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Apple cider: the best flavor of fall

The later into the season, the better tasting the cider.

Autumn in New England isn't only about leaf-peeping. Sure, all those burnt-orange and crimson-red leaves provide plenty of stunning visual beauty, but any foliage tour is even more memorable with a little detour to an apple orchard. There, one can experience another quintessential autumn activity – apple picking. And after filling a basket with Macouns or Empires, there's nothing better than finishing the hunt with a chilled glass of just-pressed apple cider.

Cider is to autumn what hot cocoa is to winter and lemonade to summertime. Each drink captures the essence of its season, and, in the case of cider, the most evocative flavor of the fall harvest.

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It's that sentiment that keeps business humming along at places like Carlson Orchards in Harvard, Mass. What started as a small family farm in 1936 is today the largest producer of apple cider in New England. Frank Carlson and his brothers, Bruce and Robert, oversee the 140-acre orchard where they grow 14 different varieties of apples and produce 8,000 gallons of apple cider each day.

Like most producers of apple cider, Carlson Orchards presses several varieties of apples to arrive at what they call "our special blend." We don't follow a recipe, insists Frank Carlson, adding that "our cider changes throughout the season, depending on the types and blends of apples we use." Typically, cider also improves as choice varieties peak. "It might start out a little blah," explains orchard tour guide Maureen Turcotte to a group of visiting schoolchildren, "but then it really gets picked up as the flavors come through."

The only bad apple for cidermaking is the Cortland, which Mr. Carlson says results in a cider that is blond rather than the traditional russet-brown color.

For their sparkling apple cider, the Carlsons use tart McIntosh apples exclusively. "It makes us different from the competition to use only one type of apple," says Carlson.

The Carlsons started making cider "by accident" after spring storms dented their apples and, like resourceful New England Yankees, they wanted to make use of the flawed crop. Today, most cider apples come from "drops," or apples that have fallen from the tree and are slightly bruised or dented. To keep up with volume, especially around the Thanksgiving "crunch time," the Carlsons often buy drops from other area orchards.

This year's unseasonably hot, dry growing season has taken its toll on Carlson's fruit, but despite pointing out several sunburned apples with yellow and brown spots, he's still upbeat. "The recent drought means fewer apples per tree, but we still have a really good, quality crop."

Like all farmers, the Carlsons not only battle the vicissitudes of weather, but also the attack of pests, such as the apple maggot and roaming deer.

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But despite the struggles with weather, pests, and the demanding workday (his cellphone hardly stopped ringing as we toured the orchard), Frank Carlson still keeps a smile on his face and takes time to appreciate the bucolic beauty of the place that has always been home.

And he enjoys knowing that his apples and cider are making their way into America's kitchens and restaurants, filling the air with their seductively homey aroma and being reincarnated into a multitude of dishes both sweet and savory. While more sophisticated cooks might incorporate apple cider into vinaigrette, turkey gravy, or a glaze for roasted carrots, chicken, or pork, the Carlson brothers prefer to enjoy their cider in its purest form – chilled or hot with mulling spices, or they might return to an old family favorite, their mother's recipe for Cider Cake.