Sometimes Jude Schuenemeyer will find an apple tree that he just can’t identify. With over a hundred unidentified varieties in southwest Colorado, the tree could be one of any number of rare or endangered specimens. If Schuenemeyer is lucky and the tree is hanging with ripe fruit, he can take a crunchy, juicy bite into an apple and taste a flavor that has been forgotten for nearly a century. “It blows you away,” Schuenemeyer says.

A hundred and twenty years ago, Montezuma County was a hub for the state’s apple industry, with thousands of trees dotting the mountainous, high-desert terrain. Though neglected for decades, today these historic trees are finding a new market as a budding craft cider industry takes root in southwest Colorado.

Schuenemeyer and his wife Addie are the founders of the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP), a nonprofit that preserves heritage apples in Colorado. For the last two decades, the Schuenemeyers have traveled throughout the region to interview local farmers, dig through historic county fair records; and discover and save one-of-a-kind trees. MORP propagates many of these old trees to plant new orchards and preserve vanishing varieties. A few years ago, they rediscovered one of Colorado’s oldest varieties—the Colorado Orange—which was thought to be extinct, near Cañon City.

“Apples are 100 percent dependent on us to regraft and clone them,” Schuenemeyer says. “Just as apples provide us with good food, we have a synergistic relationship with them.”

Montezuma County apples were once nationally recognized not only for their variety, but also their taste. With orchards growing at altitudes between 6,500 and 7,000 feet, warm days and cool nights keep pests at bay and cause the natural sugars to set differently than in warmer climates.

Schuenemeyer says that while some apples were used for cider, most were historically grown for other purposes. That, however, is changing. The national hard cider market has boomed in recent years. With an abundance of apples mostly feeding bears and turkeys, Montezuma County was ripe with opportunity. “Now is the golden age of cider in Colorado,” he says.

EsoTerra co-owner Jared Scott climbing a tree to pick apples. Photo courtesy of EsoTerra Cider

The evidence? Businesses like EsoTerra Cider in Dolores are blossoming. “The historic orchards are mysterious,” says Elizabeth Philbrick, who co-founded EsoTerra with husband Jared Scott. “Each a snapshot in time, and a possibility to taste what cider was like in that era.”

Philbrick and Scott weave local folklore and history into their cider. Tastings are paired with rich stories about where the apples were sourced. The Last Stand, an effervescent prosecco-like cider is made from fruit that originally fed miners as they trekked over the mountains. It recently won best in class at an international cider competition. “When Jared and I first dreamt of making artisanal cider,” Philbrick says, “we knew we would only be as good as the fruit.”

Scott first became aware of Montezuma County’s historic orchards while training for ultramarathons in the region. While running down dusty county roads, he noticed thousands of apples mostly going to waste. He eventually learned to make cider with the help of Teal Cider in Dolores and started putting those apples “to work” last year when EsoTerra opened.

Using MORP’s research and orchard mapping tools, cideries like EsoTerra can find and access orchards throughout the region. Because most trees are on private land, Philbrick says they look “every apple grower in the eye” and are “always part of the group that picks the fruit.” They either pay outright for the apples or offer an in-kind payment of cider.

Today, EsoTerra Cider attracts both locals and tourists on their way to and from Telluride. Its taproom is situated beside the highway in an old juice factory, which now boasts indoor and outdoor seating along with a food truck.

EsoTerra is one of three local cideries using Montezuma County apples. Fenceline Cider in the nearby town of Mancos has also become a community gathering spot beside the river, with live music and local art. “We want to see amazing cideries pop up everywhere, each with its unique fingerprint on the craft,” Philbrick says. “We moved here for the fruit, and to lose it would be a shame.

EsoTerra Cider. Photo courtesy of EsoTerra Cider

Despite the nascent cider boom in the area, many historic orchards are at risk. Schuenemeyer described a heartbreaking episode in which he returned to an old tree he’d discovered a year previously only to find it had been bulldozed. Schuenemeyer describes it as trees losing their “cultural relevancy.” In many cases, it’s more economical to rip out the trees in favor of other crops. “It was a remarkable old orchard,” he says. “It’s frustrating to lose them.”

Schuenemeyer believes that in order to save the orchards, the local apple economy must be revived. And cider will play a large part in that. Schuenemeyer says there’s been so much interest recently that MORP purchased a $300,000 press for the community members to use to produce their own cider. Another way small brands and individuals can get started is by taking advantage of EsoTerra’s “custom crush” facilities, which allow indie cider makers to produce their own beverages underneath its licensing.

If you can’t make it to their tasting rooms in southwest Colorado, EsoTerra and Fenceline ciders are available in select liquor stores and online. One Denver cidery, Clear Fork, has also sourced apples from the area, and Schuenemeyer hopes more will follow suit.

“If the trees are going to get saved,” Schuenemeyer says. “They’re going to get saved because there’s an economy to get fruit off them.”