Austin Eastciders's first small batch release was an experiment in time travel. Their Small Batch No. 1 was made from Winesap apples, a heritage variety popular for cider making before Prohibition, and now exceedingly rare in Texas. Winesaps were definitely grown in Austin in cider's heyday: a fan sent Eastciders owner Ed Gibson a clipping from an 1895 Hyde Park nursery catalog featuring the apple for cider making. Fermenting Winesaps in 21st century Austin was like, "anthropology and archeology," Gibson says. "We had no idea how it would turn out." It moved Gibson to experience a cider so close to what Austinites drank a hundred years prior. "It has this amazing kind of cotton candy aroma, not what we expected at all. When we untapped this ferment, we were blown away by the taste."
After decades of neglect, cider is booming in America. Many of the best-known ciders hail from apple growing regions like New York and Oregon, where existing winery and brewery infrastructure helps to drive both experimentation and interest. While Texas is a tough place to grow apples, Austin sits at the same confluence of craft alcohol culture: Austin and the Hill Country boast a large and growing number of craft breweries, wineries, and distilleries. Three cideries are currently in operation, working with a mix of Texas and out-of-state fruit, and at least two more are on the horizon. Here's a look at the massive strides cider made in Austin in 2014.
Argus Cidery: Funky And Local
Wes Mickel at Argus Cidery is drawn to funky, wild yeast ciders. The first cidery to open in Austin, Argus launched in 2010 with hyper-small batch ciders using solely Texas apples. Their distinctive ciders have garnered Argus national attention and acclaim, an even bigger feat considering their small releases and involved production process. As Argus has grown, they adjusted their sourcing model to contend with the extreme unpredictability of the tiny Texas apple industry. This year, they released a pineapple-based tepache and formed a new partnership with an Arkansas orchard run by a pomologist.
According to Mickel, growing apples in Texas is a nearly insurmountable challenge, but when farmers manage to get a crop, the apples are phenomenal. One of the key principles of winemaking is stressed grapes make better wine, and Mickel believes the same is true for apples and cider. Argus works primarily with two growers, Love Creek Orchards in Bandera and Apple Country Orchards in Lubbock. "In Texas, they grow some of same varietals as in Washington," Mickel says, "But due to the soil, the heat, and the dry air conditions, the fruit composition is completely different." Argus seeks to highlight these regional differences: they want to make cider that tastes like Texas.
Mickel says his experimental approach is uniquely suited to Austin's laid-back culture. "Very few cities are as forgiving and open as Austin. If someone doesn't like a particular cider we've made, they'll come back and try another." Much like wild yeast-focused brewery Jester King next door, Argus keeps it weird by embracing the funky.
Austin Eastciders: English Tradition
When Ed Gibson opened his urban cidery earlier this fall, it was the culmination of a lifelong passion. Before moving to Austin, he owned a cider bar in England. He says, "It took me awhile to realize the obvious: I know a lot about cider, so I should start a cidery." Austin Eastciders has been producing cider for several years out in the Hill Country, and the urban cidery represents a new phase in what is already a hyper-successful business. Their Gold Top and Original ciders can be found at bars and restaurants across the city on tap and in cans.
Gibson's experience running his cider bar taught him, "People want something with just a hint of sweetness. They don't want something super sweet, and they don't want bone dry." For wide releases, like the Austin Eastciders Original in cans, Gibson works with apples from various regions in the US. He points out this is no different than Austin breweries bringing in hops and grain. "People in Austin deserve great cider even if there's not enough apples for everyone."
The cidery is not ignoring Texas apples, however. They're using them for tiny batched releases, like Small Batch No. 1. Eastciders is producing on a large scale compared to other Austin cideries, but they maintain a sense of playfulness. Another major collaboration this year was a brisket cider they created with Micklethwait Craft Meats. Their approach mirrors one of Austin's best breweries, Hops & Grain, who focuses on classic styles while perpetually experimenting with their Greenhouse program.
Gibson has seen first hand the growth of Austin's interest in cider, not only in the success of his company but in people's reactions when he explains what he does. "When I first moved to Austin four years ago, I would tell people I was thinking about starting a cider company here, and they wouldn't really have too much to say. Now when someone sees the logo on my teeshirt they say, ‘I love cider, I love your stuff.'"
New Kid, Heritage Fruit: Texas Keeper
Nick Doughty and his partners at Texas Keeper are all native Austinites; they're also the least focused on sourcing their fruit from Texas. Right now, their apples come from a fourth-generation farmer in New York, grown on the same land as his great-grandfather. Their name, however, is derived from a now-lost local apple variety called Hick's Texas Keeper, and Doughty hopes to work with Texas apples in the future. Just launched this year, their clean and complex ciders are already making waves.
Doughty discovered cider through his English father, who would take the family back for frequent trips to the western part of England. "You'd go to these old cideries that were wood barns with these burly farmers. It's a working man's drink traditionally in the UK. It was awesome."
Later, he studied winemaking in New Zealand, where he was able to experiment with cidermaking at the same time. There was a vineyard on campus where students tended to and then pressed their own grapes. Once the grapes were gone, students would switch to apples.
Because here's the thing: cidermaking and winemaking are very similar. After spending time as an assistant winemaker at several wineries, including an urban winery in Portland, Doughty was easily able to transition to working with apples. He started out as Austin Eastciders's head cidermaker before striking out on his own.
Their first release, Texas Keeper Number One, is a blend of five apples, fermented separately and then combined the same way a winery would combine grapes. Texas Keeper also released single variety ciders , and Doughty is energized by the possibilities of an industry so long neglected. "You don't have the pretension of the wine world, but you can do a lot of the same things with cider. It's a new frontier."
On The Horizon
2015 will bring at least two more cideries to Austin. Local craft brewer Rogness Brewing will open Selkie Cidery with a specifically craft beer approach. They've already made several test batches including a blush hibiscus cider, a semi-dry, and an apple pie cider Forrest Rogness says tastes, "like apple pie a la mode." That enthusiasm for experimentation is inspired by Crispin Cider's recent offerings at festivals and the exuberant small-batch play of the craft beer world.
Selkie Cider will open right next to Rogness's existing brewery, but it will be an entirely separate operation due to arcane licensing laws. Rogness had to acquire a winery license to start the business, since they're working with juice rather than grain. The apples will probably originally come from Washington, though "juice becoming harder and harder to find year round because so many people are starting cideries." The project has been delayed by equipment difficulties at Rogness, but should launch in mid-2015.
There's another cidery in the works next door to the South Austin Brewing Company. Austin Wine & Cider originally planned to open in early 2013, and they're securing their final round of funding to finish build-out. Owner Mike Allgeier says his cidery will focus on ciders, meads and wines utilizing fruit and unique ingredients "from around the world." Allgieir is an Army veteran awarded the Purple Heart, and discovered craft beer and cider while stationed in Belgium and Italy.
More developments are in the works for Austin's existing cideries as well. At the moment, Argus has suspended tours of their operation due to increased production. Austin Eastciders plans to open a taproom in Spring of 2015, and Texas Keeper hopes to open their way South Austin facility to tours as well. In the meantime, Austin's enthusiasm for craft cider means offerings from all three can be found at bars, restaurants, and stores across the city.
During this year's Beer Week, Austin's three cideries joined forces to sample their wares at East End Wines. Texas Keeper poured from their new dry-hopped, dry-spiced cider, as well as a citrusy single variety release made from Gold Rush apples. Argus unveiled their new Perennial cider, put into bottles that day, refreshing and slightly sour. Eastciders sampled their hyper-small-batch Winesap cider from a keg. Austin's cider culture is too new to define, but celebrating beer week at a wine store by sipping three wildly different (and equally delicious ciders) would not be a bad place to start.