Minnesota cider is an industry in search of its identity. Barely five years old, the business is growing rapidly.
“We’ve added five or six new cideries in the last two years,” says Nate Watters, cidermaker at Keepsake Cidery in Dundas, Minn., and president of the Minnesota Cider Guild.
From just a handful a few years ago, the scene has grown to about 20 cideries across the state — a number that includes orchard-based cideries, urban cideries and wineries that are also making cider.
But what is it that differentiates cider in Minnesota from that in other regions?
“That’s actually something that, being part of the [Minnesota Cider] Guild, we’ve been discussing a lot lately,” explains guild member Valerie Scott of Duluth Cider. All over Minnesota, cider makers are trying different approaches to figure that out.
Watters is enthusiastic. “Right now is a very exciting time to be part of the cider industry. Most of us are under five years old. We are growing, but we’re still young and we’re still figuring out our identity. So it’s kind of a fun time to be part of that, not only as a cider maker, but as a cider consumer.”
Cideries can be roughly divided into two broad categories: traditional and modern. Traditional cideries are focused on apple varieties and fermentation. Ciders are often built on blends of juice from heirloom cider apples that bring bitter, tart and sweet characteristics. Some traditional cideries are orchard-based. They grow and press their own apples. But there are also traditional urban cideries that source fruit from local or regional orchards.
Modern cideries are primarily urban-based. While some do incorporate heirloom apples, modern ciders tend to rely more heavily on the more familiar eating apple varieties, called dessert apples in the trade. These cider makers often push cider beyond the basic apple, introducing different fruits, herbs, spices and hops into the mix.
Minnesota has a rich blend of cideries of both types, each with its own take on cidermaking.
Keepsake Cider (4609 135th St. E., Dundas, 1-413-552-8872; keepsakecidery.com) is perhaps the far end of traditional. It is one of about eight orchard-based cideries statewide. Watters grows a mix of heirloom cider apples and modern dessert apples, some of which were developed at the University of Minnesota. He blends the juice to balance the bitter, sweet and sour character of each apple.
What sets Keepsake apart from many other traditional cideries is the reliance on natural yeasts from the fruit for fermentation. This wild fermentation process is slow, so many Keepsake ciders are aged for upward of 18 months. Natural yeasts give these ciders a rustic, barnyard character.
This character is immediately noticeable in the aroma of Keepsake’s Organic Wild. Barnyard aromatics blend with apple and pineapple to give it the feel of a true farmhouse cider. On the tongue it’s all about fruit. Red and green apple, pineapple and orange citrus dominate the flavor from the start all the way to the dry, tannic finish.
For those who like a sweeter cider, Keepsake’s Medium is the one for you. This semisweet cider is sweetened with unfermented juice after eight months of aging. It has low-level barnyard funkiness like Organic Wild does, but the real star of the show is the apple. It’s like drinking fresh-cut wedges of a sweet red apple with the skin on. In the background are additional notes of stone fruit, pineapple and lemon. A medium sweetness lingers long in the finish.
For an urban take on traditional cider, visit the taproom of Number 12 Cider House (614 N. 5th St., Mpls., 612-568-6171, number12cider.com). The cider makers at Number 12 source a mix of cider and dessert apples from Minnesota orchards, which they blend into different juice profiles. They also focus on fermentation for the final flavor, but using cultured cider, mead, white wine and Champagne yeasts, instead of wild. Many of their ciders also undergo a malolactic fermentation that will be familiar to wine aficionados. The tap list at Number 12 includes a wide range of ciders, from very dry to very sweet.
Pearl is named for the Pink Pearl apples that make up part of its base. The slightly hazy and almost white color of this cider foreshadows its light and delicate flavor. It’s a dry, high-acid cider with bright notes of lemon citrus and grapefruit peel. Flavors of green apple and unripe pears provide a slightly sweet base.
Hewe’s Gold is made from Golden Delicious and Hewe’s Crabapples. Delicious apples are typically not a favorite of cider makers because of their sugary sweetness. But the Hewe’s Crabapple in this cider lends a more than balancing tannic bitterness that lingers into the bone-dry finish. Overtones of orange juice and zest make this a most interesting cider.
Minneapolis Cider Co. (701 SE. 9th St., Mpls., 612-886-1357, minneapoliscider.co) is a good local example of the modern approach to cider making. At its newly opened taproom, the cidery currently offers four ciders, with others in the works. From the semisweet Orchard Blend to the fruit-infused Raspberry, these are surefire crowd-pleasers.
Citrus Hop is my favorite. It’s drier than the others, bitter upfront with a bit of sweetness in the finish. The addition of hops, lemon and grapefruit zest, along with spritzy carbonation, make it a most refreshing quaff. The hops also lend it a lovely chrysanthemum-like aroma.
The nectar-like, opaque orange appearance and fresh-peach aroma of Peach leads one to expect a sweet drink. But the fermented peach purée delivers a surprisingly tart acidity. Strong peach and red apple flavors blend nicely on the palate, enhanced by the rich, smooth texture of this super-fruity cider.
Urban Forage Winery and Cider House (3016 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-584-4398, urbanforagewinery.com) has a unique business model that straddles the modern and traditional. True to the name, the Urban Forage sources nearly all of the fruit for its ciders and wines from metro-area backyards. They have developed a big enough following that people call, asking them to harvest apples, plums, cherries and other fruits that would otherwise go to waste. Although they are an urban cidery, it could be said that the entire city is their orchard.
The ciders at Urban Forage lean to the modern side. They incorporate herbs and spices, honey and maple syrup and other fruits such as foraged black currants.
For Gin Botanical they use spent gin-flavoring botanicals from the nearby Lawless Distillery. The flavor of juniper and other spices is strong, but not unpleasant. In fact, it works quite well with the tart, lemony high notes of the base cider. Apple comes through, as well. It finishes dry like a good gin and tonic.
Semi Sweet is all about apples. The flesh and skin of sweet red apples is the dominant flavor. Although sugar is high and tannin and acid are low, it is not an unbearably sweet cider. Subtle hints of cinnamon give the impression of fresh apple pie.
Sociable Cider Werks (1500 NE. Fillmore St., Mpls., 612-758-0105, sociablecider.com) has its own peculiar approach to modern cider making. From the beginning, founders Jim Watkins and Wade Thompson knew they wanted to make their cider from 100% Minnesota apples. In 2013, when they began, bitter and sharp apple varieties that give cider balance and structure were not grown in the state. They turned to traditional beer-making ingredients like sorghum and hops as substitutes, introducing what’s now called “apple graff.” The required bitterness and about 3% of fermentable sugars are derived from these non-fruit adjuncts.
Free Wheeler is a Sociable flagship. This basic dry cider is built on the flavor of fresh green apple flesh. Hints of pear and a gentle tart acidity add some depth. It goes out with a bitter, earthy finish that leaves you ready for another sip.
Le Pomme, a limited-time taproom offering, is fermented with Champagne yeast and aged on oak. Dark gold and opaque, it looks like apple pulp in the glass. But looks can be deceiving. This moderately sweet cider is zesty and Champagne-like. Vinous notes go well with the underlying woody/spicy character of oak. Red apple flavors come through well. The total package reminded me of my grandmother’s homemade applesauce, but blended with white wine.
Check out the Minnesota Cider Festival on Saturday. Sponsored by the Minnesota Cider Guild, the event brings together all Guild-member cideries as well as others from around the country and the world. The Minnesota Cider Festival takes place from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Como Lakeside Pavilion (1360 N. Lexington Pkwy., St. Paul). For more information, see mncider.org/events.