In retail outlets, hard cider has supplanted craft beer as the fastest-growing category in the beverage world.
The same thing is happening in homes around the Twin Cities.
“I have nine batches fermenting as we speak,” said Josh Landy of St. Paul. “They’re in my office closet, in my basement, all around the house.”
Landy is part of a growing legion of enthusiasts in local brewing clubs who are pulling back on beer in lieu of cider, using most of the same equipment. Bill Jacobson, production manager of Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake, said he’s selling vastly more fresh cider to home fermenters of late, “hundreds and hundreds of gallons a month. The growth in raw cider has been phenomenal. It’s been fun to see the interest.”
That growth mirrors the surge in national cider sales, which have gone from 4.5 million cases in 2010 to 23.2 million cases last year, according to Nielsen. The annual increases: 90 percent in 2012, 89 percent in 2013 and 71 percent in 2014.
And many of those consumers want to take a stab at making their own. Which is a lot easier in apple-happy regions such as ours, with suppliers such as Pine Tree.
Brett Glenna, a Lakeville cider maker, is thankful for those apples. “We can do well because we are in an area that has good cider,” said Glenna. “In Texas you’re probably going to have a difficult time getting a good pasteurized cider.” He has an entire wall of his home festooned with cider-making awards.
What he looks for is not the juice of Honeycrisps or Haralsons but rather apples with the unappetizing reference of “spitters.” High in acid and tannins, these apples come from the “bittersharp” and “bittersweet” categories and live up to the first part of those names.
But once apple cider is converted into hard cider (more on the process follows), sometimes with sugar added, their elements can be in utter harmony. “Everything is about balance,” Glenna said. “We have had tremendous success from local orchards. You can get a good blend; you get acid, sugar and tannins.”
From avocation to vocation
Sometimes a little home brewing can lead to a lot more. A decade ago, Jim Watkins and Wade Thompson were digging the cider made by the latter’s father-in-law.
“It was a French style, really dry,” Watkins said. “We’d get a couple of glasses down and go, ‘Why isn’t anybody doing this?’ So we started making it in the garage [in 2008]. Next thing we knew, we started taking it to friends’ weddings, and people really liked it.”
Eventually, they quit jobs in the financial sector (Citibank, Piper Jaffray) and launched Sociable Cider Werks in 2013. The northeast Minneapolis taproom was an immediate hit, and within months the duo were selling kegs to bars and restaurants. Next came 16-ounce cans.
Earlier this month, their cider reached its 100th liquor store, mostly in the Twin Cities with a few outlets in Duluth.
Keeping up with their customers has been a challenge, especially since their fruit is harvested just once a year. Watkins and Thompson now store hundreds of gallons of fresh crushed juice, “and over the course of the next year we use that to make new batches of hard cider.”
Theirs is made not from “spitters,” but rather Pepin Heights-supplied varieties such as Honeycrisp, Haralson and SweeTango. As Watkins notes, these apples produce juice that has a lot of sugar and fruit flavors, but virtually no tannins, so they brew in tannins, an idea they came up with during their home-brewing days. “As far as I know, we are the only cider site in the country that’s like a brewery,” he said.
But they’re now far from the only local site selling cider. Among the many Minnesota spots: cideries (Number 12 in Buffalo, Keepsake in Dundas, Wyndfall in La Crescent), orchards (Montgomery in Montgomery, Deer Lake in Buffalo), brewpubs (Vine Park in St. Paul) and wineries (Millner Heritage in Kimball, Four Daughters in Spring Valley).
That list will only grow, as craft beer lovers and others seek to expand their palates.
How it’s made
Back in the home kitchen, hard-cider makers need to realize that cider can explode, due to a second fermentation producing too much carbon dioxide in a sealed container (the bottle or a glass carboy used in production). Angry Orchard recalled thousands of decarbonating bottles last summer. But a bigger risk for home cider makers is, as Landy said of one of his efforts, “making your house smell absolutely horrific, very sulfury.”
That was a yeast problem, he said. Cider is made much like another type of fruit juice: wine. Like winemakers, the cider crowd adds yeast to the juice; the yeast “eats” the sugar and converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide (which can produce some effervescence). Because apples contain a lot less sugar than grapes, the resulting product is generally much lower in alcohol, at 6 percent or less. Other ingredients — tablets to kill wild bacteria, nutrients and especially more sugar or honey, can affect the flavor and the alcohol.
But Glenna has produced some regional and national award-winners by going in the other direction.
“A lot of people let it ferment down completely and back-sweeten the cider,” he said. “I stop fermentation in its tracks, and I don’t back-sweeten. Where I stop it changes it. It depends on my palate.”
Which is especially interesting because Glenna, current president of the Minnesota Home Brewers Association, admits that he’s “not a big cider drinker. I do it more for competitive reasons: national awards, certification programs. I give a lot to my family and friends.”
Making cider at home is “actually pretty straightforward, not that difficult,” Glenna said. A look at the process can be viewed on a YouTube video (find it at bit.ly/1WlWTg6) featuring Chris Smith, formerly of the Northern Brewer supply store in St. Paul.
Neither Glenna nor Landy has given up making beer, but at this time of year, it’s pretty much all about the cider. And as with wine, that changes from vintage to vintage.
“With beer you have ingredients like malts that are pretty consistent and some of the hops are, too,” Glenna said. “With cider, you take what the season gives you.”
That’s fine with Landy, a longtime wine, beer and cider enthusiast.
“It’s very easy to make cider, and very different to make good cider,” he said. “I’m still learning the trick of the trade. In two years I’ve gone from making drinkable cider to pretty darn good cider. But I’m not trying to make good cider. I’m trying to make great cider.”
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.