Sociable Cider Werks – not what you may think.
There are a lot of misconceptions about northeast Minneapolis’ new hotspot, Sociable Cider Werks. Despite their popularity, many craft beer drinkers seem to misunderstand their license, their product, and their entire concept. I sat down with co-founder Jim Watkins to talk about the new venture, the tasty cider, and his plans for the future.
When I was first asked by a few readers to investigate Sociable Cider, the place had barely opened their doors. Business began on Black Friday – 11/29 – and they were at their goal operating capacity about one month after that. Considering that Sociable has only been in full operation since the end of December, business is booming. It was about time for me to make a few visits.
This was a question I was dying to ask Jim, and that started us down the path of cider-making in the United States.
If you have tasted the cider at Sociable, you know that it is not the typical overly-sweet, falsely-apple stuff of your local liquor store. Jim Watkins and Wade Thompson created the product out of the desire for balanced and authentic ciders of more traditional character. They wanted to offer ciders that taste less like a Tootsie Pop and more like a refreshing, bittersweet product that craft beer lovers could relate to.
Being craft beer lovers themselves, Jim, Wade, and friends experimented with cider-making and investigated ways to craft a beverage more akin to ones found in Europe. One of the first homemade ciders they tried was made from Haralson apples and Champagne yeast by Wade’s father. Despite the numerous apple varieties available in the Midwest, Haralson included, the type of apples they were looking for, called “bittersharp”, were nowhere to be found.
Bittersharp apples are “prize for cidermakers. They’re pretty much the only cider apples that contain all of the necessary components of cider: sugar, acidity, tannins. These apple varieties have been a staple of British cidermaking since the 17th century.” —Cider Apple Guide
Historically, Minnesota used to be full of them. But during the time of prohibition many of these apple trees were uprooted, never to be replaced. Therein lies the first problem for those looking to create traditional cider: missing the most important ingredient.
Seeing it as a challenge, however, Jim and Wade went on to determine what could replace some of the bitter and tannic portions of a bittersharp apple’s flavor profile. That is, in part, why they began making ciders with some components of beer. They made ciders with a portion of wort (the precursor to beer, pre-yeast), with bittering hops, and also experimented with sorghum, a grain that produces a lot of bitterness.
Another reason they decided to use brewer’s yeast and grains is because of the wide range of flavors and possibilities beyond those of standard American cider. Because of the use of grains in the cider, it is technically and legally called “graff”, but that isn’t a term you will see at Sociable (it is also why I haven’t used it in writing this).
“We find that it just confuses people,” says, Jim. “We have people asking about ‘straight cider’ or ‘beer cider’ when in reality we just want to produce a great product that people enjoy”.
The process was complex – it took many attempts to perfect the ratio of wort to apple juice, a ratio which had to be completely re-calculated when sorghum was used as the grain. A fine balance was finally found between wort and cider to create a well-rounded flavor with contributions from the grain, the apples, the yeast, and in the case of some of their ciders, hops. It should be noted that beverages made with sorghum are gluten-free.
All of the apple juice used at Sociable comes from Pepin Heights, an orchard in Lake City that produces vast volumes of notable apples. It is pressed in Lake City and transported to Minneapolis by a truck that is meticulously washed between deliveries. The same blend is used for all the ciders.
Sociable Cider Werks serves beer, cider made with sorghum, and cider made with malted barley. Because all of their beverages contain some sort of grain, their license is that of a brewer. One perk of this type of license is that Sociable can have a taproom and serve cider and beer on-site. They can sell growlers, too.
I told Jim that some have the idea that Sociable chose to add grain to their cider as a way of obtaining a brewer’s license, something that is believed to be easier and cheaper than a winemaking one. Some in the industry question whether they also saw the appeal of a taproom and only decided to make cider using grain as a means to this end.
Jim regrets that there is a lack of understanding about what it is that they are making. When the cider is canned, something that may happen within the next 4 to 5 weeks, Sociable is not allowed to used the word “cider” on the packaging, he explains. “They will be labeled very simply. The Broken spoke will be called ‘Stout Apple’.”
The Freewheeler (above, right) is the sweetest of the ciders – some juice is used to backsweeten after fermentation producing a more pronounced apple flavor – and will appeal to those accustomed to Crispin and the like. The Chopper is a cider that contains hops. Both of these use sorghum.
One of their most recent beers, a cranberry sour, is a refreshingly tart and beautifully pink creation that demonstrates how much brewer Niko Tonks pushes the boundaries of a typical microbrewery. Expect a very wide selection of both beer and cider on your next visit, including one mulled cider for the recent frigid temps.
I also enjoyed the Broken Spoke (pictured in the trio above) – a mix of a dry stout and cider that will be one of their first canned selections.
Jim hopes that their cider will be seen as a natural extension of craft beer rather than an artificial and cloying thing foreign to most beer lovers.
Beer brewer Niko, left, and cider brewer and co-owner Jim, right.
Big thanks to Jim for the cider education and the private look at the place.
To learn more about bittersharp apples and cider-making, click here.