It’s not a perfect analogy, but here it goes: If Crispin Cider is like Sam Adams (cunningly executed craft beverages gone national), then Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery is like Dogfish Head — small and thoughtful, creating oddball recipes from heirloom ingredients. Founded in 2008 by Herdie Baisden and his wife Carol Wiersma, the Winery & Cidery is the extension of Maiden Rock Apples, which had its roots in the couple’s purchase of the 80-acre farm in 1998.
“I has this romantic fantasy that I would have these apple trees and have these apple blossoms in the spring, and all the legend and lore around apples and romance and mystery and all of those things that I found attractive,” says Baisden. “My undergraduate training was in history and psychology with a minor in anthropology. So the history of apples was intriguing to me — how they developed, and how they were used, and the legends around them — all of those things had some appeal.
So, how’d the fantasy line up with the day-to-day reality?
“Totally different,” says Baisden, who goes deadpan for minute before cracking up. “I’m probably a little bit stronger in terms of farm management and agribusiness than farming. But farming is one of the things that I have to do in order to obtain my goals and objectives.”
Baisden and Wiersma deploy a selection of 50 apples grown on site — including about 30 grown in quantity — to blend their locally award-winning ciders and apple wines.
“We have a variety called Northern Spy — people in the Northeast will use Northern Spy the way people in this part of the country use Haralson, as a pie apple,” says Baisden. “It’s an heirloom variety and we use it in some of the wines and ciders that we make. There are others that are even older that we have as well… we have kinds that were grown by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. We have also have varieties used in France to make cider many years ago.”
One of the more unusual offerings at the cidery is Dolgo Crabapple wine. It’s a honeyed-tasting tipple with a refreshingly tart bite and a sweet finish, a pleasant whipsaw of contrasts.
“I don’t think it’s typically seen as an appropriate fruit [for cider-making] in some respects, but most people probably don’t have the particular varieties of crabapples that make a good cider,” says Baisden. “This particular crab apple, the Dolgo, is a great cider apple. It’s blushed with a couple of grapes and those are the Frontenac and the Sabrevois — they are cold-hardy varieties that came out of the University of Minnesota. You could compare it with a cranberry or raspberry wine or mead in terms of its tartness.”
Maiden Rock also makes a Honeycrisp cider that uses real Honeycrisp apple juice, plus honey. If the Dolgo is a bit challenging in its tart bite, the lightly sparkling Honeycrisp is a big wide-open hug and smooch of clean apple flavor and sweetness. There’s enough depth to keep the beverage interesting, but you’d have to be awfully fussy to not enjoy sucking one of these down.
“There are some other juices from our secret apples as well,” says Baisden about the Honeycrisp cider. “We have a variety of cider apples — we probably have more cider apples than anybody else in this region.”
Baisden and Wiersman put that knowledge to use, bottling and fermenting a variety of ciders and apple wines that can’t be found elsewhere.
“You’ll find some vintage cider apples here like Kingston Black for example, and we make a Kingston Black cider,” says Baisden. “One of the things that distinguishes us is the way we produce our cider — we make more still ciders than we make the carbonated ciders. Most people associate cider with carbonation, but the traditional cider is still — they weren’t carbonating it 500 or 800 years ago.”
Baisden isn’t afraid to mix things up when it comes to the flavor profiles of his drinks. After years of bastardization by big cider firms, Americans view cider as a sweet, insipid drink for college students with fake IDs, but Maiden Rock takes exotic apples and pushes the envelope in terms of flavor.
“We are experimental in our approach, and we do some things differently,” says Baisden. “For example with our Bitter Love, I said: ‘OK, the typical recipe for a hard cider is to include a sweet, a sharp or acidic flavor, and also something that’s tannic, and maybe something that’s a little astringent. And I said what if instead of using sweet, sharp, and bitter, what if we just used bitter?”
Right out of the gate, the product was… interesting.
“The first time we made it, it appealed to only a select group — bitter lovers,” says Baisden. “They thought, you know, ‘This cider is tops!’ But other people … my wife Carol, for example… said, ‘Nobody’s going to buy this. Who would want to drink this?’
Some critics — a local wineshop owner, some tasters on Ratebeer.com — were smitten, but the recipe needed some tweaking.
“The second time we came out with it, it had wide appeal,” recalls Baisden. “A lot of people were liking this Bitter Love, and we wondered, ‘What did we do wrong?'” He laughs.
“But we discovered that the main thing was we used a different bittersweet apple and the tannins were not as hard. People liked that — it was a lot smoother. So we developed a good appreciation for using one apple rather than another, even though they were both bittersweet apples.”
When not making and selling apples and apple-derived jams, wines, and ciders, the team at Maiden Rock are often entertaining — the cidery serves as an event space, hosts weddings, and puts on an annual Wassailing feast each December featuring a multi-course paired meal and the traditional parading of a boar’s head through the orchard.
But the business hasn’t been all cake. Among other things, weather is a real challenge.
“Last April, we were in full bloom — it’s so variable,” recalls Wiersma. “April was so warm, but then we had that freeze. But one of the reasons we’re here is because of that lake out here [Lake Pepin] — it takes good care of us. That morning… I didn’t sleep all night, and I checked next morning to see how bad it was, and the lake had put a nice cloud of fog over everything, and it was 33 degrees.”
An effort to make ice cider was a bit more catastrophic. To make ice cider, Baisden left apples on a number of trees, so the fruit’s flavor would be concentrated by freezing temperatures. But leaving the fruit on means that the trees don’t harden off against the winter… and the trees he tried this with were not particularly winter-hardy, and the winter was particularly brutal.
“It was a perfect storm,” says Baisden, thoughtfully, recalling the trees that died in the quest to create a Wisconsin ice cider. “But it’s a learning process.”