In Montana, Michael Billingsley Grows Cider Apples Where Few Others Have - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

In Montana, Michael Billingsley Grows Cider Apples Where Few Others Have

“I remember driving my old shitty Ford truck way too fast, and I’m clenching the steering wheel, and my heart is beating,” recalls Michael Billingsley. “I’m just in this rage, trying to haul ass down to the orchard.”

Billingsley, owner of Billingsley Cider Orchard in Stevensville, Montana, was in a frantic state over the fate of his apples. It was spring, a few years back, and a contagious fruit disease called fire blight threatened to annihilate his trees. Weather conditions weren’t cooperating, and from Billingsley’s production facility at Western Cider in Missoula, he was a 45-minute drive from being able to do anything about it.

As he was driving, and cursing, and panicking, a StoryCorps segment about a woman who’d lost her farmer husband to suicide began playing on the radio. “I was like, ‘Jesus, I’ve got to calm down,’ ” Billingsley remembers. “And I feel like ever since then, I’ve changed my tune. No matter how good of a job you do, at any moment’s notice, the whole orchard could be dead. So, I let things go.” Billingsley does let things go now—to a point. (He admits to still lying down between the rows of trees in his orchard and crying, but much less frequently.) The stress is familiar to anyone who works in agriculture, or whose living is otherwise dependent on adapting to nature’s folly. Billingsley has learned to weather unpredictability, though, having previously worked as a sheep rancher, landscaper, backcountry outfitter, and flight instructor.

“Some people go into accounting and they’re an accountant for 22 years. That’s not us,” says Matthew LaRubbio, co-owner of Western Cider, which he and Billingsley opened in 2017. LaRubbio and Billingsley both grew up in southern Texas, and they’ve been friends since their late teens. Despite their proclivity for transience and exploration, the pair of erstwhile ranch hands found they wanted to put down roots in western Montana. They have the orchard to thank for that.

In 2012, Billingsley planted 2,500 cider apple trees on a piece of land he’d purchased in the Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula. The history of that picturesque, sun-filled valley felt portentous: At their peak around 1920, growers in the Bitterroot Valley were shipping more than 400,000 bushels of McIntosh apples to buyers in New York.

Landowners converted most of the orchards to hay fields and grazing land for cattle by the middle part of the century, when apple prices had dropped and orchards were less profitable. But a few pockets of 50 or so apple trees dating back to that era are still standing, having managed to evade the others’ fate. Irrigation for Billingsley’s orchard is gravity-fed from the Big Ditch, an approximately 75-mile-long channel constructed, by horse and cart, at the turn of the 20th century to irrigate the original Bitterroot apple orchards. The water flows from Lake Como, a man-made lake outside Darby, Montana, dammed to supply water to Bitterroot Valley farmers.

Billingsley dreamt of a rebirth of apple growing in the valley. But at the time, except for Lee McAlpine of Montana CiderWorks in Darby, no one was growing cider apples in the state’s sometimes harsh, unpredictable climate. It was McAlpine’s North Fork semi-dry, English-style cider that years before had blown Billingsley’s mind and changed his perception of cider. McAlpine at the time told him the juice that she fermented into North Fork had been trucked to her cidery from Lebanon, New Hampshire. Quantities of cider apples just weren’t grown in Montana. Billingsley learned that at one point, they had been, and he decided to revive the tradition.

It’s not the cider that drew Billingsley to orcharding, though; it’s the other way around. For years, he’d enjoyed growing perennial crops because he can form a lasting bond with them—a bond that he describes in almost personal terms. “I really fell in love with them as opposed to a row crop that you’re turning into the ground each season and starting over. With row crops, you have a close tie and a relationship, obviously, with the land, but not with the actual plant,” he says. “And I love plants.”

Now, his orchard is home to more than 5,000 trees, representing 60 types of cider apples. The varieties are different from so-called “dessert apples” like Gala or Honeycrisp, because cider apples (most of which trace their lineage back to England, France, and Spain) are prized for their bitterness, tannins, and acidity, making most of them unpleasant to eat raw. But in a cider, the apples contribute structure, aromas, and flavors that rival those of wine made from grapes. High-tannin cider apples like Hewe’s Virginia Crab along with heirloom dual-purpose apples such as Cox’s Orange Pippin, Wickson, Hudson’s Golden Gem, and other cultivars Billingsley grows eventually become Western’s “estate ciders”—a line of draft and bottled ciders made only with fruit from his orchard, expressing the unique microclimate and terroir of the Bitterroot Valley.

Because most of these types of apple trees have not been commercially grown in Montana before, Billingsley’s work is as much a science project as a commercial endeavor. He collaborates closely with Montana State University’s Western Agricultural Research Center to study the trees’ disease tolerance, yields, and interactions with weeds and pollinators. Some grafting experiments don’t successfully take. Some trees have their trunks gnawed through by voles. Some with early blooming crops are lost to spring frosts. And some—many, in fact—thrive.

The endeavor requires intimate knowledge of each tree, something Billingsley possesses to a nearly unbelievable degree. (This is partly because of personal affection, and partly because he’s one of the orchard’s two employees.) Walking among the trees, even in winter when each plant looks like barely more than a bundle of sticks, he recalls the details of each one’s fruit, blossoms, leaves, and roots. He touches their branches carefully, describing Golden Russet trees as “super willowy,” and Frequin Rouge trees as “beautiful, with huge swooping branches that set a million little apples.”

“He has an incredible ability in that way,” says Western Cider’s head cider maker, Kira Bassingthwaighte. “He walks through the orchard, and he’s like, ‘I made this cut last year, and it grew out this way.’ He’s got thousands of trees and he remembers each pruning cut he made and why.”

This level of attention isn’t just economically motivated. Billingsley finds something spiritual between the orchard’s trellises. “I’ll be pruning by myself up and down rows, and it’s just—it’s peaceful, you know? I have to escape here so I can get my solitude, my Zen moments,” he says.

While the orchard is Western Cider’s beating heart, it’s not yet the cidery’s sales engine. Soon after he planted his trees, Billingsley realized a broader, more successful approach to his orchard-based cidery plan would involve a diversified cider lineup. He and LaRubbio decided to finance the esoteric ciders with a line of what they call “easygoing” ciders, made from high-quality dessert apple juice from nearby Washington state. The dual business model has, so far, succeeded. “That’s how we can get people interested in cider,” Billingsley says. “And then we can start introducing them down the road to these fine ciders, these more complex ciders, these ciders made with true, tannic cider apples.”

This level of attention isn’t just economically motivated. Billingsley finds something spiritual between the orchard’s trellises.

Recently, as the orchard’s trees have borne more fruit, those complex ciders have become even more ambitious. In December, Western released its first Methode Traditionelle, with techniques borrowed from Champagne houses. This year, Western will release its first cider made in the pét-nat style. Both can be sipped by cider fans across the country, thanks to Western’s relatively new ability to ship out of state.

These estate ciders are what excite Billingsley the most, and they’re what’s earned Western national acclaim, including dual 2017 Portland International Cider Cup wins for New Cidery of the Year and Best of Show for its McIntosh Cider. When Western poured its products at industry event CiderCon in 2019, European and Canadian cider makers repeatedly returned to Western’s station for multiple rounds. “They were saying, ‘I’ve never tasted something in the U.S. like this,’ ” Bassingthwaighte says. “All the quality there is in the apples and how they’re grown. Michael’s fruit is phenomenal.”

That fruit requires a near-constant level of vigilance, especially in warm weather during bloom. Disaster is just an outbreak of fire blight away. One night of frost could be ruinous. But the reverse is also true: This year’s harvest could result in the most transcendent, elegant cider he’s ever made. Billingsley will keep playing the odds. “It’s hard, and it’s always going to be hard,” he says. “And as soon as something’s not hard, something else hard is going to happen. So I’m just trying to keep my cool, keep charging forward, and not let any one thing break me.”

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