For at least one week in the year, cider reigns supreme in Minnesota. Town Hall Brewery’s sixth annual weeklong cider celebration runs through June 11, and this year the event was rebranded Minnesota Cider Week to reflect the growing community of cidermakers and cider drinkers across the state.
Cider is an essentially simple beverage—take apple juice, ferment it, and voila, you have cider—but cidermakers around the country, and here in Minnesota, are proving that the simple process can yield a wide range of flavorful, complex ciders.
Minnesota has a long legacy with apples. Since 1887, the plant breeders at the University of Minnesota have been developing hardy apple varieties that can withstand the state’s climate. Over that time they have released nearly 30 apple varieties, including Haralson, Beacon, and Honeycrisp—varieties that have left an indelible mark on orchards all across the country.
However, the varieties developed for, and widely grown in, Minnesota are sweeter “table” apples found in the produce sections of grocery stores; not the acidic, tannic, and bitter cider apples historically used in the beverage.
The state’s growing community of cidermakers are exploring new ways to craft ciders from apples currently grown in Minnesota, and are forging new paths to producing cider apples not typically found here.
We checked in with some of the state’s cider orchards and cidermakers about where local cider is at, where it’s going, and what’s new this season.
After a year and a half of producing Wyndfall Cyder at Hoch Orchards in Le Crescent, Minnesota, founder and cidermaker Rob Fisk is moving operations to an orchard closer to the Twin Cities. “Going forward, I’ll be operating out of the Minnesota Harvest Orchard in Jordan,” Fisk says. “We are in the works of building a cidery on the orchard with a tasting room coming later this summer.”
Fisk recently moved the last of Wyndfall’s fermentation equipment to Sponsel’s Minnesota Harvest Apple Orchard, a pick-your-own orchard established in 1971 with over 300 acres of apples. He is working with the owners to integrate more cider apple varieties in the orchard. “We planted about 75 trees this spring with plans to graft over many others later,” says Fisk, who has a master’s in horticulture from the University of Minnesota.
Wyndfall Cyder is currently producing three ciders: Root River, a semi-sweet raspberry cider that received a silver medal at the 2015 Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition (GLINTCAP); Driftless Dry, an English brut–style cider; and Homesteader, a semi-dry hopped cider that recently took home a silver medal at the 2016 GLINTCAP.
Gretchen and Mike Perbix of Sweetland Orchard spent this spring planting 430 new saplings and marveling at the extraordinary bloom and fruit set of their established table, cider, and heirloom apple trees. The couple started Sweetland Orchard in Webster, Minnesota, back in 2010 as a way to connect with the land, and over the years they’ve taken their role as stewards of that land seriously. In order to rely on as few harmful external inputs as possible, the Perbixes use an integrated pest management (IPM) approach to growing their apples.
The approach entails monitoring pests and only treating the orchard for those pests once they reach a certain threshold. While IPM is more labor intensive and challenging, it offers the Perbixes a welcomed alternative to the “scorched earth policy” of spraying synthetic pesticides and herbicides according to the calendar, whether the orchard needs treatment or not.
Sweetland, like many of the state’s cideries, is interested in finding out which cider and heirloom varieties are well-suited for Minnesota’s climate. In fact, Sweetland is the administrator of a grant that proposes establishing eight trial orchards to grow 12 cider apple varieties on two different rootstocks across Minnesota to see which, if any, thrives.
While the grant awaits approval, Sweetland will continue to produce its lineup of dry and off-dry ciders that include Scrumpy’s Original, Sweet, and Cherry Rhubarb, as well as Perennial, made from heirloom varieties, and Northern Spy, made exclusively from its namesake apple.