Food Tank

Meet the Minneapolis Cider Maker Tackling Food Waste by Crowdsourcing His Apples

Jeff Zeitler, owner of Urban Forage in Minneapolis, is tackling food waste by using apples picked from people’s yards. Photo courtesy of Jeff Zeitler.

Urban Forage, a winery and cider house in south Minneapolis, Minnesota, is working to prevent food waste by sourcing apples from trees in local residents’ yards. Founder Jeff Zeitler began his career as a landscape architect, but after finding the profession to not be as environmentally friendly as he’d hoped, he returned to his college hobby—producing alcohol using fruits he collected from local trees and fields—and scaled it up into a business in late 2015.

Urban Forage is one of the only cideries in the nation to use apples picked from local city residents’ trees. In addition to apple, pear, and cherry ciders, Urban Forage also produces dandelion and rhubarb wines made from foraged products, as well as the honey spirit mead. Zeitler estimated he foraged about 16,000 pounds of apples last year and made 1,000 gallons of cider. When he began plans for the winery, Zeitler noticed that, because a standard apple tree takes 10 years to start producing fruit, the homeowner who planted the tree had often moved away by the time the apples began growing, leaving the new residents to deal with the fruit.

“I realized there are a lot of homeowners who like the trees and they love the shade, but they didn’t get around to picking the fruit,” Zeitler said. “And the fruit would fall on the car, on the sidewalk, on the driveway, and they wanted somebody to just make it go away for them. … And that’s where I come in.”

Zeitler is able to forage local apples for free: “essentially for the price of my own labor and the gas of driving out to pick it,” he says. The practice also allows him to directly work toward reducing food waste and unsustainable environmental practices, rather than donating to a nonprofit organization that would do things on his behalf, he says.

“There are people who pick up the apples off the ground and throw them in the trash, which to me is the worst of all possible outcomes,” Zeitler says. “So I’m literally taking those apples—I’m not pulling them out of the trash, I’m keeping them from going into the trash. … I feel like I’ve got a double benefit there: I’ve got free apples, and I’m also salvaging something that would’ve otherwise gone in the trash.”

Zeitler’s foraging also puts him at the mercy of climate change, which he said is affecting the ripening schedule of the apples he picks. This year, for instance, some trees were ready to be picked in mid-August, two to three weeks ahead of schedule. He can’t pick them yet, though, because he’d planned to spend all the remaining time before the typical beginning of the harvesting season finishing the taproom construction.

“The biggest effect of climate change is the loss of certainty of when you can pick things, in my mind,” Zeitler said. “And the loss of certainty in what your volume of harvest is going to be. We’re seeing bigger up-years and worse down-years in various things, so it’s more of a boom and a bust. Climate change has accentuated that boom and bust in food production, in my mind. This year, it’s a boom. This year, we’ve got a ton of it—it’s just too soon.”

Zeitler says there are tangible things every person can do to limit food waste—for example, not being afraid of bugs. “We all don’t want to eat food we perceive as being buggy or not good,” Zeitler said. “Because people see a piece of fruit—and it’s a normal human impulse—you see a piece of fruit that’s not perfect, and you pass it by and pick the one that is perfect.”

However, consumer preference for better-looking produce is contributing to high levels of food waste. Feeding America estimates that more than 20 billion pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables go unharvested or unsold annually, in part due to their appearance. Zeitler says this is all backwards—ugly fruit tastes better, he said, because pretty “isn’t the whole story.”

“If I buy a red delicious right now, it’s been in storage for probably 11 months,” Zeitler said. “It probably came from Washington State. It’s been waxed, it’s had ethylene gas injected into the storage container to ripen it. This thing is mealy and flavorless. If I pick an apple off the tree, even if it’s a little underripe right now, it’s going to have so much more flavor. It’s going to be juicy, delicious, it’s going to have flavor. But it’s not going to be as pretty, because the apple I pick off the tree hasn’t been treated with anything.”

Urban Forage’s cider has a strong apple flavor and what Zeitler described as a less sulfuric taste than commercial ciders. But relying on imperfect apples from hundreds of apple trees, rather than uniformly produced fruit, can lead to inconsistencies between years—and even individual batches—of cider. Zeitler says Urban Forage is more similar to a winery, where patrons expect and desire some year-to-year variation, than to a brewery, where visitors expect a consistent product.

“[Wine drinkers] always want a little bit of change, they want some variation, and the variation is what makes wine exciting, what makes wine beautiful,” Zeitler says. “I think so far, we’ve done pretty well in keeping a fairly consistent quality, with enough variation to keep it interesting.”

Zeitler says he hopes Urban Forage can inspire other alcohol producers to not be afraid to ask people to share resources they’re not using. He said he’s found people to be very receptive to his requests to pick their fruit.

“In this country, we kind of have a lot of stress put on property rights and property ownership,” Zeitler said. “And I think people are afraid to approach others because they’re afraid of infringing, or appearing to infringe, on someone else’s property. Whereas the truth is, the natural world doesn’t have to follow the property rights laws we’ve set out. Just because we say, this apple tree belongs to so and such, doesn’t mean the apple tree is going to stop dropping apples all over the place if so and such doesn’t pick the apples. I think we’d be better served to just talk to each other and say, ‘Hey, can I use that if you’re not?’”

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