In spring of 2014, Nate Watters and Tracy Jonkman planted 2,400 apple tree saplings on their property in Dundas, Minnesota, with a singular goal in mind: make top quality cider from Minnesota-grown apples.
Spanning 30 varieties of dessert and cider apples, the founders of Keepsake Cidery knew they were taking a big chance on the orchard, since nearly a quarter of the varieties were not typically grown in Minnesota’s climate. But they knew to craft the complex ciders they hoped to make, they would need to test the limits of what’s possible to grow in the state.
In taking the risk, Keepsake became a proving ground for the rest of the state’s cidermakers, who, like Watters and Jonkman, coveted the idea of ready access to traditional cider apples, but were reluctant to experiment with planting their own.
While Keepsake’s orchard grew into full productivity, Watters went to work creating ciders from no spray or low spray apples sourced from nearby orchards. What has resulted are some of the state’s most exciting expressions of wild and barrel-aged ciders, which are introducing cider drinkers to a broad range of flavors.
Watters’ minimalistic approach to cidermaking allows each of his offerings to express not only the apples’ flavors, but the time and place where the apples are grown. None of their offerings accomplish this quite like Keepsake’s Wild, a cider spontaneously fermented from naturally occurring yeasts on the apples and microbes floating through the air of the orchard and cidery.
Now, three years after launching, Keepsake is at the forefront of the state’s cider scene. By next spring they’ll have expanded their orchard by more than double, adding 3,000 trees and 10 more varieties, and currently are participating in a research study on growing cider apples in Minnesota with seven other orchards. And with their original experimental orchard reaching full productivity, Watters and Jonkman are entering a phase in which they could craft Minnesota ciders as complex as those from Europe and the East and West Coasts of the U.S.
In a cider scene still struggling for an identity, Keepsake Cidery is helping define what Minnesota craft cider can and should be.
Trailblazers are the people, ideas, businesses, and organizations doing necessary, important, and groundbreaking work in the realms of food, drink, and culture. See the rest of The Growler’s 2017 Trailblazers here.