Cider Making in Wisconsin by Carl Eischen

Most people working in the wine industry can remember a singular bottle that really opened their eyes toward the potential of that particularly fermented beverage. Mine came at a dinner table in Sonoma, where I had grown up all but oblivious to the hundreds of acres of vineyards all around me, enjoying a bottle of local mountaintop Cabernet with about 20 years of age. I remember the glow of the room, the friendship, the dishes we shared, and that great bottle. 

Fast forward about 10 years, working as a sommelier in New York, I didn’t expect to be stopped cold by an unassuming bottle of cider. I thought I was no stranger to this drink, having survived muggy Boston summers on Basque ciders--tart, funky, but superbly refreshing. Eric Bordelet’s bottlings from Normandy were frequent picnic companions. These were delightful, quotidian drinks, never showstoppers. An encounter with a bottle from Ciderie du Vulcain, a natural cider-maker from Switzerland, was more remarkable than that first eye-opening bottle of wine. This multi-fruit ferment of quince, apple, and pear, tasted of exquisitely ripe golden fruit with just the faintest barnyard aroma evoking the old-world countryside. It somehow managed to juxtapose a farmhouse familiarity with a modernist vision, with all the complexity and precision of a Renzo Piano or I.M. Pei. This was an artist at work, or an alchemist.

We are lucky to not have to look outside our own borders for excellent ciders, as cider-making has deep roots in American history (see Michael Pollan and others for that story). This is something of a golden age for the drink, where technology and information sharing has opened the doors to an explosive growth in the industry. Passionate homebrewing enthusiasts have, as so many enthusiasts have, leapt into commercial production in the last several decades. Commercial cideries in America numbered less than 100 in 1990, and now hover close to 1000. Armed with modern fermentation equipment, and more importantly, knowledge, the profusion of cideries across America has been rapid, following in the wake of the rise of craft brewing. 

Apples are an important commercial crop all across the country, but it's not always possible to make a fine cider from a typical table or dessert apple. A few make that leap very well - look at Gowan's Gravenstein ciders next time you roll through Anderson Valley for a wine tasting - but there has been a necessary effort to find, rehabilitate, or otherwise revive heirloom cider orchards and varieties. On first sampling, you'd probably be shocked at what some of these apples might taste like. Some are prized for their "sharpness" or acidity, others for their tannin, somewhat less than affectionately known as "spitters." 

Beyond the question of varieties, terroir must enter the equation. Apple turns out to be as effective a translator of terroir as the grape. Ripeness and sugar levels will vary based on climate, soil, and vintage conditions. A cider maker in, or sourcing apples from, the Upper Midwest will likely be working with fruit that can lend tart, crisp, and mineral quality to the finished product. There is no such thing as a broadly American-style cider, but regional styles are becoming more established. 

As with any winery or distillery, the cider maker must decide where to grow or purchase her fruit. In line with the estate winery model, Burlington Wisconsin’s AeppelTreow Winery & Distillery partners with Brightonwoods Orchard for all the raw material for their ciders and brandies. Their Appely Brut, the first product the winery made in 2001, is tart and mineral, a very dry expression of Golden Delicious, Jonathan, and Russet apples. Brilliantly sparkling and inviting, it makes a great local blanc de blanc stand-in for all your oyster and scallop pairing needs, even for your Friday fried walleye. The distilling operation contributes unique brandies and whiskies to the market. Try the apple brandy in your next Wisconsin-style old-fashioned or Jack Rose, while the bold and brash sorghum whiskey will punch up a whisky smash or a julep this spring very nicely. 

This broad category holds a few items that are not exclusively 100% apple. Aeppeltreow makes a perry, fermented from pears, as well as exciting, exuberant berry inflected ciders. In Stoughton, though labeled as cider, Mershon’s Cidery is making a hybrid beverage known as cyser, a blend of apples and honey. Whether you view it as mead with apple, or cider with honey, the goal is the same - an exquisitely complex flavor, with the benefit of a little more fermentable sugar to lend a slightly higher ABV. The range is wide at Mershon’s from as low as 5-6%, to nearly 10%. Their Death Valley apple-honey wine is a stand-out - balanced and thirst-quenching, shows the faintest note of honeyed sweetness to invite sip after sip, and a perfect medium weight that lingers with a long finish. And for those looking for warming comfort in these waning weeks of winter, reach for the Snowed in Cinnamon, giving it a gentle warming before sipping. 

Choosing cider can be an act of sustainability. Not only does a locally produced beverage cut down dramatically on the carbon footprint of national or international distribution, but a strong market for cider encourages the support of more diversity in the apple genome that might otherwise be lost. Wisconsin’s cideries have carved out a spot among the finest in the country. I’m excited to see what the future holds for these makers, and for this beverage, as a new generation continues to embrace it at the tavern and at the table.