The Apple of My Eye

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Story by Dave Eckert, @eatsanddrinkswithdave

You might not realize it, but apples, from hard cider to Eau de vie, are playing a larger and larger role in the alcoholic beverages we’re consuming these days. Let’s focus first on hard cider. Just seven short years ago, about 1.5 million liters of hard cider was sold in the U.S. annually. Currently, that number has jumped to 2 million liters, which adds up to a 25% increase! There are nearly a thousand cider makers in the country. And the Kansas City metro can boast its share.

My first stop was a tasting of the cider produced at Somerset Ridge Vineyard and Winery in Miami County, Kansas. Co-owner Dennis Reynolds and I shared a glass (I had two actually) of his lovely wine-like cider – a relatively new product for Somerset Ridge and one growing in popularity. “So, the interesting thing about cider is that you have two types of people making it – the beer guys, the breweries, and places like us, wineries. Breweries tend to make a lower alcohol, yeastier cider, and wineries make it in a drier, higher alcohol-style – more like wine,” Reynolds shared.

Not surprisingly, Reynolds’ cider follows the model of the latter. It is delicious – perfect for the days and nights of a Kansas City Indian Summer. This will be only the third year Reynolds and Somerset have made a hard cider. Reynolds sources his apples from Louisburg Cider Mill, a neighbor of Somerset Ridge. They get a juice blend of several different varieties of culinary apples each year depending on how each variety fared in that season. Reynolds says the partnership works well for Louisburg, Somerset, and his customers. “Our cider is lower in alcohol than our wines, and it’s sparkling, so people like that. It’s also dry, so it’s really refreshing. You want it to be crisp and refreshing, just like an apple. We think it’s great for the summer and the demand for it is definitely growing,” Reynolds told me.

They make two hard ciders at KC Wineworks, located in the heart of Kansas City’s Crossroads District, and they are quite different in style, flavor, and aroma. I had them both (of course) with co-owner Lindsay Lowery in a socially distanced setting. It was a close call, but I preferred the Crossroads Apfel to the Fountain City Cider. Although they were both quite tasty, the Crossroads Apfel is higher in alcohol and more reminiscent of a wine. As with Reynolds and Somerset Ridge, Lowery says KC Wineworks also source their apples locally. “We use mainly Jonathans. We’re able to get enough tannin structure from the seeds and the skins as well as enough sugar from the juice to produce what we feel is a pretty amazing cider,” Lowery stated.

This will be the fourth year of hard cider production at KC Wineworks, but the first for the lower alcohol, seltzer-style Fountain City Cider. Lowery says there’s no doubt that their ciders are becoming more and more popular, especially now that you can grab a four pack of cans of the Fountain City Cider and hit the road. “We think cans really are the future. They can go anywhere that glass can’t. These are great for camping. They’re terrific for float trips, hiking, you name it, just getting out and about,” Lowery exclaimed.

At Ray County, Missouri’s Of the Earth Farm and Distillery, Jim Pierce takes his apples to even greater alcoholic heights. Of the dozen or so spirits Pierce produces, two of them are apple-based – Of the Earth’s signature apple brandy and a Pommeau, an Eau de vie made in the style of a Northern France liqueur. “I was introduced to Eau de vie, French for “Water of Life,” at a Fruit Growers Conference back in 2008. I can still remember tasting that cherry Eau de vie. I took a sip, opened my mouth, and breathed in. It was like being in the middle of a cherry orchard. Then, I swallowed. There was no burn, just a tremendous depth of flavor and complexity. I had never tasted anything like it. I knew I had to pursue it” Pierce told me. “Several years later, our flagship Apple Brandy was born.” The Pommeau was added later along with multiple other fruit and grain-based spirits. 

So, what does the future hold for Of the Earth Farm and Distillery? For one, more apples. Pierce has planted several new apple varieties in front of the distillery and tasting room, and this year, they are bearing fruit. Pierce and his wife had hoped to host chefs’ dinners in the new orchard, but Covid-19 had different plans. There’s always next year where there will sure to be more delicious spirits from Of the Earth Farm and Distillery. Cheers!

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