by Courtney Llewellyn
And they’re off! The apple trees, that is, not the horses. Although Kyle Degener, owner of Holy Beez Cidery Orchard, could argue that growing fruit and raising race horses have more in common than you may think. But we’ll get to that further on.
Degener lives in the heart of horse racing country – Louisville, KY – but his orchard is located about an hour away in rural Marion County, near Loretto, in bourbon country. Like many beginning farmers, going into agriculture was never really a part of his life plan. “I started by growing dwarf apple trees in our backyard in suburbia. That’s how I cut my teeth on the process,” he said. “Then I tried to ‘macro’ everything.”
His mother, Charlene Coultas, and her side of the family are mostly rural-based. Degener had always been interested in growing, gardening and horticulture, but it was not his main track in life. The father of two young children, he has a master’s in business administration and still works in horse racing, splitting his time between his orchard and Bloodhorse, a multimedia news organization covering Thoroughbred racing and breeding, providing website analytics.
“Land presented itself to me – an old dairy farm – and I’d had an interest in growing cider apples for 10 to 15 years,” he said. “My interest was always cider first, growing apples second. Growing is now my primary interest.” He works with his mom on the farm. She retired and wanted something to keep her busy, so now she’s Holy Beez’s heavy machine operator. Degener is more the orchardist.
But why focus on cider first? He had spent some time living in London after his undergrad career, and cider is much more popular there. That planted the seed. He started by homebrewing beer, then cider. And when it came time to name his new orchard, he thought of another family member – and a horse. “My uncle passed away unexpectedly in 2015, and he had a racehorse named Emma’s Holy Bee – so it’s a tribute to him and it ties into the bees that visit the apple blossoms.”
Holy Beez was officially established in 2016. Degener said he faced a high learning curve, but to help with that, he connected with University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension. “I read tons of books, learning and reading, and going to orchard events, learning at orchards, at conferences – a lot of hands-on stuff,” he said. “Extension is great to network with other small fruit growers. You get good advice you don’t get out of a book … But I think the reason I like it so much is that you’ll never figure it all out.”
His orchard has close to five acres of mostly dwarfed, high density, trellised trees. “You need a lot of foresight with what you want to do,” he said of orchard planning. “It’s not like planting corn. It depends on where you are, your climate, even when you put in an order to a nursery. Then it takes three years to grow before you even get an apple. There are a lot of deferred rewards” – much like raising race horses.
The plantings have been phased in, with the last section likely bearing fruit in next two to three years. Degener is still ramping up production for his planned commercial cidery. The first year he had a crop was 2021, coming from a section he described as “a little bit experimental,” since he didn’t know how the cultivars would do in Kentucky. He sold those apples to Wise Bird Cider Co. in Lexington, KY, which will be releasing “Holy Beez” cider as part of their Kentucky growers series. “The quality of it should be insane,” Degener said. “It’s rare to get that much diversity into one blend of cider – it’s a gazillion different varieties.”
He enters his small-batch concoctions into competitions now, with the goal of gaining a grassroots following. With an eye on cider, he’s opted for certain cultivars. King David grows fast, puts on a crop pretty early, makes a great cider apple, is decently disease resistant and has an almost tropical flavor, according to Degener. Winecrisp, while disease resistant, is a slow grower and it’s hard to get a good volume from them – and these were the majority of his first planting. In his new plantings, he’s put in Gold Rush, Virginia Winesap, Harrison, Puget Spice (which grows very well in Kentucky) and a lot of crabapples.
Other cultivars include Kentucky, Black and Swiss Limbertwig, all Appalachia types. “Until you put it out in the field, it’s tough to really know what matches up with reality,” he said. “Some would say I’m growing too many varieties, but I evaluate them at the end of each season to make decisions on things that are going well or not going well.”
And, of course, he’s growing one called Horse, an heirloom variety with a lot of acid that was used back in the day for vinegar.
In addition to the apple trees, Degener grows some hops as well, to experiment with how they’ll affect a cider. “They’re kind of a challenge and neat plants to grow,” he said. “They kind of take on a life of their own; some turn out really floral. The last one I did had a lot of tropical notes.”
Becoming a Pommelier
In February, the American Cider Association (ACA) announced that nine people passed the Certified Pommelier™ exam at CiderCon®, including Degener.
The ACA first established its Certified Cider Professional program to educate those on the front-line of cider sales. The program began with a certification to help people obtain a fundamental understanding of cider. The Certified Pommelier certification was developed to move beyond a fundamental understanding and to encourage cider professionals to think critically while demonstrating a higher understanding of the elements of cider.
“The Certified Pommelier exam is designed to be rigorous,” said Michelle McGrath, executive director of the ACA. “This is the largest cohort of successful exams on both cider theory and evaluation of the four exams offered to date.” The next Certified Pommelier exam will be announced before CiderCon 2023 in Chicago. To learn more, check out ciderassociation.org/certification.
“I was immediately interested in the pommelier program. It was a little bit to test myself, and I thought it would be a novel thing to have,” Degener said. “It was also partly to have credentials, a story behind my product.”
When he participated in hard cider training offered by Cornell University, he discovered that his sensory abilities were his weak spot. Like a sommelier, a pommelier (based on the root pomme, the French word for apple) focuses on ciders.
“It was a good challenge for my skillset,” he admitted. “I had to identify flaws, style, origin, all based on taste.”
Degener said the Certified Pommelier program has helped him expand his network for when it comes time to market Holy Beez cider. “I definitely encourage other growers to join associations and learn from other people,” he said. “Whether you’re selling apples now or later, make those connections. Learn what the industry is trending toward, what apples cideries prefer. Join in even if you’re growing some adjunct fruit, like blackberries.”
He said the best part of being an orchardist is seeing how hard it is to produce fruit and appreciate what growers do. “I wish everyone could experience how difficult it is to farm,” he said. “I have tremendous respect for all farmers. Sometimes you show up to the orchard and things will be out of your control. You just gotta be able to roll with it.”