DEER ISLE — John Steed knows people are not always happy to talk with their lawyer.
He knows this because he is a lawyer.
But he also is an amateur apple enthusiast, working to revive an overgrown orchard on Deer Isle, and he has found that the familiar fruit is a people pleaser.
“People are usually happy to come here,” said Steed, picking apples before making cider on a Sunday afternoon at Highmeadow Orchard. “The apples, the cider — it makes people happy.”
Like the approximately 120 trees in the orchard, Steed’s roots are on the island. He grew up there and graduated from Deer Isle-Stonington High School. He worked as a sternman on Frank Gotwals’ lobster boat and as a reporter at the Island Ad-Vantages newspaper for a time.
One place he also spent some time was Highmeadow Orchard (then called Highmeadow Farm) when it was run by Lloyd and Marjorie Capen. The husband-and-wife duo started the orchard when they retired to the island in the late 1970s (Lloyd was an island native, while Marjorie was originally from Pennsylvania).
“I had come up a few times and helped, back in the day,” Steed said.
The orchard lay dormant after the Capens retired in their later years. Lloyd died in 2008 and Marjorie in 2010, and Steed came back to the island in 2014 after earning a law degree from Drexel University.
After getting his law degree, Steed worked in the Philadelphia City Solicitor’s Office and the Office of the Public Defender. He now works for the law office of Ellen Best, with offices in Blue Hill and Stonington.
When Steed returned to Maine, he tracked down the new owner of the Highmeadow property and asked about the possibility of managing the orchard and once again producing apples and cider.
“It just seemed like a shame that it was going to sit and nothing was going to happen to it,” Steed said. “It just seemed like a nice thing to do.”
The owner agreed, and the fall of 2014 was Highmeadow’s first season under Steed’s care. He began familiarizing himself with the varieties of trees — among them the familiar McIntosh and Cortlands, along with less well-known ones such as Northern Spy and Gravenstein — and tagged the trees with small metal discs for identification purposes.
Nicole Spiridakis, in a 2013 piece for National Public Radio, described Gravensteins as “the end of summer in a fruit,” and described them as “crisp and tart with a touch of honey.” The apple variety traces its roots to 17th-century Denmark, Spiridakis said, and is now grown from Nova Scotia to the Pacific Northwest. It is considered an especially good apple for making cider.
Steed has replaced an old fence with a two-layer electric fence that helps keep deer out of the orchard and away from its attractive offerings. He has learned about pruning trees, cutting old limbs and either burning or chipping them.
He also learned about cider, and what it takes to make it. He said it tends to be a good blend of apples that makes the best cider.
“I try to use a variety of what’s here,” Steed said. “A mix of sweet and sour, mostly.”
While the past two seasons the orchard has offered both whole apples and cider, this year’s apple crop has been smaller and so there is just cider. Steed said he thinks the smaller crop is a result of both the natural production cycles of the trees as well as the drought conditions affecting the state.
Making cider at Highmeadow not only carries on a tradition established by the Capens, but one that dates back millennia. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension service notes people “have been enjoying cider since at least 55 BC, when Romans arrived in England and found locals drinking a cider-like liquid.”
For Steed’s cider production, the process works as follows: first, the apples are picked. On the recent Sunday afternoon Steed had some help from his daughter, Imogen, and the apples were then carried from the orchard in baskets and over to the cider press area.
Steed has an apple chopper with an electric motor. He pours the baskets of apples into the hopper slowly, and the chopper creates a sort of puree known as either mash or pomace.
He also, as a writer for the New York Times recounted after a 1988 visit to Highmeadow when the Capens ran it, “threw bits into the air as it chopped away.” The chopper also throws a fine mist into the air as it does its work.
At the end of the process, Steed looked like someone who had just spent time running a chainsaw except he was covered with apple bits instead of sawdust. He occasionally uses a stick to push apples into the chopper.
The mash falls into a five-gallon plastic bucket, which is then carried to the cider press. A system of layered lath racks and cloths is used, with a cloth fitted into the rack and then filled with mash. A series of racks is stacked one on top of the other, and then the large screw mechanism at the top is cranked down to squeeze liquid out of the mash.
The cider press was made by Charlie Smith, a good friend of Lloyd Capen, and who was a World War II veteran who piloted a B-17 bomber during the war and who Steed said was known as a “general engineer” of all things on the island.
The liquid squeezed from the mash then flows into a tube that runs to a repurposed beer keg, fitted with a spigot that is then used to fill gallon and half-gallon jugs.
The cider made and sold at Highmeadow ($10 for a gallon, $5 for a half gallon) is not pasteurized, and as such each jug sold is required to carry a label with the following warning: “This product has not been pasteurized and, therefore, may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.”
The ominous language does not deter customers, however, who come to the orchard on the recent Sunday to get what the Times article from 1988 described as “Maine’s elixir of October.” Steed and his small crew were selling the cider almost as fast as they could make it, which seems to be reflective of the reception his revival effort has received.
“There’s been a lot of positive feedback,” he said.
Highmeadow Orchard is located at 158 Lowe Road in Deer Isle, and is open from 1-5 p.m. on Sundays as long as there are apples available to make cider.