“People want sparkling. And they want sweet,” says Jeff Zeitler.
Naturally, therefore, Zeitler’s signature bottle is a very dry, very flat apple cider.
In fact, Zeitler’s business model at Urban Forage Winery & Cider House is all about zigging not zagging, or vice versa. While commercial food and drink production is a battle against the forces of nature for absolute consistency, Zeitler welcomes nature’s curveballs with open arms, whether they arrive in the form of wild yeasts or as the unpredictability of fruits foraged at various stages of ripeness and from different varieties of trees.
He seems to delight in the little surprises, the funky notes, the flavor profile that may not be exactly as he imagined, and may in fact be even tastier.
Zeitler has been searching for those wild flavor surprises since he was a student at the University of Minnesota, when he foraged throughout the cities and fermented cider in his dorm room. He’s honed both skills in the couple of decades since then, and he and his wife, Gita, turned his hobbies into a full-time commercial venture after finding and renovating a foreclosed building on Lake Street in 2013. Last year the pair foraged in 30 or 40 yards (at the request of grateful owners), picking apples, pears, dandelions, rhubarb, cherries, and more. Right now Zeitler has three products on the market, with more in casks waiting for release.
We stopped in to Urban Forage one Saturday afternoon to taste the Dry Apple Cider and the Sparkling Pear Cider, settling in at a homey table in a large room with the comfy, we’re-all-family-here feel of a church basement.
“If I could make just one product, I would make dry cider,” Zeitler declares. He makes it entirely with apples foraged from yards around the Twin Cities. (In some other products he uses a blend of purchased and foraged fruits.) And he ferments it until it is entirely sugar-free. “It’s really made in the style of a white wine,” he explains. “All you taste is pure apples.”
And that’s true. You can debate with yourself and your tablemates over whether it’s more Honeycrisp or more Haralson (there is almost certainly some of each in the mix), but there’s no debating the fresh-off-the-tree flavor or that pleasant layer of unplaceable and intriguing funk that overlays it. Since this cider is completely uncarbonated, there are no bubbles getting in between you and the apple bite — or encouraging you to drink it faster than you might want to.
With the Dry Apple Cider as a baseline, Zeitler next poured a little of his Sparkling Pear Cider. It tasted like the bottled essence of a pear you’ve sliced open just moments before it slides over to the wrong side of ripe. The carbonation gives it just a tiny lift on your palate. And, even though Zeitler has back-sweetened this batch (“because people love sweet,” he concedes) it still would anchor down the dry end of any honest lineup of commercial hard ciders.
And like the apple cider, it’s made from fruit picked from dozens of yards all over the metro area. “The trick,” says Zeitler, “is finding pears at just the right stage of ripeness. So you get the wild yeast funk and the overripe pear funk.”
For now, the only place you can get this level of funk is at the cider house itself. The only product Urban Forage is currently distributing to liquor stores is its Semisweet Sparkling Cider. Keep in mind that both “semisweet” and “sparkling” here are relative. On a shelf lined with sweet apple ciders — some of them, quite frankly, labeled “dry” — Urban Forage isn’t going to stand out as either of those things.
Instead, it stands out as a brave little zag from our predictable, hypercontrolled, easy-on-the-palate drinking culture — like the bottled flavor of wild nature itself.
Urban Forage Winery & Cider House
On- and off-sale hard cider
3016 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Fri 4-8 p.m.
Sat noon-4 p.m.