Was there actually an opportunity to help her explore the “magic” behind fermentation, they wondered? In fact, there was. So, Cole and her enthusiastic squad of research assistants gathered apples at the Old Fort Orchard and got to work making cider with the support of Scott and his wife and EsoTerra co-owner, Elizabeth. A year later, FLC Chemistry labs unveiled four batches of hard cider made from regional fruits, mostly bitter, cold-hardy crab apples, as those tend to be the best for cider-making.
Whispers of Southwest Colorado budding into “the Napa Valley of cider” can be heard across La Plata and Montezuma counties, where apples once brought home three of four gold medals awarded at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. A couple of years later, Southwest Colorado apples also earned 101 of 104 ribbons at the 1906 Colorado State Fair.
In the last few years, the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project has been working hard to revive Southwest Colorado’s “old orchard” culture and economy. The Cortez-based nonprofit is compiling a database that captures the nearly 500 varieties of apples (some legendary, some unknown) that still blossom in the southwest corner of Colorado. Some of these orchards date back to pre-Prohibition days, when it’s rumored that FBI agents hacked down trees that only grew hard-cider strains. These days, cider-specific apples are experiencing a revival across the region, and for cideries like EsoTerra, opportunity for growth is, er, ripe.
“There are enough apples in this region to support 50 of our kind of cideries,” says Scott, who moved to Dolores in 2012, a year that produced massive yields that he watched bloom, ripen, fall to the ground, and rot. The next season, Scott asked the owners of Teal Cider near Dolores if he could learn how to make cider with them. He then went to Mancos to work for Fenceline Cidery, owned by Sam Perry (Art, ’05), for a year before opening EsoTerra, which translates from Greek and Latin to “a land that few people know.”
“Not too many people know that we have these old orchards here,” says Scott. “We’re just creating a market for a fruit that’s been around forever.”
“Small cider businesses that use these apples in their production require data-driven techniques in order to create the highest quality ciders in an efficient manner,” reads the debut paper published by Cole’s research team in April 2020. “[This research] aims to better understand the myriad variables that contribute to local cider production.”
“This is of great interest to cider-makers because it reveals what variables—apple variety, yeast strain, temperature, etcetera—impact the final aroma and taste of the cider to various degrees,” says Cole. “So, we applied for funding, letting them know these are great for undergraduate projects that can last one or two semesters and produce data really quickly.”
In 2020, the Society for Analytical Chemists of the Pittsburgh Undergraduate Analytical Research Program awarded Cole a grant to fund student-researchers' hourly pay. Agilent Technologies also funded pay for students and donated a $500,000 liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry instrument to support the research.
“I’ve had a year and a half on these complicated instruments,” says Matthew Bingman, a senior majoring in Chemistry and research assistant for the fermentation projects. “This amount of time to learn the GC-MS, how to troubleshoot it, and interpret the data is the biggest advantage of being an FLC student. And Dr. Cole has provided a good balance of hands-on teaching but with the freedom to make the mistakes that I’ve learned from the most.”
After the initial team of research assistants graduated, Bingman tapped his friend, Josephine Hinkley, a senior majoring in Biochemistry and cider aficionado, to keep the party going. Instead of working directly with Scott for the next batch, Cole and her colleague Colin Bradley II, lecturer of Chemistry, took the helm of the cider-making process, and in August 2020, the group got to work. They chose five varieties, a combination of Old Fort Orchard apples and Gravenstein apples from a private farm near Hermosa.
Over the next few weeks and months, the chemists pressed, inoculated, fermented, and eventually dry-hopped their selections. Beginning in January 2021, they analyzed the data with colleagues, including Joslynn Lee, assistant professor of Chemistry.
“We took samples every 48 hours for three weeks, so we had this huge mountain of data,” says Hinkley. “Sorting through all of that, pulling out the key points, and making those into graphic tables that accurately describe the data was rewarding. It’s been really fun to see what was happening that entire time.”
“Reading something that’s heavy and dense and then being able to extract useful information and explain it is critical to our work,” says Bingman, who credits a History course he took his first year at FLC for this useful skill. “And the [Chemistry] Department really reinforced the necessary skills that it’s going
to take to be successful. You have to be tenacious, do the hard work, and be willing to put in the extra time.”
While they employed the same chemical analysis, Hinkley and Bingman asked different research questions. Hinkley compared the local cider apple varieties and how each affected final cider aroma, while Bingman focused on the Gravenstein apples harvested from Hermosa and put them through three different trials, only changing the dry hop each time.
“Matt and Josie produce Ph.D.-level, publication-worthy figures in a day,” says Cole. “They’re some of the best students I’ve ever had.”
As a research group, we look for ways to impact the science, so hopefully this research can guide decision-making in their industry, contributing to their workflow when looking for markers of a quality product.
“At first, looking at the cider, we didn’t know what questions to ask,” says Bingman. “But working with the cider-makers gave us a rough framework. As a research group, we look for ways to impact the science, so hopefully this research can guide decision-making in their industry, contributing to their workflow when looking for markers of a quality product. If we can influence what apples the farmers plant and pick, and then get people to buy these fruits, the research could actually create more jobs.”
Scott points out that the daily work of brewery and wine operations revolves around scientific recommendations. Some of the highest paying jobs in the industry are the chemists and microbiologists working at these breweries and vineyards, says Scott.
“You can’t make a great cider without knowing what’s going on,” he says. “Labs like Dr. Cole’s could be a place where craft beverage-makers send samples of their beer or wine to help describe what’s actually in there. Their data gives me an idea of what’s working, while the opportunity also gives students a skill to go into the growing industries of craft beverages. By knowing chemistry, they can help make craft beverages taste better.”
Speaking of taste, Cole points out that the qualitative research piece of the puzzle is pending.
“I’d love to sip some Fort Lewis Cider made from Old Fort apples someday,” says Cole. “That will be so cool.”