In 2011, avid home brewer Stephen Hance was making so many ciders with childhood friend Colin Post that they weren't named, only numbered.
Cider Number 12 was particularly good that year. Made with apples of unknown varieties from Sapsucker Farms in Mora, Minn., it was crisp, dry and sparkling, with intriguing apple notes. People loved it.
Hance entered it in the Minnesota State Fair, where it won a blue ribbon. That award would set the home brewing friends on a journey to become professional cidermakers, ultimately opening Number 12 Cider in Minneapolis.
But their love of apples goes back much further, when the two would steal apples from neighborhood trees as kids. The cider bug bit when Post got them started home brewing beer. After tasting an intriguing glass of cider in a bar, Hance was hooked.
"I went on to read about how to make cider and I started reading about the history of cider," he said. "I was really attracted to the simplicity of adding yeast to juice to make something."
Initially the two wanted Number 12 Cider to be connected to an apple growing operation. They got a farm winery license and set up shop at an orchard in Buffalo, Minn., selling the first cider from there in 2015. Though they loved the idyllic setting, it soon became clear that the orchard was not the right fit. "We're not farmers," Post said. "We're people who grew up in the suburbs."
It was also an issue sourcing the heirloom cider apples they wanted to use. "It turned out that not many people were growing the kind of apples we were looking for, including the orchard we were on," Hance said. "Within a year, most of the apples we were using were coming from other places."
They realized they didn't need to be on a farm — they needed to build relationships with farmers.
Hance and Post moved the operation to Minneapolis and opened their North Loop taproom in October 2018. There they work with farmers throughout the region to source apples and juice. Most of the juice for the ciders they distribute comes from Michigan. For the specialty cider apples needed to make Number 12's taproom-only ciders, they have relationships with orchards in Minnesota and Wisconsin. They are one of only two cidermakers using apples from Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa nonprofit dedicated to preserving endangered food crops by collecting, growing and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. (The cidery donates $2 from each glass of S.S. Heritage, the cider made with those apples, back to Seed Savers.)
When sourcing apples, the pair look for fruit that will enable them to build interesting combinations of apple elements. "Every apple has four basic characteristics," Post said. "You have sugar levels, which will lead to the amount of alcohol. You have acidity, which is the zing, kind of that sprightly feeling in the mouth. You've got aroma. You want it to smell good to prep the sip. And then you have tannins for bitterness. So, when you're making a cider, you're thinking about what percentage of all those elements you have in your apples."
Using different yeast strains to add new dimensions to the ciders is also part of Number 12's core philosophy, something they were surprised to learn very few cidermakers are doing. "We were attracted to this for its simplicity. You can add yeast to apple juice," Hance said. "And when it comes down to it, especially on the dry ciders, yeast and juice are the variables." Added Post, "The grand experiment that is so valuable is to have 10 carboys and ... have a different yeast in each one. Tasting those out it's amazing how different those products are."
A full slate of ciders
The primary goal at Number 12 is to express the full spectrum of what cider can be. That's reflected in their extensive product list, which includes ciders that are dry to semisweet, fruited, hopped and barrel-aged.
Voyage is one of the flagship ciders and my personal go-to. It is the manifestation of their attempt to re-create the original Number 12, the cider that inspired it all. "The thing with Voyage is that it is on a voyage from start to finish," Post said. "The product we make now might not be exactly the same as the next time we make it."
Voyage is crisp, dry and effervescent. Firm tart and sweet apple flavor is supplemented with light citrus highlights. If you pay attention, you might even detect hints of grilled peaches. It goes out clean, dry and refreshing.
There are no sweet ciders at Number 12, but for something semisweet try the apple-forward Union. The rich apple flavor starts out sweet and moves to a mildly tart acidity by the finish. The chosen yeast strain gives low notes of tropical fruit. It ends with an off-dry finish.
Humble Farmer is a good example of Number 12's experimentation with new apple varieties. When an orchardist offered them Frostbite apples, they leapt. This cider is 50% Frostbite, supplemented with Dabinett, Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill apples. It has a concentrated red-apple flavor with notes of orange and tangerine from the Frostbite apples. There is an earthy, almost smoky funk that complements a mouth-drying, tannic finish.
Fans of fruited ciders will love the unique Honeyberry. Before tasting this cider, I had never heard of honeyberries — they come from a plant in the honeysuckle family. Post did small-batch trials with six to eight honeyberry varieties to determine which would make the best cider. The light and spritzy Honeyberry cider has a good balance of sweet apple and tart, raspberry-like fruit. It's apple-forward; cider first with fruit added. The honeyberries bring a subtle bitterness that's like eating the seeds of a raspberry. This cider is designed to be a crowd-pleaser and is indeed quite tasty.
With the first sip of Contraband, I wasn't sure what I was tasting. But I knew it was delicious. This dry, hopped cider uses a blend of Mosaic, Sabro and Cashmere hops to create a mouthscape that moves from fruity to herbal to "dank." True to Number 12 style, it's cider first. Hops add layers of intrigue to the apples. There is pineapple, juicy peach, mint and marijuana. Fruity Pebbles cereal even comes to mind. It's a striking sip for hopheads.
The barrel-aged Champinett started as a collaboration with Keepsake Cidery in Dundas, Minn. Number 12 had access to an heirloom apple variety called Champagne; Keepsake had Dabinett apples. Each cidermaker wanted what the other had. They shared the apples, and each made a cider that they called Champinett — two totally different ciders from the same ingredients.
Number 12's Champinett is aged in rum and rye whiskey barrels. While it's clearly barrel-aged, it is difficult to tell what kind of barrels were used. That's a good thing. It's interestingly complex rather than being the single-note that many spirit-barrel aged beverages become. Champinett is a dry cider that leans on tannin. In addition to barrel flavors, there is plenty of apple, along with hints of banana, horseradish and barnyard. It's 9% alcohol, but deceptively slammable.
Cocktails are a new addition to the Number 12 taproom lineup. The Brandy Old Fashioned is made with four-year-old, oak-aged apple brandy distilled from Number 12 ciders by a local distillery. It smells good, and tastes even better. The rich and warming brandy is nicely complemented by spicy notes from cinnamon apple simple syrup and Australian bitters. Simply delicious.
Number 12 Cider
Where: 614 N. 5th St., Mpls., 612-345-4488, number12cider.com.
Hours: Mon. 4-9 p.m., Tue.-Thu. 4-10 p.m., Fri. 4-11 p.m., Sat. noon-11 p.m., Sun. noon-8 p.m.