My 5 stand out ciders from Minneapolis Cider Week
Milk and Honey ‘Heirloom’
Milk and Honey Cider is possibly the newest kid on the block on the cider making front in this region. Founded by 3 friends Aaron Klocker, Adam Theis and Peter Gillitzer they split their human resource, with Aaron on the cider pressing, Adam on the fermentation and maturation, and Peter on what they call “the business stuff”, though there is plenty of cross over from what I witnessed. Whilst they bemoaned the lack of available bittersweet tannins in the fruit they press to give structure and complexity, I have to say the results they have achieved so far have been very impressive. Key to this has been choosing some long forgotten apple varieties such as Newton Pippin, Arkansas Black, Winesap, Golden Russett as well as a few crabs thrown in. The key to the raw material they choose is the higher acidity of the ‘heirloom’ varieties than is now common to the more modern eating varieties, which can often be good to store and eat, but offer little when juiced for cider. But it doesn’t end there; the benefits of a National Association of Cider Makers’ course mixed with a brewing graduation from Siebel in Chicago have enabled them to get the very best from their raw material. The cider they had available for Cider Week was their 2013 Heirloom. Made from a stunning 83 different varieties, the aroma was clean, with good fruit and a vinous green apple skin quality. First taste gives a fresh fruit forward palate that is at the same time dry and well balanced; there is good body at 6.9% alcohol and whilst there is not the obvious tannic astringency of a West Country or French Cider, there is background complexity that finishes dry with a medium and pleasant length.
These boys know what they’re doing; watch out for them.
Sociable Cider Werks 'Freewheeler'
I really enjoyed hanging out with these guys; Jim Watkin, charismatic front man and with whom I shared a stage on more than one occasion, is great company. And he and business partner Wade are doing some interesting stuff with apples as well. One of my only regrets from the week is that I didn’t manage to make it to their tap room in Nordeast – it sounded a riot and their upbeat enthusiasm is contagious.
Their research into opening a cider works involved an 8000 mile tour through many of the country’s cideries, brewers and distillers, and the conclusion from all of this was the quality of the fruit they used would be paramount; no concentrate for them, only the fresh juice pressed from varieties such as Haralson, Honeycrips and Sweet Tango. As with other cider makers I met here, the lack of a good bittersweet to give structure and some dryness was seen by Sociable as a problem. Their solution has certainly not been textbook cider making. It was more take a leaf from brewing. They turned to the brewers’ staple of hops and barley to give the bitterness they seek in their blends. This leaves them classified as a brewer, in fact Jim proudly claims they are the only cider maker in the US licensed as a brewer. Which essentially means they pay higher tax, but they see the trade as worth it to make more interesting and complex ciders than those available on the mass market. And they’re certainly right on that front. Sociable had a few ciders to try in Minneapolis Cider Week, and the one I enjoyed most was Freewheeler. At a very sessionable 5.8% alcohol, it is fermented with brewed Sorghum and Willametta hops, it has a distant sour and pleasant apple aroma; this is a crisp dry cider to be sure with some early fruit on the tongue balanced by its sharp bitterness. The finish is dry, clean and lingering.
Some of the Sociable Ciders lean too far in to beer territory for my taste; Freewheeler has clear apple characteristics – which is probably why it was my favourite from their bikeshed.
Maiden Rock ‘HoneyCrisp Hard’
Sadly, I didn’t get to meet these guys at Cider Week; they are actually based in Stockholm. No, not Sweden, but just over the border in Wisconsin; so whilst not Minnesota based, they are certainly still classified as local in my book.
I came across their cider in a couple of places and was very impressed with it. They have access to some pretty hefty bittersweet varieties – indeed, they have one style of cider made from the cider maker’s historical holy grail the Kingston Black. As with the makers, I was unable to meet this particular variant, but did not feel short changed by their HoneyCrisp Hard. It had an aroma of Golden Delicious – not the sweet meaningless Golden Delicious we see imported to England, no, rather the complex, russetted and inviting aroma of a Golden Delicious actually grown here. The taste was soft, off dry with enough acidity to balance. The 6.8% alcohol adds good body and carries a clean and moreish finish.
A quick look at their online shop tells you pretty much all you need to know about Maiden Rock – all but the HoneyCrisp Hard “sold out until Spring 2014”.
I came across this beauty in the Town Hall Tap the afternoon I flew back home. I still get the sweats at the thought that I may have missed it. Another of Minneapolis Cider Week’s local ciders based over the border in Burlington Wisconsin, ÆppelTreow Winery & Distillery are in their own words “producers of small batch cider, perry and spirits”.
Kinglet is a big cider make no mistake. Big in every way – it has 10% alcohol which takes it way into apple wine territory, but this is no rocket fuel in a plastic bottle; this is an homage to the great ciders of the “old world”. The aroma is all French and English Bittersweet – aromatic cedar wood so signature of these varieties comes through strongly. It’s not bone dry, but close. The bittersweet gives great structure but is not so overpowering as with some English West Country Ciders, and that will be thanks in no small measure to the high alcohol which gives it the body to carry this off. The sharpness is relatively low which can cause balance problems, but again, the alcohol allows it to escape being ‘flabby’. The finish is astringent, long and very pleasing.
This is a beautifully made cider that would not be disgraced in the company of some fine wines.
‘Leidels’ Brettanomices Cider
Ok, so this one was a real challenge for me; anyone who has read previous blogs of mine will know I have a hard time getting my head round “sour” in alcoholic drinks – apart from cocktails. And it’s perhaps this last part that keeps me coming back to the table to try them.
Apart from Greg Hall at Virtue Cider, I know nobody else who is deliberately making sour cider; and of no one doing it the Belgian Lambic method. I didn’t get to meet Matt Leidel, but met enough people who know what he is doing to hope he succeeds. The Leidel orchard was tended by the family for four generations until it sadly had to close down operations. Mike has reinvented the family business as cider makers based from the original orchard site. At 23 years old, he certainly has the element of youthful enthusiasm on his side. His choice of fermentation route is certainly not textbook; whilst there is a growing interest in “funky” ciders, and a long tradition of sour beers the decision to produce a cider that gets its characteristics from the sour fermentation of a Brettanomices yeast is a brave one in my book. The aroma of the cider is, well, sour, but you can pick up a tart apple fruit as you would expect from say a Bramley. The taste is sharp up front with a sourness that gives a thin if not unpleasant body. The finish is crisp and dry. Honestly? Despite the artistry that has obviously gone into this, it’s just not really my thing; I like my cyder to shine a light on the glory of the raw material and carry those flavours through specifically. But, I’m not the only cider drinker in the world and I met enough people who raved about Leidel’s to think that Matt will be able to realise his ambition of replanting the original 90 acres of the family orchard and so ensure that the apples that go into the cider are right from the gate.
I like the fact that Matt is so passionately taking the long term 15-20 year view on this; traditions like ours need strong roots, no matter the style being made, and the Leidel approach deserves to succeed on that front alone.