Apple juice: Early and tart or late and sweet

Four years ago, Joe and Sheila Aujay moved from Bennett Valley to Sebastopol, where they purchased a home on 4? acres on Burnside Road. Three-and-a-half of those acres were planted with apple trees, some as young as five years, others as old as 50. When the first harvest came, they began making apple juice and selling it at farmers market. This is their fourth harvest.

The orchard is a mix of four varieties: Jonathan, which ripens early; Golden Delicious, which comes next and then Rome Beauty and Red Delicious, the last to ripen. The orchard is organic and dry-farmed; they do not irrigate at all. It's a tricky endeavor to raise apples, especially in the spring, when the bloom comes. Until those fragile blossoms form fruit, they are vulnerable to wind and rain. Too much of either and an entire year's crop can be lost.

Apples also need plenty of bees and the Aujays are lucky. Nearby, larger orchards and vineyards keep bees and the orchard has not suffered from colony collapse, a problem throughout the country. Earlier this year, they even found a feral swarm hanging from a tree like a huge vibrating football, a mass of millions of bees searching for a new home.

But what about the juice? People who have tried JS Orchards apple juice say it is the best they have ever tasted. What's the secret?

"Two things determine the quality of juice," Joe Aujay says, "ripening and the time from tree to press."

The Aujays press their apples at Ratzlaff Ranch in Sebastopol within two to three days of harvest; the apples never go into cold storage, which means they are pressing several times each harvest.

The juice is a field blend, made in the orchard of those apples that are ripe at any given moment. This means the season's earlier juice, from late August fruit, is different than the juice made from the final picking, which often takes place in late December (if rains don't prevent orchard access, as is happening this year). Earlier juice is more acidic, with a refreshing tartness. Later juice is rich, dark and sweet, perfect for serving hot, spiked with cinnamon and maybe a little white pepper.

After pressing, the juice is frozen in quart containers and remains frozen until someone buys it and takes it home. It is sold for $4.50 a quart.

This year, the orchard yielded 800 gallons.

At their farmers markets booths, the Aujays offer samples. They always have the cold juice and sometimes, on cold mornings, they also serve it hot, with cinnamon.

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