For most people, the word “spitter” evokes the thought of something unpleasant—angry llamas, perhaps, or individuals who require a little extra talking space if you want to stay dry. Not Rob Fisk. For him, the word means something beautiful, something high quality, something on which he’s built his life.
Spitters are the colloquial term for cider-specific apples. And Rob, owner and operator of Wyndfall Cyder, is adamant about bringing as many of them to Minnesota as possible, to make the best cider possible. “I want to make the highest-end product that I can,” he says. “We can make the best cider in the world in Minnesota with the right apples. The limits are endless.”
We’re sitting in the hot June sun on the patio outside the Apple Lodge at Sponsel’s Minnesota Harvest Orchard, in Jordan, Minnesota. Minnesota Harvest is the new home of Wyndfall Cyder as of late this spring, and Rob has just finished installing his equipment in a large room behind the lodge’s industrial-sized kitchen. He had been operating in conjunction with an orchard in La Crescent, Minnesota, prior to the move, but saw an opportunity for more growth in Jordan.
Minnesota Harvest has been in operation since 1971 and is a popular events venue and pick-your-own orchard. The 300-plus acre orchard boasts some 35,000–40,000 apple trees, and the owners “buy as many [new trees] as they can afford” every year. It’s a sprawling, pastoral setting just 45 minutes from the Twin Cities, and so far is proving to be an ideal location for Wyndfall to put down roots.
In the few months he’s been at Minnesota Harvest, Rob has planted 75 trees of “bittersweets,” or English cider apples—aka the spitters. “They’re so tannic you can’t eat them off the tree,” he explains. “So they’re called spitters, because you’d spit them out.”
The tannins that make these apples inedible are also the key to making the drier, English-style ciders (or “cyders,” as it’s spelled in the U.K., hence Wyndfall Cyder’s spelling) Rob seeks to produce. Table apples are bred for a balance of tart, sweet, and texture, not tannin. Once you ferment out all the sugar, you’re left with a tartness that’s “off the charts,” Rob explains.
Cider apples, on the other hand, have a lot of tannins, like grapes. It’s those tannins that are responsible for a cider’s complexity and nuance. “There are lots of different layers once you ferment the sugar out,” Rob says. “Just like wine grapes don’t taste like grapes after fermentation, cider apples don’t taste like apples—they taste like tons of other things.”
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Despite the similarities between cider and wine, most drinkers in the United States lump cider into the same category as beer: it’s generally lower in alcohol, has a similar mouthfeel, and is often packaged in similar ways. But that perception is starting to change. “The cider market in Minnesota is changing quickly,” Rob says. “Even in the one-and-a-half years since I’ve been in production it’s changed. But it’s still in its infancy relative to where we’re hoping it’ll go, […] which is to treat it like a fine wine.”
Rob first got into the fermentation game with beer, homebrewing with friends in college. He was studying environmental policy and forestry at the University of Minnesota at the time, and the more he learned about homebrewing, the more he started thinking about switching from beer to cider. “I was loving brewing, but then I started getting into the sustainability aspect of everything, and it was like a light bulb went off,” he says.
That light bulb was Rob realizing the benefits orchards can have on the environment versus corn and bean-type crops. “If we sustained orchards and weren’t plowing all the time, we’d lessen erosion and runoff issues,” he says. “So I was thinking, ‘Okay, how do you do that sustainably and make money?’ And it was obvious: if you ferment the stuff, you can sell it for a lot more than if you’re just picking apples off the tree. Then I realized I could do what I was going to school for and my hobby at the same time.”
He returned to the University of Minnesota to get his master’s in horticulture, taking such classes as organic fruit production from professors like Jim Luby, the breeder of the Honeycrisp apple. While he learned a lot, his focus remained on cider apples and someday opening his own cidery.
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