The volunteer cider-making group A Few Bad Apples gets a lot of attention during the fall months. It's an exciting time: That's when the members are picking and collecting apples, bottling cider, and spreading their message of sustainability and waste-reduction in Pittsburgh. But wintertime is just as important, if not more so. Once the frost has settled in, it’s vital for the volunteers to prune the apple trees, rehab neglected ones, and remove dead and diseased wood to ensure a productive harvest come fall. It's a tough job, done on weekends and in free time, but it's worth it.
"Our cider-making is not a paid venture," says Michael Sturges, co-founder of A Few Bad Apples. "It is a labor of love. Everyone in our group has a day job."
The collective got its start around 2004 after Sturges and his friend Ryan Utz noticed that despite the prevalence of apple trees around Pittsburgh, most of the fruit ended up rotting in people's backyards. So they collected a batch and attempted their first cider using a food processor and a cheese cloth. Ugly fruit in its natural state might not be appetizing, but who can tell when it's in a drink? The next year, they purchased an antique cider press from 1865 and A Few Bad Apples was born. Over the past 15 years, they've had over 100 people involved (with a core group of 10-20) in the collection of apples that would otherwise go to waste, the foraging for other natural ingredients to experiment with, the staging of events to promote sustainability and, of course, the sharing of the cider. (A Few Bad Apples is not a commercial cidery, and does not sell its cider.)
In addition to the simple fact that hard cider is good, the members of A Few Bad Apples are motivated by the desire to challenge popular misconceptions about agriculture and horticulture. Their cider — the majority of which is alcoholic, but they make some non-alcoholic versions for underage volunteers — is all natural and without pesticides, which may mean uglier fruit, but the end product is worth it. Sturges likes the idea of the group being "the few bad apples who help to 'spoil' the current conventional agricultural and cider making processes."
The majority of the cider is used to support events that promote nonprofits and community organizations, including the upcoming 2020 Brewhaha benefiting the Oak Hollow Land Trust in March; the Weather Permitting concert at Tree Pittsburgh in July; and the group's biggest day of the year, A Few Bad Apples Ciderfest at the WBU Event Center in October. (You can stay up to date on event details at the group's Facebook page.)
"It's hard to get someone interested in sustainability by giving them a knobby, pitted piece of fruit," says Sturges. "But give them a glass of crisp hard cider with tiny bubbles tickling their nose, made from that same knobby, pitted fruit and you can make them a believer."