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The best ciders showcase the unique flavors and aromas of carefully selected fruit.

But not all cidermakers treat apples with the same regard. Most commercial ciders are made primarily from dessert apples — the kind found in grocery stores. High in sugar and acid, they lack the bitter tannins and bold flavors of heirloom cider apples that bring complexity to more traditional ciders.

A small number of Minnesota cideries are spearheading a return to fruit-focused cidermaking, including Keepsake Cidery in Dundas and Milk & Honey Ciders in St. Joseph. Each takes a unique approach to making traditional ciders that are built upon the same foundation — apples.

Both orchard cideries, they were the first in Minnesota to plant the heirloom apples prized by traditional cidermakers. Between them they grow more than 60 varieties, ranging from the popular Honeycrisp to the obscure Bulmers Norman and Blue Pearmain.

Along the way they’ve discovered which varieties grow and produce in Minnesota’s harsh climate and short growing season. It has been a hit-or-miss process.

One variety that does grow well: the Chestnut crabapple. Introduced in 1949 by the University of Minnesota, it is described as having a rich nutty flavor that ferments dry with some subtle smoky character. Both cideries call it the quintessential Minnesota cider apple.

“We really feel like Chestnut is a great place for Minnesota cider to find a foothold in the bigger cider picture,” said Nate Watters of Keepsake. “I think that if you want to make an identity, we have to build that upon our apples.”

Keepsake

Watters and his partner Tracy Jonkman run Keepsake as a traditional farmhouse cidery. Situated at the end of a long gravel road in the Cannon River Wilderness area, the taproom offers an idyllic setting.

Their philosophy: to keep things local and natural. There are no additives, only apple juice from its orchards or those nearby. Even the yeast is local. Keepsake is one of few cideries in the nation using 100% spontaneous fermentation, relying on yeast from the apples and in the production room to finish the cider.

Its ciders have an identifiable fermentation character, which lends a rustic feel. Wild was the first of their ciders to be fully spontaneously fermented. It is a completely dry cider with lemony and slightly acetic acidity at the forefront. The flavor of crisp green apples shines through, and subtle notes of wild-fermented barnyard round out the finish.

Medium is a semisweet cider that showcases intense flavors of red apple skins and flesh. Hints of vanilla and baking spices waft in and out. Acidity and tannin are low. The bottle I sampled was from a pre-spontaneous fermentation vintage. It had a cleaner fermentation character than most Keepsake ciders.

The Chestnut Single Varietal Wild is made with 90% Chestnut crabapples. It tastes similar to the dry and funky West Country ciders of England, but with a bit less tannin. The apple character is that of a dry-fleshed bittersweet apple ­— oddly bitter and sweet all at once. It’s fairly acidic, but not enough to make it tart. Notes of leather, smoke and caramel give it layers of complexity.

Keepsake Cidery Tasting Room & Toastie Farm, 4609 135th St. E., Dundas, Minn.; mncider.com. Available online and in area liquor stores.

Milk & Honey

The motto at Milk & Honey Ciders: Let the apples shine.

The cidery uses a clean fermenting yeast so the apples are not obscured by fermentation flavors. Less interested in locality than in capturing the character brought by particular apple varieties, they supplement their apples with fruit from orchards in Michigan and on the East Coast. “These aren’t meant to be the peacock ciders,” said co-owner Aaron Klocker. “It’s just some fermented apple juice in the way that we do it. We pick the apples that we want to highlight their characteristics. Just let the apples be the apples.”

I tasted heirloom cider apples with Milk & Honey’s founders — Klocker, Adam Theis and Peter Gillitzer. These are totally unlike normal eating apples, bringing odd mixtures of acid, sweetness and often unbearable bitterness. To better understand what different apples have to offer, the trio makes single varietal ciders for their own education. “Until I actually bit into a bittersweet, I didn’t even really know what we were looking for,” said Theis. “Until you’ve eaten one, you just don’t know what it is.”

With their Deepcuts series, they sometimes bring these single-varietal explorations to the public. The 2018 harvest showcases the Dabinett apple. Biting a Dabinett is an unusual experience of initial sweetness immediately followed by almost unbearable bitterness. Deepcuts 2018 captures that, but in a most pleasant way. Low sweetness and very high, mouth-drying tannin are the stars. Acidity is almost undetectable. The flavor is that of a crisp, hard-fleshed red apple. Available only at the taproom in St. Joseph, the Deepcuts ciders are great for lovers of very dry ciders.

If they have a flagship at Milk & Honey, Heirloom is it. This perfectly balanced cider is all about the apples. The aroma bursts with fruit — red and green skin and flesh — that follows through to the flavor. It’s a dry cider, but sweeter than their others. The sweetness is offset by just enough tannin and acidity. Well-rounded and easy to drink, Heirloom is a great introduction to fruit-forward, dry ciders.

Most Milk & Honey ciders are vintage dated to acknowledge the natural year-to-year variation in apples. The 2018 vintage of Fauna — its driest cider — is bright with high lemony acidity. Tannins are moderate and not quite enough to fully balance the acid. The aromatics are all fruit.

The 2019 vintage is a full reversal. This is a very dry cider with big, mouth-drying tannins and moderate acidity. Fruity aromatics combine with whiffs of smoke and baking spice for a delightfully complex cider experience.

Milk & Honey Ciders, 11738 County Road 51, St. Joseph, Minn.; milkandhoneyciders.com. Available online and in area liquor stores.

Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He can be reached at michael@aperfectpint.net.