Photos by Brian Kaufenberg
“This is really out there,” my fiancée remarks as we turn onto another winding country road taking us deeper into farmland on our way to Keepsake Cidery in Dundas, Minnesota. She’s right—the roar of I-35 has completely faded away by this point, replaced by the sound of rustling trees in the wind, tractors plowing fields, and the sudden whoosh of an occasional car passing the opposite direction on the two-lane road.
The GPS spouts out left and right turns until we find ourselves on a gravel road—a sure sign that we we’re close. We follow a handmade sign that reads “Keepsake Cidery” with an arrow pointing right, and pull up to a gently sloping field with row after row of apple trees and trellises surrounded by a high wire fence.
At the top of the hill, on opposite sides of the road, sit a gray pole barn and a blue and red farmhouse with a large front porch overlooking the orchard. The orchard, a part of Woodskeep Farm, and the pole barn containing Keepsake Cidery are technically distinct businesses, but really all that separates them is the gravel driveway.
When we park the car, a tall, lean man with wide sideburns and a handlebar mustache growing amid a week’s worth of stubble comes out of the pole barn to welcome us. He’s wearing a gray Keepsake Cidery shirt and Twins hat, and introduces himself with firm handshake as Jim Bovino, the cider-maker and co-founder of Keepsake Cidery. He’s affable and instantly makes us feel at home.
Another man with rust-red hair and a beard, wearing a sun-drenched t-shirt and work pants, walks up from the house carrying a toddler girl in his arms. He introduces himself as Nate Watters, the owner of Woodskeep Farm & Orchard and co-founder of Keepsake Cidery. He speaks quickly in a subdued voice, and we lean in as if listening to a secret as he asks if we want to start our tour with the apples.
Soon Watters and Bovino lead us to the entrance of the two-acre orchard at Woodskeep Farm, filled with two-year-old apple trees, densely planted in evenly spaced rows—in fact, there are 2,400 trees spanning 30 varieties of table and cider apples packed inside the fences of the orchard, including the Keepsake variety that the cidery is named after.
It’s an experimental orchard, according to Watters, as some of the traditional cider apple varieties planted there are outside of their typical growing zones. It’s unknown how the trees including Grimes Golden, Blue Pearmaine, Bulmer’s Norman, Yarlington Mills, Kidd’s Orange, will fair in the cold Minnesota winters, but the risk is worth it for Bovino and Watters. If the trees thrive, Keepsake will be able to use locally grown traditional bittersweet and bittersharp apples to create a balanced flavor-profile for their ciders.
Asked whether it was difficult to find so many varieties of trees, Watters resoundingly answered, “Yes. It’s very difficult with these rootstocks. Right now it’s so popular to grow high density apples that if you want to do an orchard like this […] you’re going to be waiting three years.” He points across the property to an open field where they will plant 3,000 additional apple trees next year that he ordered back in 2013.
For Watters, the dream of starting an orchard began back in 2008 with his wife and Keepsake’s third founding partner, Tracy Jonkman, but it never was his goal to produce perfect, unblemished apples like we buy at the grocery store.
“It was never appealing to me to grow a perfect apple because I know what those inputs are; I know what it takes to grow a perfect apple […] To make it work, you have to have a pretty huge orchard,” Watters says. “But I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to stay small, so I was like ‘What can I do that I don’t have to grow this perfect apple and I can find some kind of a value-added product that I believe in?’”
The answer came into focus when Watters met Jim Bovino in 2011. Bovino was moving back to Minnesota after working in Washington State at Finnriver Farm & Cidery, a small-scale cidery where he developed a love of hard cider. Watters’ interest in hard cider came as an extension of his homebrewing and winemaking hobby, and helped fuel his dream of starting the orchard.
Watters spent half a year on an orchard where he gained some apple growing experience, but he’s quick to note, he still has a lot to learn. “I will be blunt, I need more experience. I’m not even where I want to be,” he admits. “This is a risk jumping into it. I do have some experience, but if someone asked me ‘How much experience I should get?’ I would tell them you need to go work for someone for three or four years.”
What the pair lack in direct orchard experience, they make up for with hands-on experience in running two urban farms in Minneapolis. Jim Bovino is a co-owner of California Street Farm, which grows produce for the community and several local restaurants. Nate Watters learned to be a diverse organic farmer in New England where he spent time as a child, and utilized those skills as an owner of Stones Throw Urban Farm in Minneapolis. One handshake with Bovino or Watters bears out their experience—both have the rough, sturdy hands of farmers with palm lines tinged brown with soil.
We walk down to the last row in the orchard where the trees are just beginning to flower. Just outside the fence, six square stacks of what look like pastel-colored file storage boxes are arranged in an evenly spaced line. As we get closer, the high-pitched hum of hundreds of bees darting around the boxes becomes audible. The bees are another key piece of the complex system of a successful apple orchard. Watters brings these bees in from local apiaries to ensure a good fruit set, and also maintains habitat around the farm conducive to supporting native pollinator populations.Watters, Jonkman, and Bovino will spend the next few years carefully tending the apple trees—pruning, shaping, and guiding branches—before they bear the amount of fruit necessary to produce Keepsake’s line of cider. In the meantime, Keepsake is producing five ciders using apples sourced from local orchards, including Sogn Valley and Chicken Ridge: a dry cider; a medium cider; a wild cider fermented with the yeast found on the apples and in the orchard; an orchard reserve cider; and their Keepsake series.
We walk back to tour the cidery inside the pole barn. The main room is clean and organized into two halves: the cidery equipment for pressing and storing juice, or “must,” sits on one side; on the other, the taproom’s short bar with a draft tower sits next to a small table of merchandise set up for an open house later that afternoon. Bovino points to the back of the room to a garage door that sits shut. Behind the door, he explains, is the “cider cave,” a temperature controlled room where cider is stored for fermentation and bottle conditioning.
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