Ditch those pumpkin beers — we’re declaring the tail end of 2014 “The Autumn of Hard Cider.” The beverage has enjoyed a national surge in popularity, even outpacing the growth of craft beer in the last few years, and the amount of Minnesota-made craft cider has been steadily multiplying. Considering we know a thing or two about growing apples ’round these parts, that’s a very good thing.
We dig the Sweetland Orchards Scrumpy from Webster, MN (find it at Republic, Birchwood Cafe and Parka) as well as Leidel’s Hebron Cider from La Crescent, Minn. (in every decent Metro-area bottle shop). Bars and restaurants are also picking up the trend. Town Hall Brewery has dedicated ten tap lines to craft cider since remodeling, Sociable Cider Werks is pressing some tasty juice and distributing more widely, just as we’ve increasingly noticed Maiden Rock ciders in bars (and restaurants) lately.
And now Four Daughters Winery of Spring Valley, Minn. is making a major push into the local cider market with Loon Juice. It’s a refreshing cider, feather-light with an off-dry aftertaste, made from 100-percent Honeycrisp apples, with a 6-percent ABV. It’s currently sold in adorable 5-liter kegs ($30; we found one at Sentyrz Market in Northeast) and on tap at a couple of dozen bars and restaurants. Four Daughters winemaker, Justin Osborne, is currently scaling up production. “In a month, it’ll be everywhere,” he says, joking that he needs a cider pipeline to his winery for the volume he’s considering.
We experienced Osborne’s cider acumen when we visited Four Daughters at the beginning of 2012. We happily tossed back a pint of what he called “Barely Legal” cider, served on a lark for taproom visitors. Now it’s become a serious business.
“As a winemaker, I know that if I want to make the best wines, I need the best grapes,” he says. “I thought, why couldn’t that apply to apples? It’s basically common knowledge that the Honeycrisp is one of the greatest fruit inventions ever.” He does, however, recognize its limitations. “A lot of people will tell you it’s not quite right for cider, chemistrywise,” he says. “It’s more about flavor. Well, the only thing I do — all day, every day — is adjust chemistry. So a little bit of that doesn’t scare me. I had a lot of faith that what I had was a winner.”
His distributor was initially wary about the sales potential of Loon Juice, comparing its appeal to Wyder’s Pear Cider, which he considered a niche product. Osborne wagered his distributor’s rep a week with his new Ducati motorcycle if Loon Juice didn’t outsell Wyders in its first week. The rep issued a hasty mea culpa after seeing the cider take off. In fact, if Osborne’s current projections hold, he’ll soon be exceeding the 50,000-gallon limit that a Minnesota Farm Winery License allows, and will need to do some business reorganization.
Distribution is spotty at best for the moment (we hear Dinkytown Wine & Spirits might have a keg or two). But as Osborne says, expect it all over the Metro later in the fall. Osborne is also looking into canning, so don’t be surprised to find six- and twelve-packs of Loon Juice on shelves in 2015.