Keepsakes of a Season: The homegrown ciders of Nate Watters and Tracy Jonkman

Nate Watters holds a spitter apple in the orchard of Keepsake Cidery // Photo by Tj Turner

Nate Watters holds a “spitter” apple in the orchard of Keepsake Cidery // Photo by Tj Turner

See? Not every apple is created equal,” Nate Watters says before launching into a story about the “spitter” apples he just had me try. I quickly grasp his point—their flavor is horrible for eating, and I promptly and predictably eject from my mouth the small bite I’d taken, just as Nate knew I would. “The face you’re making is awesome!” Nate laughs. “See why they’re called spitters?”

He explains that what I just tried is an English cider apple, used to impart tannins to cider. Then he embarks on an enthusiastic soliloquy about how excited he is about these particular apples this year and how they’re going to make the perfect base for next year’s organic wild cider.

In 2014, Nate and his wife, Tracy Jonkman, planted the orchards that are now Keepsake Cidery in Dundas, Minnesota, situated a scenic 45-minute drive south of Minneapolis at the end of a dusty, tree-lined gravel road that doesn’t register on Google Maps. “Dirt, water, people,” Nate responds when asked why they chose Minnesota as the eventual home for their orchard, now complete with a farmhouse that looks like a rustic, life-size dollhouse, and Bert, the old farm dog who came with the property and eagerly greets visitors.

Nate Waters strolls through the apple trees of Keepsake Cidery // Photo by Tj Turner

Nate Watters strolls through the apple trees of Keepsake Cidery // Photo by Tj Turner

Nate is an endlessly engaging (if sometimes rambly) storyteller. He sprints through conversations, gesturing emphatically and launching into tangents that sometimes require cues from his listeners to get back to the genesis of the conversation. Tracy, on the other hand, moves slowly and intentionally about the farm, evidenced best in the methodical way she picks the plump red currants destined for Keepsake’s currant cider. Seated calmly on her knees and entirely unbothered by the sweltering, nearly 110-degree, late-July heat, she plucks them one by one, efficiently working her way from the tip of each branch downward, clearing it completely before moving onto another. Behind her is Nate, enthusiastically regaling us with a story before dropping the conversation mid-sentence to answer his phone. He then apologizes and sprints across the farm to attend to an issue with the construction of their new tasting room. The project has dominated Keepsake’s summer, growing larger and more complete with each of our three visits, transforming from a skeleton of a frame to a near-complete edifice with windows and sliding patio doors in just three months.

Nate Watters, co-owner and cidermaker at Keepsake Cidery, stands in between rows of apples on his Dundas, Minnesota orchard // Photo by Tj Turner

Nate Watters, co-owner and cidermaker at Keepsake Cidery, stands in between rows of apples on his Dundas, Minnesota orchard // Photo by Tj Turner

Playing on their natural strengths, Tracy manages the more logistical sales side of the operation and hosts tastings, while Nate skews toward the creative, maintaining relationships with fellow cider producers and attending conferences to learn from mentors like Tom Oliver of Oliver’s Cider and Perry. Mostly, though, he spends his time honing his craft, which focuses on allowing the wildness of the apples to dictate final flavor profiles. Variables such as the weather and the wild yeasts present on and around the apples all play a role in this unpredictable process, with no two batches of Keepsake cider being exactly alike.

On top of the day-to-day duties at Keepsake, Tracy is an emergency medicine physician by trade and still works full-time in the ER. Tristan and Fiona, their two children, often tag along on trips across the orchard when they’re not playing with the new litter of kittens born on the farm. Although they’re young, they are considered important parts of the family business, and are referred to fondly by Nate as their “most important crop.” Like Tracy, the kids often traverse the orchard—which is covered in prickly grass and smattered with rocks—sans shoes with ease, their bare feet covered in dust and apparently unbothered by the terrain.

Tracy Jonkman, co-owner of Keepsake Cidery, picks black currants // Photo by Tj Turner

Tracy Jonkman, co-owner of Keepsake Cidery, picks black currants // Photo by Tj Turner

While Keepsake has only been around a few years, Nate’s love for apples goes way back. He spent much of his youth in upstate New York, a place he refers to as “big apple region.” “I loved it up there. I loved going to orchards. I just kinda fell in love with it,” he explains. “My first successful business that I remember was selling apples from my neighbor’s yard. That was probably where the seed was planted.”

Fast-forward to Nate’s life after college. While working as a preschool teacher he started a garden with his students. Around the same time he also dipped his toe into political activism, motivated to play a more hands-on role in shaping the world around him into a more equitable place. That desire is still visible today in the farming-as-activism philosophy that characterizes Nate and Tracy’s approach to the systems they’ve created at Keepsake and the ways they run their farm.

Nate and Tracy put thought, intention, care, and effort into everything and everyone around them. It’s the driving force behind their approach to making sustainable, estate-grown ciders, a process that can take a year or more—especially when accounting for the many years that go into planting and growing an orchard.

A row of apples growing in the orchard at Keepsake Cidery // Photo by Tj Turner

A row of apples growing in the orchard at Keepsake Cidery // Photo by Tj Turner

Many macro cider brands use juice from concentrate, add water, and backsweeten with added sugars, all of which reduces input costs. This industrialized approach to cidermaking is mainly profit-driven—the faster and cheaper the cider can be produced, the more money that can be made. It also means they can package their cider in six-packs and price them to compete with beer on the retail shelf.

In contrast, Nate crafts his cider from juice wholly derived from some combination of the approximately 45 organic apple varieties that he and Tracy grow, all of which are pressed at the cidery. Their cider is sold in 750-milliliter bottles that closely resemble those used for Champagne, and at prices that reflect the true cost of the high-quality ingredients Keepsake uses.

Keepsake ciders never contain extra water, sweeteners, or flavors that don’t come from honey or whole fruit additions, like currant and aronia berries. “I don’t think that cider has to be 100 percent apples, but I believe, personally, that it has to be 100 percent fruit if you’re going to make it like wine,” Nate notes. The result is a stable of ciders with intricate flavors that lean more dry than sweet.

The main difference between ciders produced by craft cidermakers like Keepsake and mass-produced macro ciders, though, is time. “This currant cider we’re working on isn’t going to be released until 13, 14, or 15 months after it was pressed,” Nate says. “You cannot overemphasize the importance of the ingredient of time. It’s expensive, it’s hard, it’s challenging, it’s risky.”

■ ■ ■

Whereas some orchard-based cideries grow apples primarily for selling to eat and use whatever space is left—and whatever apples don’t sell—to make cider, Keepsake takes the opposite approach, saving their best space and fruit for cidermaking, and selling or donating the rest for other uses. “The better your apples in the beginning, the better your cider is going to be in the end; there’s just no getting around that,” Nate says. Harvest begins in the fall, and picked apples are transported to the large, almost industrial-looking cidery located across a dirt road from the orchard, not far from the Nate and Tracy’s house.

A few steps can follow harvest, depending on the needs of the apples. Some require sweating (letting the apples sit outside for a few days to concentrate sugar content and soften the fruit before grinding), others don’t. Sugar levels must be tested and the decision between room-temperature and cold storage must be made. When the apples are ready, they’re washed and ground using Old World techniques that, in addition to preparing the pomace for pressing, also attracts wild microbes. Finally, the mixture macerates for anywhere from three to 72 hours, which helps inoculate the juice with wild yeast and develop the color of the cider. The juice is then extracted from the pomace using 80,000 pounds of hydraulic pressure courtesy the cidery’s locally made mechanical rack-and-cloth press. From there the juice is transferred into 12 stainless steel tanks, where it ferments and ages for several months before being bottled and, eventually, released.

Nate Watters, cidermaker at Keepsake Cidery, measures the sugar content of a cider sample // Photo by Tj Turner

Above: Nate Watters, cidermaker at Keepsake Cidery, measures the sugar content of a cider sample. Below: Nate Watters assesses the color and clarity of one of Keepsake's ciders // Photos by Tj Turner

Above: Nate Watters, cidermaker at Keepsake Cidery, measures the sugar content of a cider sample. Below: Watters assesses the color and clarity of one of his ciders // Photos by Tj Turner

Knowing whether and when to implement these steps is an art. A cidermaker must know what each apple variety needs in order to get the most from it—a process that requires an understanding and, for truly outstanding products, mastery of the craft.

Even if each of these steps is done perfectly, the key element—time—can still wreak havoc on the cider-in-progress. Whole batches can be lost, the ample time and money invested in them getting poured down the drain alongside the juice. The approach taken by Keepsake and other traditional cideries is a gamble and nothing about it is easy. But for Nate and Tracy, the challenge is worth it if it means making cider that best reflects the apples and the terroir.

The process doesn’t end when the cider is bottled, however. Then the challenge of marketing begins. “Sometimes you think about farming and […] it’s this romantic idea of working yourself to the bone, growing food, raising cattle. But the thing is that there’s this reality that a lot of people don’t think through,” Nate says, explaining that farmers of all types—himself and Tracy included—must also be salespeople.

Watter's places labels on newly bottled ciders // Photo by Tj Turner

Watter’s places labels on newly bottled Keepsake ciders // Photo by Tj Turner

Keepsake faces pressure from some liquor stores to package their ciders in the six-packs many customers reach for, but they show no signs of swapping out their 750s anytime soon—if ever. Instead of reconfiguring their process to suit popular demand, Nate and Tracy are focused on applying their quality-over-quantity approach to selling more of their products in the 130-some Minnesota establishments that already support them.

While they often feel a tension between business choices they must make in order to survive and their unwillingness to compromise their values, the work they are doing demonstrates that balancing principles and profits isn’t a zero sum game. From using organic farming practices in the orchard to paying their employees and suppliers fair prices, Nate and Tracy are working to bring about a future where farmers and artists aren’t relegated to a life of poverty just because they choose to pursue what they love—and do so in whatever way they deem best.

They aren’t alone in doing this work. Helping them run their cidery are several loyal friends and the Dundas community. Every day on the farm there’s a different roster of people helping out with everything from staining and varnishing wood to macerating currants.

Jonkman and Watters with their children, Tristan and Fiona, and dog Bert // Photo by Tj Turner

Jonkman and Watters with their children, Tristan and Fiona, and farm dog, Bert // Photo by Tj Turner

Nate and Tracy will soon be bringing even more people into their world when they open Keepsake’s tasting room and event center hybrid, complete with a bar top made from local trees that Nate and a friend finished by hand. The hope is that people will travel to Dundas to spend the day at the farm, and as kids run around the orchard and groups picnic under the stars, perhaps they’ll gain an understanding of the time, intention, and care that went into growing the apples and crafting the cider they’re enjoying.

Standing on the road leading out of the cidery, Nate and Tracy emphasize that they consider us friends now—the result of the several hours we’ve spent together over multiple days, eating, drinking, and conversing. Nate adds that the sentiment remains regardless of what’s written about their operation: “Say that I’m a rambling fool and totally crazy if you want to,” he says, and I know he’s serious. With Tristan and Fiona whirling around them, they tell us they sincerely hope we’ll come back to visit. Looking back at the farm, I’m fairly sure we will.