FRANKLIN – Bill Mayo is the owner of the Franklin General Store, which he co-owns with Sue, his wife. But ask him how it’s going and he’ll tell you lately he’s felt more like a movie star.
“If you could see the communications going back and forth, the letters and emails and calls,” Mayo said. “I’ve been interviewed by a couple different people every day.”
In addition to the store, Bill and Sue also own the Sandy Bay Orchard, home to 425 apple trees, mostly honeycrisp, in Franklin. The orchard rests on a gated road; Mayo describes it as “kind of obscure.” But soon it might soon be less so.
“We’re thinking about opening it up to people this year,” Mayo said.
That’s because Sandy Bay Orchard is home to what Mayo calls the “Franklin cider tree.” According to Russell Powell, the president of the New England Apple Association, it could be the only chance seedling – the result of unintentional tree breeding – ever patented in Vermont.
This tree could prove highly valuable to the North American hard cider industry. Its apples are high in tannins and acids – treasured properties among cider-makers. Tannins provide the “body” of fermented beverages; high-tannin apple varieties are rare and crucial for making hard cider.
Apples are classified based on their concentration of tannins, acidity and sugar. Because the Franklin cider tree’s apples are high in all three, it is classified as a “bittersharp” apple.
Mayo has run Sandy Bay since 2002, when he was laid off from IBM in Essex, where he’d worked for more than 20 years.
“I started assessing my strengths,” Mayo said. “I started asking myself, ‘What am I good at? What do I like to do? What would I like to try?’” Mayo was eyeing a job in Idaho.
“Then one day Sue came running in, all excited,” he recalled. The Franklin General Store was for sale.
After the Mayos purchased the store, Bill tended to both the general store and Sandy Bay, jobs that literally and figuratively fed off each other.
It was then that Mayo discovered his unique tree and tasted the unusual flavor of its apples. He began incorporating the newborn apple variety into the general store’s sweet cider.
“We had a hard time keeping supply up with demand,” Mayo said. “It has this dryness that people really like. It makes people drink more and more.”
In 2008, Mayo noticed people drinking more and more of something else: hard cider. The hard cider business was blooming on the U.S. market, and Mayo suspected his apple could flourish in the burgeoning hard cider scene.
“I thought I might start a little fledgling company, and do our own hard cider,” Mayo said.
He began conducting experiments in fermentation, which he said “just came out wonderfully.”
So wonderfully, in fact, that Mayo sent samples of his cider around to local researchers, such as Cummins Nursery in Ithaca, N.Y., one of the most respected nurseries in the country, as well as
Stowe Cider, Eden Ice, out of Newport, and Stephen Stata’s Hall Home Place in Isle La Mott.
“We ignored Bill for two years,” Stata said. “He kept saying ‘The cider industry needs it, this is just the thing.’ But we were very happy with our blend.”
Then Stata ran into Mayo at a cider-makers conference in Middlebury.
“Bill was behind me,” Stata recalled. “We were listening to a lecturer from the U.K. He was saying, ‘The U.S. needs bittersharp apples.’ I think there are only about 1,000 acres of bittersharp in the U.S. And Bill started tapping me on the shoulder, saying, ‘See?’”
Stata invited Mayo to his cidery, where they experimented with blending different ratios of Mayo’s apples into Stata’s standard hard cider recipe.
“I tasted it and thought, ‘Well, this is pretty interesting,’” Stata said. “We used 20 to 30 bushels of Bill’s apples. We used his whole commercial crop.”
The result, christened “Blend Franklin,” debuted at the Farm House Tap & Grill in Burlington, and may soon be sold at the Bullpen Sports Grill in Enosburg Falls.
Vermont Cider, Woodchuck Cider’s parent company – which at one point owned more than 60 percent of the U.S. hard cider market – also showed interest in Mayo’s apples.
Mayo went back and forth with the company’s CEO, Dan Rowell, who “made a number of generous offers,” Mayo said. But Mayo declined.
“I had different goals,” he said.
Specifically, Mayo had two goals – first, he wanted to have the tree patented. Second, he wanted to have the tree propagated by a large nursery.
Those goals have now been realized in the form of Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co., a 200-year-old nursery out of Louisiana, Mo.
“Stark Bro’s patented [the tree] and paid for it,” Mayo said, “which is amazing. It’s completely unprecedented for a large operation like that to pay for a patent.”
And now Stark Bro’s is also propagating the tree, with as many as 13 thousand trees planned for 2018.
“Bill’s got himself a good plan to increase the number of bittersharps in the U.S.,” Stata said.
The composition of the Franklin cider tree’s apple resembles that of the famous Kingston Black, a distinctive bittersharp that dominated England’s hard cider industry in the mid-20th-century. The Kingston Black fell from prominence due to its difficult cropping and tendency toward scabbing.
Those are shortcomings the Franklin cider tree does not share.
“I don’t want to sound pretentious or self-important, but I really do think the Franklin cider tree is superior,” Mayo said. “It has a very tough history, up on the border. It’s survived 10 years in below-thirty-degree weather, and actually longer than that – the tree must be sixty years old and then some. And it’s scab-resistant, which also means it can be grown using less pesticides.
“This is going to be a heavyweight in the cider industry.”
But Mayo emphasizes that although his discovery might be special, he was no more likely to make it than anyone else.
“I’m self-taught,” Mayo said. “I spent many, many years going to Tree Fruit Growers Association meetings and taking classes at UVM. I just have a fascination with growing apples. Once I get interested in something I have to gobble up every bit of information about it I can find. That’s just how I am.”
For Mayo, the success story isn’t about himself or even the cider industry. It’s about Vermont.
“The thing is there are opportunities out there everywhere,” Mayo said. “There are probably opportunities on every hill, in almost every ancient orchard. There are opportunities out there for Vermonters to explore a little bit and see what they come up with.”