Agriculture & Food special: Banner year for fruit has big payoff for Cowichan Valley on-site cider makers

A banner year for fruit in the Cowichan Valley — with apples in the forefront — has kept McBarley’s on their toes this fall.

This has been the busiest year for the Duncan company, which was founded in 1994. Originally a beer-making facility, wines were added to the product list a few years later. Cider, however, has become a mainstay of the business since David and Victoria Robinson bought it nine years ago.

In 2018, the fruit has been coming in non-stop, from all corners of the Cowichan Valley.

“We’ve had really good success this year,” David Robinson said. “Beyond our very wildest expectations.”

Customers bring in their own fruit, and McBarley’s turns it into juice and cider. In 2015, McBarley’s processed 100,000 pounds of apples and pears and struggled to keep up with the demand. It got even bigger in 2016. Things slowed down a little in 2017, but they added some new equipment in late September: a mobile unit that can wash apples and pears, grind them into pulp, press the pulp with 40 tons of pressure, and either feed the resulting juice into the cider-making process or pasteurize it and put it directly into bags and boxes. It all runs off a single diesel generator.

The new equipment processed 60,000 pounds of apples after it arrived last year and was ready again for this year’s massive harvest.

Designed by Okanagan resident and master distiller Frank Deiter, the German-engineered mobile juice factory is intended to travel to orchards for on-site juicing. McBarley’s does their juicing at their Polkey Road location in Duncan, although Robinson takes the trailer home each night. Running almost constantly since July, the machine has tremendously increased the volume of fruit the business can process.

“Our capacity for craft cider production went through the roof,” Robinson said. “The machine keeps up. It now produces more than we can handle.”

McBarley’s normally operates with 10 staff, but they went up to 13 this fall to stay on top of the massive amounts of fruit coming in.

“We are very fortunate we have really good people,” Robinson said, praising the loyalty, dedication and commitment of his employees.

The Robinsons bought McBarley’s in 2009, moving to Duncan from the U.S. after many years in the luxury jewelry business in the Caribbean. David runs the business, while Victoria leads the marketing and business development aspects.

“We applied what we did in the luxury jewelry business and branded this the same way,” David Robinson recalled.

They immediately went about expanding the cider and fruit wine end of the business.

“We thought there was a lot of potential in the fruit area,” Robinson said.

Thanks to satisfied customers, the business has grown on its own, with customers coming from Victoria, Port Alberni, and even the Mainland.

“We haven’t done any kind of advertizing,” Robinson said. “It’s all word-of-mouth. Everybody from last year came back.”

Although there are other cider makers on Vancouver Island and even in the Cowichan Valley, McBarley’s offers a unique service.

“We’ve really developed a niche market,” Robinson noted. “Nowhere else on the Island can take apples and make cider. People love to bring in their produce and turn it into something.”

It takes four weeks to go from apple to cider, and Robinson himself is directly involved in quality control.

“I taste every cider before it’s bottled to make sure it’s OK.”

By early October of this year, McBarley’s had already processed more than 150,000 pounds — 75 tons — of fruit, with lots more to go.

“We’ve got another three weeks of craziness,” Robinson said.

Late apples will come in all the way through November, he added, after which they will buy apples from the Old Farm Market for futher production.

Pasteurized juice, both carbonated and non-carbonated, is available at McBarley’s storefront, and will be sold at the Duncan Farmers’ Market starting Nov. 3.

The Mobile Juice Factory website (mobilejuicefactory.com) notes how much fruit in B.C. goes uneaten each year, and touts itself as a solution to the situation.

“The sad reality is that tons of viable fruit ends up in landfills every year,” the website states. “Fruit marketing boards have strict guidelines when selecting fresh fruit for market; fruit can’t be too small or too large, must be just the right colour, picked in their prime, and have no skin blemishes.

“The result is tons of fruit that can’t go to the fresh fruit market. What if all those bins of blemished, off-colour or tiny fruit didn’t have to be thrown out every October? What if there was a way you could use the fruit to create something wonderful?”

Many customers of McBarley’s give their extra fruit, after they’ve got the juice or cider they want, to the company as long as it can be used.

“’You keep the rest,’ they say,” Robinson related. “’I just want to make sure it’s put to good use.’”

Beyond just apples and pears, 2018 has been a banner year for all types of fruit growing in the area, says Robinson, including plums, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, kiwis and figs, and there’s a use for it all.

“You name it,” Robinson said, “people want to make something out of it.”

Apples await processing at McBarley’s. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Cider awaits pickup by customers at McBarley’s. They will take people’s fruit and make it into beverages. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
David Robinson explains how McBarley’s mobile cider and juice machine works. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Pasteurized apple juice on shelves at McBarley’s. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

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