Over the last five years, the craft brewery movement has grown exponentially in Minnesota. The Associated Press says licensing records show two-thirds of Minnesota breweries have opened just since 2010. So, we decided to help you – and your livers – keep up with the taproom trend by stopping by some of these Twin Cities brewhouses. But we’re serving this Tap Talk with a twist. This time we visited a craft cider taproom – Northeast Minneapolis’ Sociable Cider Werks.
Craft cider is not a new concept.
As with craft beer, it has been trending on the coasts for quite a few years.
But before Sociable Cider Werks opened their doors the craft cider taproom was a new concept, for Minnesota.
The seed for Sociable was planted when Minnesota natives Jim Watkins and Wade Thompson met at Carlton College in Northfield. The two moved out to New York City to work in the banking industry – Thompson as a banker and Watkins as a trader.
While the two were living together, the idea began to grow.
“We spent a lot of time talking about moving home and starting a business and we weren’t exactly sure what that was going to look like,” Watkins said. “And [then] a garage hobby manifested itself.”
When it came to Thompson, the apple didn’t fall far from the family tree. As with most other taproom owners, the two were home brewers. But, for over 20 years, Thompson’s father-in-law had been making a dry French-style, bottle conditioned cider in his garage. And, for a few of those years, Watkins and Thompson would enjoy it.
So, with their interest in brewing, knowledge of cider making and a thriving craft beer business environment in Minnesota, the two decided to make craft cider.
The idea fermented and the business grew.
“I tend to have a very obsessive compulsive personality and my hobbies tend to spiral rapidly out of control,” Watkins said. “So, here we are.”
In 2013, Sociable Cider Werks opened in the epicenter of Minnesota’s craft beer boom – Northeast Minneapolis.
As of this week the state now hosts 12 other hard cider manufacturers. Most all of them operate as wineries first, and none of them have their own taproom. So, while they don’t call themselves the Surly of the cider world, it’s a pretty fair comparison to make.
Watkins believes that the cider trend will only continue to grow, and he chatted with me about Sociable’s role within the apple space and their impact on the craft movement.
Sociable Cider Werks
Owners: Jim Watkins and Wade Thompson
Head Brewer: Mike Willaford
Location: 1500 Fillmore Street, NE Minneapolis
Hours: Thursday – Friday: 4 – 11 p.m. Saturday 12 – 11 p.m. Sunday 12 – 8 p.m.
So, let’s start off easy, why the name “Sociable?”
The sociable is a two-seat bike where you sit side-by-side. We first articulated that this was going to be a cider company while we were on a bicycle ride. We stumbled upon the sociable bike which was actually, believe it or not, the most popular two-seat style at the turn of the century. There are two of us, we were on a bicycle ride when we came up with the idea, so the idea of a two-seater where you could share a pint while you’re riding that really resonated with us. So it’s a cool noun, it’s weird, it’s recognizable, it’s memorable, it’s a very cool shape and then it’s as an adjective it reflects awesome atmosphere. That’s kind of the culture around which we built our brewery.
Describe what a perfect cider is to you.
Perfect cider for me is no residual sugar. It’s bone-dry, even drier than Freewheeler. [It’s] made with Kingston Black apples. Kingston Black is a bittersharp apple that has enough sugar that it is excellent [for making] single apple cider. There are not a lot of apples in the country that can make a single varietal apple cider and make it well. I think it would be produced in a French style. So, the French actually press, let all of their juice sit with all of the pulp, then there is a separation and then they actually draw the cider from in between the brown cap and lees. It’s called keeving. It helps draw the heart of the cider from in between the fruit and yeast sitting on the bottom and the proteins on the top. And then [the cider would be] aged in French oak for one month. Too much longer and it gets too oaky. I would want it bottle conditioned in the French style [that would give] five atmospheres of carbonation like champagne.
Tell me a little bit about your process of making cider. How does that differ from the cider you described?
Fermentation science is all the same whether you’re making beer, wine or cider. The gist of it is start with sugar water and put yeast into it. And the yeast eats the sugar. So, when you’re making wine the sugar comes from pressed grapes, when you’re making beer it comes from soaking grain in hot water and when you’re making cider it comes from apples. What’s unique about Sociable is we’re actually licensed like a brewery. The reason that most cideries are licensed like wineries because their process is similar to wine. And it makes a lot of sense. It is an apple wine for all intents and purposes. But we brew into every cider we make. The tannin, body and hop character we are able to add comes from a hot process that actually comes from a brew kettle, just like you would make beer. And then when we blend those processes together, the pressed apples and the brew component and we ferment them all together. It’s a unique way to do cider, but we really love it because it gives us a lot of flexibility to make a lot of unique stuff.
So tell me about the ciders you make. Describe some those blends.
Very few of our products are 100 percent apple forward. Our most apple forward product is what Freewheeler is. It’s dry, tart and effervescent. Hop-A-Wheelie isn’t apple at all. We use Chinook and Cascade hops, two very citrusy hops and they are on display [in Hop-A-Wheelie.] There are a lot of guys who can come in and pick them out because they are so obvious in that. And I love that, it’s really neat. [Then we have the] Road Rash our Shandy Apple. Lemon is on display in that. And then we also have our Stout Apple, Spoke Wrench. That is a hybrid product where we blend the apples with a lot of the malts you would expect to find in a stout beer. So it’s a lot like a snake bite. That’s when you mix Guinness and Magners together. It’s cool because it’s malty and roasty and has that Guinness flavor but is still light and crisp.
*Listen below to hear more about Sociable’s ciders.
Would you ever do other flavors, like pear or berry?
The toughest thing is it’s tough to source pear in Minnesota. So I would certainly, [if we could get a consistent source of fruit.] The great thing about making pear cider, or perrys, is pears have a lot of tannin, which is really important for the body of a cider. [The need for tannin and body] is the reason why we started brewing adjuncts into all of our ciders. We do have some berry infusions. We actually have an excellent cranberry recipe, [so] we’re working on sourcing cranberries in the fall. We have a smoked apple product with some smoked malt in it [called “Burnout.] The idea came from a collaboration product we did with Jace Marti down at Schell’s last season. But we just killed the last keg of that so we have another batch cooking. We actually changed the malt to have some peat smoke in it, so it’s nice and peat-y. It’s really strange [in a really good way.] Smoked ciders are not really a thing here. But those are all things that are kind of within our wheelhouse, but the sky is the limit.
You have beer on the menu as well. Tell me about the beer you brew.
We brew regular old traditional beer. Our head brewer is Mike Willaford. He used to work at Surly Brewing Co. He pretty much runs the beer program based on how he’s feeling in the morning. We usually have two to three beers on tap. We don’t distribute them and we don’t have any intent to distribute them. The reason we have them on tap is because the goal for this business is to convince people that cider doesn’t have to be a four letter word. And if someone was drug here by their girlfriend, boyfriend or their significant other because they are a cider drinker only, they are less likely to put up a fight if they know there is beer here.
Do a lot of people come here to order the beer you have on tap?
You’d be shocked if you knew how many people come in here and order the Pale Ale, or the light lager or whatever we have on and we say “You should try this.” [And] by the time they leave [they] are crushing Freewheeler. My bar tenders know if someone orders a beer and they look like they’re not a cider drinker it always comes with a cider taster. And the idea there is we want to teach people about this and we want to people to know about it. I hear 40 times a week, “I don’t drink cider, but I really like your stuff.” So, that could be either really good or really bad. That could mean that potentially I have a lifelong customer, or they are saying “For stuff that blows you’re pretty good.” I don’t know if we just won a race against a bunch of one-legged men or if that is actually a compliment. But I take it as meaning we’re doing something that is a little bit more accessible.
You mentioned the tasters, but how else you try to convince someone to try a hard cider?
[For beer drinkers] we have a lot of things that we think bridge the gap from traditional craft beer flavors to something that is a little bit lighter in flavor and a little bit higher in acidity. Like our hopped cider, Hop-A-Wheelie, for example. Hoppy is a characteristic that a lot of craft beer drinkers are really crazy about. That sells like crazy with the craft beer crowd that come in here. For someone who doesn’t like the taste of alcohol, our stuff doesn’t taste boozey. It’s very drinkable. I think it’s excellent. I mean, I’m biased. But it doesn’t taste like motor oil. It tastes great! We want to capture that open minded consumer. And that doesn’t just have to be craft beer drinker, it can be wine drinkers any of those people [willing to try something new] because everything that we do is very unique and different. We have all sorts of odd flavors and fun things and we want people that are willing to kind of experiment with those things because that’s kind of what makes this so fun
How about the people who have tried the cider products available but find them unappealing?
I think it’s all about tasting the right product. It’s like saying, “I don’t like wine because I don’t think Franzia tastes good.” I would really try to encourage them to try some of these crafts ciders; they don’t necessarily have to be mine. But we do make a lot of things that are accessible to the craft beer drinker [or the person that might have a negative view of cider.] The best thing I can say is come give it a shot. We don’t make sweet ciders. When people ask us for sweet ciders we usually pour them root beer. We just don’t do that. And sometimes you feel like, “Man, am I just beating my head against the wall fighting the good fight?” because we know most of the suburban consumers that are drinking [a lot] of angry orchard would wave in anything we put in front of them if it had that kind of residual sugar. But that’s not really in our philosophy. And it’s not really what we’re trying to do. I’m never going to make something that I don’t like to drink and I think that this is just the way that we stay true to ourselves.
What would you say is the biggest obstacle facing the growth of craft cider?
[Visibility.] If you go to a bar that has good craft beer selection they’ll maybe have one tap that has cider on, and it’s usually the macro cider because it’s cheap and you can sell it at a premium. We’re never going to be that low-cost option. It’s just not the case. The same way Indeed will never be the low cost option, or Furious will never be the low cost option. I say that because you go to the west coast and those places would never think of putting on a juice concentrate cider because they are a little bit more progressive in their tap selection. Like with sour beers. You can’t go to a craft beer bar [on the coasts] and not find a sour beer on tap. There’s like eight places in Minneapolis that have a sour on. I have this theory about pop culture in the Midwest. I really truly feel like we’re always the last person to the party but when we get there, we really rock. Like we came to party. We’re an hour and a half late, but we came to party. I mean [our legislative environment made us] 20 years late to craft beer party and similarly we’re way behind on cider.
So, what do you hope to see change within the cider, or beer, market as you grow?
I hope to see a general maturation of beer selection and the beer consumer in general. I think there is a lot of room to grow in Minnesota. We’re already a pretty good craft beer market despite the fact that we’re so late to it. But I think we’re going to see more bars that are offering a wider, more complete portfolio of things. I think with that you’re going to start to see people explore more flavors. I think sour beers are going to be huge, which is awesome. I think with that we’re going to start to see people branching out, and hopefully that includes cider in some of their choices as well.
You touched on it briefly in your last answer, but how do you think that craft cider fits into the craft beer world?
It’s going to be interesting to see because there are actually 13 producers in Minnesota that make cider, but almost all of them are wineries first. With the exception of us and one startup they are all wineries first. We’re not in the wine business, we don’t have a farm. We’re cider makers. And I think it’s going to be interesting to see how those guys that already have a vested interest in cider are going to present their product, how they are going to package their product and all of those things. In my estimation, the trend on the west coast has been a convergence of the cider and the beer market. The way that I see that is it’s making the segment of craft beverages a larger portion of the total market. You hear rumblings of worry in the Minnesota market “Oh, cider is going to take away from the beer sales.” I don’t really think that is the case. I think that we end up bringing more “non-craft” people in with the stuff we’re making. To the naysayers who say cider is going to take away from the craft beer, I say craft beer skews heavily male and often neglects half of the population. Let’s try and start offering product lineups that it don’t have to be all big scary triple IPA swhere you drink one of them and your hammered. Let’s make it a little bit more accessible.
Definitely. I think people are wanting more accessible flavors to enjoy along with the big and bold. So, to finish out the interview, without using “apples” or “sociable”, define your taproom is one word.
The qualifier there is being different. I love that phrase because being different in Minnesota means that it’s not any good. It’s a very passive aggressive way of saying “I don’t like it.” But for us we really embrace being different. The product that we’re offering is unique and it’s unique by design. When people say, “Oh that’s different!”, I take that as a huge compliment.