One day, Gretchen Perbix’s husband came in from the couple’s orchard and handed her an apple to try.
“It took a bite out of it,” she said, “and I spit it out and said, ‘That’s terrible.’ ”
It was an Ellis Bitter. Good heirloom cider apples — actually termed “spitters” by insiders — are “bittersharp” and “bittersweet” varieties that have an array of tannins and acids. They’re not good eating apples, but those qualities make them ideal for producing complex, winelike cider.
Gretchen and Mike Perbix run Sweetland Orchard, an orchard and cidery near Northfield. They recently started experimenting with growing some of these traditional cider apple varieties, with names like Kingston Black, Chisel Jersey or Yarlington Mill.
“All the names sound kind of fanciful,” said Gretchen. “They’re the ones that make interesting flavors.”
The Perbixes are eager to get their hands on some of these varieties, as they just started wholesaling their hard cider this year. They began producing it three years ago, with an initial batch of 75 gallons. This year they hope to produce 14,000 gallons.
“We could use just as many as we could get,” said Gretchen.
That jump mirrors the state and the rest of the country. Gretchen Perbix is working on a study with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to measure the hard cider industry’s growth. An initial survey of the state’s nine producers showed that in 2014, Minnesota’s total hard cider production should double that of 2013. In five years, producers plan to quintuple 2013’s output.
Nationally, according to the Beer Institute in Washington, D.C., hard cider production leapt from 9.4 million gallons to 32 million from 2011 to 2013.
Keepsake Cidery is another cidery soon to open in Dundas, Minn., near Northfield.
“The coasts are really where it’s happening,” said one of the company’s founders, Jim Bovino, who has worked for cideries in the Pacific Northwest. “There’s definitely a boom out there.”
Bovino and his business partner, Nate Watters, are also hungry for good cider apples. According to Watters, you can make great ciders with dessert apples, but “it’s not going to be that complex Old World cider.”
Cideries like Sweetland are designated as “farm wineries,” which means they need to use at least 50 percent of Minnesota produce. This year, Sweetland Orchard exhausted its supply of apples and had to outsource, going to Michigan for some varieties. The owners would rather purchase in-state.
They use a variety of apples in their ciders, and dessert apples make for some of their “easy-drinking” ciders. But they would love to be able to grow and outsource traditional cider apple varieties, many of which are typically grown in places like England and northern France.
“The bona fide cider varieties are not available in the Midwest,” said Gretchen Perbix. “I think our climate is just tough for some of those.”
Bovino said Keepsake Cidery has been experimenting with planting some varieties that are “definitely pushing it.”
One stretch is the Grimes Golden, a Virginia variety. “We’re not going to have the long duration of sunshine and warmth to develop all the sugars,” said Bovino. “It’s a controlled experiment.”
Watters said they are “definitely going out on a limb with that one.”
According to David Bedford, a scientist in the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota, while hard cider production seems new, in the 1800s it was very much part of the American frontier.
“Apple entertainment,” as he termed it, was one “way of preserving the crop into the winter and enjoying it.”
Bedford, well-known in the apple business for helping to develop the ubiquitous Honeycrisp apple, agreed that Minnesota winters aren’t conducive to growing traditional cider apples. Twenty years ago, Bedford tried to grow a number of French and English cider apple varieties. While “they survived and staggered on for a few years,” he said, they didn’t last.
Due to recent renewed interest in cider production, in 2011 they planted a few heirloom varieties — with names like Brown Snout, Mettais, and Orleans Reinette — in a very small sample plot. He chose ones that would be cold-hardy.
After our intense winter last year, he said he thought “that will be the end of those, but they survived. We might find something.”
There is also discussion about attempting to breed for cold-hardy cider apple varieties, a long-term process, and about whether they might find apples with promising cider characteristics in plants they’ve generated when breeding eating apples.
Then too, as the state’s cider producers continue growing, they will develop the art of creating interesting blends using existing varieties. “The best ciders,” he said, “have always been a mix of varieties.”
Mike Perbix said that Sweetland Orchard made the move into cider after a couple of years of producing and marketing apples. Trying to make most of the sales during 10 to 12 weekends of farmers markets proved stressful (“What if it rains?” he said.) and required them to rely on parents’ help.
“We quickly realized we were headed toward a total burnout,” he said.
Gretchen also juggles her work with the orchard with her job teaching English at Mankato State. And they have two young children to take care of. “We’re busy being pulled in a lot of different directions,” he said.
“It’s really hard to make a living by selling apples,” said Watters, “unless you make it really big.” His orchard is about 7 acres, and he, too, said he hopes cider production will help provide a stable income for his family.
Sweetland Orchard sells its cider on tap at bars and restaurants in the Twin Cities, like Republic and Birchwood Café. They started bottling it this fall, and they sell it at stores throughout the area, adding about two shops a month.
Bovino of Keepsake Cidery said they hope to have their license approved by the holidays. They plan to sell their cider in 750-milliliter bottles, and they hope to create a “cider club,” which would function somewhat like a wine club.
Gretchen Perbix attributes the growing popularity of ciders partly to people’s attempts to avoid gluten and partly due to the increasing quality of ciders. Both cideries said the craft brewing boom has helped inspire more adventurous drinking among the public.
“It’s a new frontier,” said Mike Perbix. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s an excellent time.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelance journalist.