Amazing Cider Man: The Maine Lawyer Turned Apple-Foraging Obsessive

Sean Turley knows that with great fruit come great libations.

Sean Turley holding apple picker tool
By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Danielle Sykes
From our October 2022 issue

By day, Sean Turley is a Portland lawyer. But when he swaps out his business suit for denim overalls, he turns into one of Maine’s foremost apple nerds. His “origin story,” as he puts it, goes back a decade: One autumn day, he was driving through central Maine with his now-wife when they stopped at an orchard. Turley knew a few types of apples from supermarkets — Gala, Golden Delicious, etc. — but at this single orchard, he encountered more than two dozen different apples with names he’d never heard. Awed by the sheer variety, he loaded up his trunk and hauled them home for a tasting with friends. After that, his annual apple tastings, organized with Portland Food Map founder Anestes Fotiades, became a seasonal staple of the Portland food scene (and, in 2019, they hosted one for the governor).

Turley also started a cider club for restaurant owners, bar managers, and cider makers, to raise craft cider’s local profile; he joined the board of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Maine Heritage Orchard, in Unity; he forages wild apples for Portersfield Cider and Cornish Cider Company; and he helps organize MOFGA’s biennial Apple Camp, for enthusiasts from around the country. Maine is one of only a few states, he notes, with such deep-rooted apple culture. Agricultural history combined with a century of widespread rewilding, resulting in feral apples proliferating in woods, on roadsides, and by the shore. Now, every fall, Turley crisscrosses back roads, marking up a Gazetteer with where he found apple trees, where he didn’t, and where he suspects he might. Maine is, he says, “a Shangri-la for its apples.”

What is it about apples that so hooked you?

Well, at our second annual apple tasting, we tried some roadside apples, which felt a bit like forbidden fruit — like crossing some boundary you’re not supposed to cross. Serving them to other people, I was nervous, even though I also knew apples aren’t going to make you sick or anything. After that, I became kind of obsessed. I mean, every apple seed is unique. If you were to throw a McIntosh out of your car, the trees that grow from any of those seeds would not be McIntosh but a completely unique fruit — that’s why orchard trees are grafted instead of grown from seed. A small and sweet apple could functionally give birth to an apple that is huge and bitter. I find that absolutely mind-blowing. Any random apple tree could have the greatest fresh fruit you’ve ever eaten in your life, or it could taste atrocious. So I felt like I was falling Alice in Wonderland–style into this crazy world of apples.

And it probably wasn’t too much of a leap from apples into cider.

About five years ago, David Buchanan, at Portersfield Cider, said something really weird to me, which is that he was growing his own fruit, but he wasn’t growing enough to actually sustain his business, so he needed to forage for fruit around the state. Most apples you ever eat have two general things going on: acid and sugar. When you ferment apple juice, you get rid of sugar, and you’re left with acid. What we consider today to be cider fruit also has bitterness or astringency, which translates into tannic qualities, like a red wine, and provides body and structure to your drink. But those apples taste terrible. If you’re a pick-your-own orchard, there’s no reason to grow an apple nobody wants to eat. So that leaves cider makers who need apples for high-quality cider in a bit of a bind. At first, I just tried to help David keep records of where he found good trees, but then I thought I’d like to go out and look for cider apples too.

Why wouldn’t cider makers just graft cider trees for themselves?

Some have started to do that. But if you want to scale up with your own orchard, even using dwarf rootstock, which is the fastest growing, you’ll only get a small crop in maybe three or four years and a full crop in five or six. You’re basically placing a bet that, five years from now, you’re going to still exist and you’re going to need that many trees. It’s very tricky.

Is there a method to sussing out wild trees?

John Bunker, who started the Maine Heritage Orchard, talks about being inspired by Sherlock Holmes — you have to do some investigative work. Sometimes, you’re using historical records to identify where you think there would have been grafted apple trees 100, 200, 300 years ago, on farms and homesteads, that would have since produced seedling trees. There’s a way in which you’re walking in history’s footsteps by exploring seedling apples. It’s also just a lot of driving around, looking very closely at things, and biting into a lot of apples. And you have to figure out whose permission to ask to harvest them. Most landowners are shocked you have any interest. They want to show you their really beautiful apples that they use for pies, but you’re like, no, I want the apples you hate.

Sean Turley leaves no tree untasted, traversing the state with his long-reach apple picker. Track his finds on Instagram.

Despite the hurdles, it still seems like the cider scene has grown lately.

Oh, yeah, we’re in the nascent stages still, but it has changed exponentially. Five years ago, it felt very Age of Exploration. A lot of crossed fingers and praying to the gods. Since then, you’ve seen a lot of growth in interest in cider and in high-quality cider making. So it’s great to be able to introduce people to all this stuff. I get to share the same sense of wondrous discovery I felt 10 years ago when I stopped at an orchard.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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