Artifact Cider Project cofounder Soham Bhatt crawled under a fence in Roxbury looking for a special apple.
Behind a school just off Malcolm X Boulevard, Bhatt found a tree full of Roxbury Russets. He got enough of the fruit — some yellow, some green, all nubby and ill-suited for supermarket shelves — to fill a small backpack. The Roxbury Russet originated nearby early in the 17th century; it later became the first named apple variety in America and, according to the 1905 book “The Apples of New York,” was widely cultivated throughout the Northeast.
“People might perceive them as ugly, because in this industrial age of agriculture, everything has to look the same,” says Bhatt. “But a long time ago, this apple gets discovered somewhere in Roxbury, and it’s propagated because of its quality. It has tannins. It has sugar. It has the right package to make a really nice cider.”
The Roxbury Russet also kept well, becoming a fixture in New England root cellars. But as happened with many other native varieties, it fell out of style, replaced by sweeter, prettier apples more suited to our modern tastes. Bhatt, who founded Springfield-based Artifact in 2013 along with friend Jake Mazar, felt the Roxbury Russet was ripe for a reclamation project. He spent a year scouring New England orchards looking for the fruit.
“It’s not like we can just put in an order,” says Bhatt. “When you go apple picking in the fall, there’s usually a tree of them hidden in the back somewhere. But they grow in such small quantities.”
The Roxbury-sourced apples were a bonus, a historical connection to a tree that once dominated the area. In total, Bhatt has enough apples to make about 2,000 gallons of cider. He said he thought about doing something “austere,” fermenting it dry and aging it in oak, like cider makers might have done hundreds of years ago. He ultimately opted to showcase the intense juiciness of the apple by letting the fruit cellar, bringing out sweeter, caramel qualities, then using an unobtrusive yeast and winemaking techniques to retain earthiness.
“This was exciting for me,” says Bhatt. “This is what every cider maker kind of dreams of making.”
Artifact’s Roxbury hit retail stores in March (for locations, go to www.artifactcider.com). They expect it to be available for the next four to six months. For each bottle sold, Artifact will make a donation to 826 Boston, a Roxbury-based nonprofit that teaches writing to young people.