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Minnesota’s cider scene is young and, like a knobby-kneed teenager, still trying to find its legs.
The cidermaking industry in Minnesota is just over six years old and has yielded ciders running the gamut from Old World heritage styles, to estate-grown ciders showcasing Minnesota apples, to experimental, flavored ciders that bend the rules. In 2017, 21 Minnesota wineries produced nearly 8,000 barrels of cider, up from 7,000 barrels in 2016. (That figure doesn’t include Sociable Cider Werks, which makes apple grafs.)
Minnesota’s cideries fall into two camps, broadly speaking. There are orchard-based cideries operating under the state’s farm winery license, including Montgomery Harvest, Carlos Creek Winery, and Keepsake Cidery. For the most part, these farm wineries are making cider from freshly milled and pressed apples grown on-site, often supplementing with apples sourced from other orchards in Minnesota, across the Midwest, and sometimes beyond. Cideries under the farm winery license are required by state law to use enough Minnesota-grown fruit to constitute at least 51 percent of the cider produced.
Then there are what we’ll refer to as cider houses, such as Urban Forage Winery & Cider House and the three new cideries in the process of opening right now: Duluth Cider, Wild State Cider, and Minneapolis Cider Company. These cider houses are not located on agricultural land and operate as licensed wine manufacturers. Many of these cider houses make their cider from fresh juice sourced from orchards in Minnesota and the Midwest, and none of them are beholden to the majority-Minnesota fruit rule stipulated under the farm winery license, if they are only distributing their product. However, if they operate a taproom, all cider produced and sold by the company must adhere to the 51 percent rule.
Regardless of location, most of the cidermakers we spoke with approach cider with a winemaking mentality and it’s obvious to see why. Cider is first and foremost an agricultural product and, like winemakers, cidermakers must take into account the seasonal variance of fruit. “All our products are made with fruit from our farm,” explains Harry Hoch of Hoch Orchard in La Crescent. “Like with the best wines, our cider starts in the orchard. We choose the apple varieties and blends from what is doing best in that individual season.”
However, cider is often viewed by Minnesota’s consumer base and retailers as an alternative to beer. “You go to other markets and people are buying a lot of these 750s and big package formats,” explains Steve Hance of Number 12 Cider House. “Here in Minnesota still, you talk to any distributor and they’re like, ‘You got 12-ounce cans? You got a 12-pack? Can you price it the same as beer?’”
This has led to something of an existential quandary for Minnesota’s cidermakers: Do they package and market their cider like wine, or like beer? “We’ve struggled through that,” Hance says, “so we’re kind of trying to meet the consumer a little bit in the package that they’re buying here in Minnesota.” When Number 12 opens its new urban cider house in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood this fall, the cidery will begin transitioning its flagship ciders into cans, reserving bottles for special limited-batch offerings.
Sociable Cider Werks, which has a self-proclaimed “decidedly different approach to cider,” adds a whole other layer of complexity to the subject. As a brewery, Sociable cannot legally make 100-percent apple-based cider, but can make apple grafs: cider made with a small portion of grain and hop adjunct. While the decision to start as a brewery rather than as a winery was born of myriad factors, Sociable was the first urban manufacturer of cider-based beverages in the Twin Cities and helped introduce cider to a host of new drinkers.
With so many nuances to such a simple beverage, consumer education is of paramount importance. That need helped precipitate the formation of the Minnesota Cider Guild, officially established in April 2017.
“With the formation of the Minnesota Cider Guild, all of the [member] cideries are working together to raise awareness of all of the wonderful cider offerings throughout the state, as well as educating the cider-drinking public about what makes Minnesota ciders unique,” says Debbie Morrison, who serves as secretary on the Guild’s board of directors.
With the Guild and the individual cidermakers in the state working to hone their cider offerings using Minnesota ingredients, perhaps one day, cider in The North will have a clear regional identity, like Spanish or French cider. Until then, we will enjoy the fruits of experimentation.
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Correction [8:53am, September 4, 2018]: Cideries operating under Minnesota’s wine manufacturer’s license are not beholden to the majority-Minnesota fruit rule stipulated under the farm winery license if they are only distributing their product. However, if they operate a taproom, all cider produced and sold by the company must adhere to the 51 percent rule.