We recently sat down with Jim Watkins, co-owner of Sociable Cider Werks, upon the businesses' one year anniversary to discuss small batch ciders, the challenges of year-round local produce sourcing in Minnesota, environmentally-friendly business practices and why juice concentrate diminishes the quality of a great hard cider. Over the last year, Sociable has become one of the major players in the seemingly ever-expanding NE Minneapolis brewing district.
Sociable makes three flagship ciders that are available year-round (Freewheeler, Hop-a-Wheelie and Spoke Wrench), as well as one-off infusions and barrel aged creations. Their delicious products can be found throughout the Twin Cities at local watering holes and restaurants, as well as on draft in their own taproom. Look for Sociable Cider in cans at Twin City liquor stores in 2015!
What is the main goal of your operation?
We make great small batch ciders for the local craft beer community. We believe that hard ciders should be more than lightly alcoholic, made-from concentrate, sticky sweet apple juice boxes that currently dominate the market. We adamantly believe that fresh tasting ciders come from fresh-pressed apples, not concentrates.
Tell us about your operation - how long has it been in existence and on what kind of scale? Has the business changed scale since its initial inception?
We just celebrated our one-year anniversary over Thanksgiving week! It's been an absolute whirlwind of a year. We went from a two person operation to a ten person operation in the blink of an eye. We started with just our taproom, then added bar and restaurant draft accounts, and are on the cusp of firing up our brand new canning machine, which means Sociable Cider is weeks away from being available on liquor store shelves!
How did you become involved with this work and why do you do it?
The business started in a garage, and we continue to do it because we love it!
I was born in Burnsville and Wade is from Rushford, MN. Wade grew up on a family farm growing corn and soybeans. I grew up on a horse farm where we leased to people who wanted to board their horses there.
Wade and I met at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. After college, we were roommates and moved out to New York City and both worked for investment banks. I worked for Citibank and Wade worked for Piper Jaffray. We both hated it and wanted to move back home. We decided we were both pretty over wearing ties. We talked a lot about starting our own business and had no idea what we wanted it to be. Once we found ourselves back in Minneapolis we started home brewing. We picked up cider from Wade’s father-in law who had been making it for twenty plus years with pressed apples. So we started making our own, tweaking it and developing it.
Was Wade’s father-in-law pretty integral to the first few home brews?
Yeah, he gave us a lot of tips and provided us with a ton of great old literature, cider-making books and ample feedback. After the initial batches, Wade and I started experimenting with adding in bittering components, including sorghum and hops.
Were the addition of hops to your products primarily because of the bitterness aspect that you wanted to achieve?
Yeah. Great ciders have three major flavor components – sweet, tart and bitter. The key to a really well balanced cider is obtaining that bitterness. There’s no real commercial infrastructure for bitter apples that are used in brewing in the U.S. During Prohibition there was no reason for U.S. growers to continue growing bitter apples, so they began disappearing since they aren’t good for anything except producing cider. In the industry they’re called spitters because you want to spit them out as soon as you take a bite since they’re so bitter. We’re working with Pepin Heights Orchard to develop a 40-acre plot of bitter apples that we’ll be able to blend into all of our batches. But, for the most part we’re trying to figure out how to achieve that bitterness in our products without shipping bitter apples in from the East or West coasts. For us, we really liked the idea of continuing to source locally and developing partnerships with growers who can grow bitter apples in Minnesota.
In the homebrewing community apple graffs are really popular, where you blend apples and beer wort and ferment them together. We started home brewing graffs and had a lot of fun doing it. It really allows for a lot of flexibility.
Tell us about your operations and business model.
Cider lives in a world between beer and wine. Our process has a lot in common with wine making, but the way people drink ciders has a lot in common with beer making. As a result, craft cider gets a full gamut of producers that fall all along that wine/beer continuum. While (or maybe because) both Wade and I grew up on farms, we built our business around a model that more closely focuses on brewing rather than growing. That said, we source our ingredients from the best growers/farmers/packers/malters in the area including our apple partners, Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City, MN and our malt partners the Brewers Supply Group in Kasota, MN.
What type of brewing is this and what do you focus on?
We forsake using apple juice concentrate as a base for our products and instead use only fresh pressed apples to make quality dry ciders for the local craft beer crowd. If you like Angry Orchard, Crispin, Smith and Forge or Zima then chances are, our style of cider may not blow your hair back. On the flip side, if you enjoy drinking a wide range of craft beers and love that sour beers and lambics are just hitting the scene in Minneapolis, then we are the guys for you!
Ciders made from concentrate are not particularly artful. Traditionally, high-end cider makers have been apple growers first. Cider brewing is much more like a wine making process - the flavor is largely dependent on when you pick the fruit, which is going to impact the acidity, and how you age it. The whole process is very similar to wine making just with a focus on the tree and its fruit as opposed to the vine.
The flip side is that we treat the process more like a craft brewing process. You’ll be hard pressed (no pun intended) to find craft brewers who also grow their own grain because it’s difficult to be a brewer and a grain farmer. So in terms of our process, the focus is on using apples that are grown by experts to make the best possible craft made product. We source all Midwestern apples.
Are you able to source apples for your products from the Midwest year-round?
It’s tough to do that, so we run a very seasonal business – inventory build followed by inventory burn is our style. We experimented with putting some apples in cold storage last year with middle of the road success, so we’re still working on ironing that out. The big thing is that we’re lacking the necessary infrastructure in the Midwest to pack apples year round.
Out West, the infrastructure is excellent. You can get a fresh Washington apple twelve months out of the year. The reason for that is because there’s a tremendous amount of infrastructure in place for picking and storing apples there the same way that Idaho has infrastructure for potatoes. That infrastructure doesn’t really exist here because the Minnesota apple consumer doesn’t demand local apples twelve months out of the year, so as a result you can only get them for three to four months during the harvest season.
Do you think the lack of infrastructure for year round apple growing and storage in Minnesota has more to do with supply and demand or the colder weather here?
I think it’s all driven by demand. I think that if people demanded Minnesota produce year round, then we’d be able to source Minnesota-grown apples for our products year-round. It also has a lot to do with the weather, but there are places that have equally unfavorable winter weather that still have farmers markets operating year round. A majority of Minnesota’s farmers markets don’t operate year round even though the technology for fruit storage exists. And, because Minnesota has never been a major producer of fruit, we’ve always relied on shipping it in from the West Coast.
The more sustainable thing to do would be to build the fruit storage infrastructure here so that we can support farmers and a harvest that will carry us through the seasons. Michigan has this infrastructure in place a little bit and Washington State certainly has it as well. Around 80 percent of the United States’ apple production occurs within three counties in Washington State. The cost impact and environmental impact of shipping apples from across the country doesn’t make sense, but for a long time it has been a lot easier because of the infrastructure. We have a great apple breeding program at the University of Minnesota where they do a lot of cross-pollination to come up with new sweet, tart, marketable apples and then those get rolled out to the small farmers around the state. But, we still don’t have the infrastructure in place to become a large apple producing state.
How did you hook up with your local apple producer, Pepin Heights?
We found out about Pepin Heights after having conversations with some people from the University of Minnesota. Pepin funds a lot of the University’s apple breeding research.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Utilizing our equipment all year when access to locally grown apples has such a tight picking and pressing window.
What have you been the most proud of during your initial year?
Our bourbon barrel aged Freewheeler. We are in the process of scaling up our barrel aging program. This was our first shot at it, and boy did it turn out well!
Your tag line is “Decidedly different, delightfully sociable”. How is Sociable Cider Werks decidedly different?
There’s literally nobody in the country that does what we do. Our products don’t focus on residual sugars; instead we focus on robust flavor profiles. Cider companies that use juice concentrate tend to produce products containing very little nuanced flavors.
Do you consider your business to be environmentally conscious?
One of the real decisions we had to make was whether or not to press our own apples, but we also wanted to be near people. The environmental impact of shipping apples cross-country is huge, which is why we stick to sourcing them locally. One of the reasons we work with Pepin Heights is because they do our apple pressing so we don’t have the cost and environmental impact of shipping the added weight of full apples. The spent apple pulp left over from pressing goes to feeding Lake City livestock.
We’re also planning on packaging our products in cans because urban recycling centers are driven by aluminum costs. It costs more for them to pick up cardboard and glass than they make back, whereas aluminum values are high enough that recycling them actually generates revenues for urban recycling programs.
We’ve gotten some flack for not offering customers glass growlers, which I think are highly disposable. Usually, people get three to four fills out of them before they break or are discarded. Instead, we offer stainless steel, reusable growlers. They’re a little bit more expensive up front, but they look great and are infinitely reusable. They can also be used as water bottles (when you’re not using them for cider!).
We’re also in the process of switching over from having rotating food trucks outside the brewery to only using one resident food truck (The Curious Goat) that sources all of its food products locally and provides customers with only compostable consumables (i.e. plates, napkins, utensils, etc.). In the brewery, upwards of 95% of all the waste we generate is compostable. This past summer at our block party we also partnered with Eureka Recycling to host a zero waste event.
Finally, we’ve been kicking around the idea of switching our glycol chilling system to an open-air reservoir system that would pump glycol outside in the winter to rooftop reservoirs to be naturally cooled as opposed to using energy to run a compressor. We’ve also talked about putting solar panels on the roof, but we don’t own the building, so we’re a little hesitant to put money into that.
What qualities do you think it takes to be a brewer focused on local sourcing and production?
An unwavering commitment to quality. The juice concentrate option is so cheap, and easy from a sourcing perspective; I can see how so many people are tempted by it. We have to be pretty hard headed to stay true to the real thing even when sourcing our fruit comes with so many more challenges.
How can people support what you’re doing?
Come to the taproom to enjoy our wares, and of course ask for them when you are out and about! We have a waiting list for our ciders at bars and restaurants because our fans have been so vehement about asking for us by name. To grow this category of craft cider, we have to ask that it be grown. Otherwise it is way too easy for a bar to just go with whatever low end macro stuff their distributor is slinging.
Photographs by Minneapolis-based photographer Lauren Carpenter.