Out Picking: Harvesting with Urban Forage Winery and Cider House’s Jeff Zeitler

Jeff Zietler, urban foraging at the height of cherry season // Photo by Tj Turner

Jeff Zeitler is tireless. The co-owner of Urban Forage Winery & Cider House has a vision—to create high-quality small-batch hard ciders, meads, and wine from local, crowd-sourced fruit, flowers, and honey—and he uses his trailblazing attitude to carry it out.  

“We make stuff that is real [free of artificial chemicals and preservatives] and it’s so local that it’s from a neighbor’s backyard,” he says. “I’m making country wines in the city—they’re called country wines because it doesn’t come from grapes.” 

During harvest season, from May through November, Zeitler puts in long days—up to 80 hours a week—foraging and processing many of the ingredients he needs for his products: apples, tart cherries, pears. Nearly all of the fruit comes from the metro area and ends up at the winery on East Lake Street in Minneapolis. “People are thinking about urban farming and they weren’t 10 years ago,” Jeff says.

Jeff Zietler harvesting cherries from the yard of a homeowner in the Longfellow neighborhood // Photo by Tj Turner

While Jeff’s drive is undeniable, he takes a laid-back approach to what he’s able to make each year. Plum wine and apricot cider have been offered in the past but will only return if Jeff can find a source for them again. He is at the mercy of what is available to him—and he isn’t fazed by it.

Through word-of-mouth, requests over social media, and media coverage, Jeff and his wife, Urban Forage co-owner Gita, have formed a network of well over 100 people throughout the Twin Cities metro willing to let them pick from their fruit trees. After a visit, Jeff leaves a bottle of wine or cider for the owners in exchange for the fruit. 

While cruising around to gather fruit, Jeff is on the lookout to expand his network. If he sees a potential harvest opportunity, he’ll leave a flyer to see if the owner is interested in joining his mission. 

A stop at long-time contributor Brian Nelson’s home in mid-July for tart cherries proves disappointing. Where he was looking for vibrant bright-red fruit, Jeff instead finds cherries that are a dull maroon. “This is the fourth house that it has gone too far; it had only been a matter of days,” Jeff laments, referring to the cherries being past their prime for picking, noting that he’d originally planned to pick them earlier that week, but a thunderstorm had delayed him. 

The situation doesn’t bother him for long; he already has several 5-gallon pails filled with cherries picked earlier that day. The lot all went toward a tart cherry-apple cider and a fruit-forward, tart cherry melomel—mead made from a combination of fruit and honey that Jeff sources from a family farm near Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.

Brian Nelson first got involved with Urban Forage when his wife found Jeff and Gita’s Kickstarter campaign to begin production in 2015. The Nelsons chose to support the effort at the $100 level, receiving a bottle of cider once a month in return. As for how he started donating cherries, that was simple: “There is no way I could use them all; I was emailing friends to come over to pick,” Brian says. “I don’t like to see things go to waste.” 

Jeff Zietler inspecting cherries at Brian Nelson’s property in South Minneapolis // Photo by Tj Turner

A couple of years later, the Nelsons signed up for the Cider for Life program to help the Zeitlers raise capital for the taproom: for $1,000, supporters receive two free glasses of cider any day the taproom is open, for life. Brian also recently took a couple of black currant starter plants from Jeff to grow.

While foraging already sets Urban Forage apart from other wineries, Jeff also emphasizes his goal of creating funky and weird wine and cider—products like his gin botanical cider, which is infused with spent gin botanicals from nearby Lawless Distillery, and dandelion wine.

“Dandelion wine. There’s nothing else like it. You either love it or hate it. People will make special trips for it. Usually, they’ll tell me their grandma or uncle had made it,” Jeff says. The wine requires a labor-intensive process, including gathering and boiling thousands of yellow dandelion tops to produce a straw-colored wine that tastes light, grassy, and malty.

Adding to Urban Forage’s unique qualities is the fact that the winery was the first to open in Minneapolis–St. Paul since Prohibition. To obtain the necessary licenses, the Zeitlers had to comply with different requirements from federal, state, and city governments. Probably the most challenging were the state’s requirements, which included higher fees and more barriers for commercial wineries than for farm wineries, Jeff says.

Before opening Urban Forage, Jeff had made wine, cider, and mead for over 20 years as a hobby while working full-time as a landscape architect. When he was laid off in 2014, Gita encouraged him to pursue his dream of opening a winery. They already had a location—they’d purchased the East Lake Street space in 2013 with the intention of fixing it up and renting it out. All he needed to do was come up with a plan and put it into motion. 

Urban Forage in South Minneapolis // Photo by Tj Turner

The idea to make products using locally grown, crowdsourced ingredients came after their family collected enough apples from friends, neighbors, and strangers to make a years’ worth of applesauce. Following their successful Kickstarter campaign, Jeff began producing cider and wine in 2015 in the basement of the building. Two years later, the Zeitlers renovated the building’s first floor and opened a taproom. “I thought I would be in an office for the rest of my life, but this is a blast,” Jeff says. “I love being self-employed.”

Jeff credits Gita, a public health nurse who also helps with business operations, for getting them this far. “She worked full-time, took care of the two kids, and kept us all covered in health insurance while I made zero dollars for two full years,” he recalls. “I’m the face of the company, but without her, this never would have worked.”

“The people of Minneapolis and St. Paul, [and] friends and family made us keep going and supported us in very difficult times,” Gita adds. “Even with all the hardship, I would support Jeff again to do something like this for the opportunity to interact with the wonderful and kind people we meet in our taproom.”

Looking ahead, Jeff has plans to grow his own apples to supplement the juice he currently sources from Minnesota Harvest in Jordan, Minnesota, for Urban Forage’s cider. He’s growing a few Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill trees in his yard as an experiment and has planted grafted Wickson and North Country Crab trees in various yards in Minneapolis.

“I see more experimentation and more fun in the future. I want to make weird, edgy stuff that you can’t find anywhere else. There are so many things you make alcoholic products from,” Jeff says. He’s already experimented with making wine from bananas and pineapples. Even though the results didn’t turn out (the banana wine has a thick, syrupy consistency), Jeff says he’ll find a use for it.

Cherry Apple Cider at the Urban Forage // Photo by Tj Turner

Unwinding with a glass of dry cider after a day of cherry gathering, Jeff reveals his more pragmatic approach to running Urban Forage. “I wanted to create a business that I could manage, and I’ve kept our model for business simple. I want to be a 65-year-old man slinging cider,” he says with a laugh. 

Have fruit you’d like Urban Forage to use? Contact Jeff at [email protected]