Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Cana Howard, Ibri Howard and Vellena Howard blind taste tested and rated 15 apples, Sunday, September 14, 2014 in at O'Brien Garden and Trees in Nikiski, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Cana Howard, Ibri Howard and Vellena Howard blind taste tested and rated 15 apples, Sunday, September 14, 2014 in at O'Brien Garden and Trees in Nikiski, Alaska.

Nikiski orchard hosts rare taste testing

  • By Kelly Sullivan
  • Wednesday, September 17, 2014 12:10am
  • News

Beside the high tunnels at O’Brien Garden and Trees, a line of locals wound around the corner of the southern-most structure, patiently waiting to purchase some of the orchard’s local produce. Fresh onions, and jars of strawberry-rhubarb jam and pickled garlic lined two tables. However, of 150 people that showed up Sunday afternoon, most came for the apples.

One-by-one they carefully blind taste tested and rated 15 apples at a booth set up against the orchard’s gate for the first apple tasting the O’Briens have hosted in several years.

Once finished assessors were allowed to ask for the names of their favorite apples to purchase, orchard manager Michelle LaVigueur said. The table held two pie apples, which are tart, and 13 dessert apples, which are on the sweet side, she said. The apples were unlabeled so that people would not have a biased perspective since two of the flavors, Ambrosia and Gravenstine, were varieties that could be store bought.

But, all of were grown in her father, Mike O’Brien’s, two 24-by-48 foot high tunnels in Nikiski.

“Many people have different palates,” LaViguer said. “I prefer a sweet-tarter apples. There were two in particular people asked about during the tasting, but going through score cards those two weren’t the highest ones.”

LaVigueur said Sunday saw the largest group that has ever attended an apple tasting. Families and groups of friends came in droves through out the two-hour event to examine Mike O’Briens high tunnel operation, sample local produce and self-pick gooseberries and black currents meticulously sown into rows through out the property.

Standing in front of orchard, employee Katrina Nelson and local
Pam Craw ford held an opaque white

 

 

 

 

bucket, loaded with gleaming black currants and a shallow, blue bowl holding two strawberries.

“We probably don’t need to weigh this one,” Pam Crawford said laughing.

Pam Crawford said she had never attended an apple tasting. She said the experience was very educational, and she learned about apples she had never heard of, let alone tasted.

Pam Crawford’s husband, Bill Crawford, said he enjoyed seeing where and how local apples were grown.

“I thought they all grew in plastic bags,” Bill Crawford said with a laugh.

LaVigueur, Nelson and O’Brien were on hand to answer questions storage, and preparation methods for what was tasted and purchased. Nelson said apples last longer if dried, frozen, or coated lemon juice.

O’Brien said he had the easiest job at the tasting. He moved around socializing and answering inquiries about the hundreds of flavors from Silken to Ginger Gold and Zestar apples he grows organically on his orchard.

The fruiting trees in O’Briens high tunnels are in their third year, and will eventually be grown up to 8-feet-tall, to utilize all the available space in the structures, he said.

“These apples that we have are from all over the world,” O’Brien said in a previous Clarion interview.

People are commonly interested in learning about design, maintenance and pruning procedures for growing produce in high tunnels, O’Brien said.

Steve Halbers, who owns and operates Dandelion Acres with his wife, Linda Halbers, is a long time friend of O’Briens and only spoke highly of his friend’s orchard.

“I would call him a horticulturists,” Halbers said. “The tasting was beyond my expectations. The fact that he is transparent about what he is doing here and the untold hours he has put into it is unbelievable. His dedication to making it work is unbelievable.”

Halbers said he is a big proponent of organic farming and soil health and O’Brien has excellent programs for enhancing both, “Mainly because of his expertise, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

The O’Brien’s apple tasting was part of the Harvest Moon Local Food Week, and Halbers said the entire event showed how Alaskans are really getting involved with local growing.

“I am just tickled pink for these places to get exposure for markets,” Halbers said.

O’Brien will host another tasting next year, with a few tweaks having learned from this time around, including better signage, LaVigueur said.

 

Kelly Sullivan can be reached at kelly.sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Attendees at the O'Brien's apple tasting blind taste tested and rated 15 apples, Sunday, September 14, 2014 in at O'Brien Garden and Trees in Nikiski, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Attendees at the O’Brien’s apple tasting blind taste tested and rated 15 apples, Sunday, September 14, 2014 in at O’Brien Garden and Trees in Nikiski, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Attendees were able to pick their own onions and garlic or purchase pre-picked produce at the O'Brien's apple tasting, Sunday, September 14, 2014 in at O'Brien Garden and Trees in Nikiski, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Attendees were able to pick their own onions and garlic or purchase pre-picked produce at the O’Brien’s apple tasting, Sunday, September 14, 2014 in at O’Brien Garden and Trees in Nikiski, Alaska.

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