The cider cave is a narrow room split into three parts. Inside the entrance, a pallet of corny kegs and carboys of deep gold and straw-colored ciders sits opposite a stainless steel counter with lab equipment. In the middle of the room against the back wall sit two full, large egg-shaped plastic fermenters. At the far end of the room are pallets of white boxes filled with Keepsake’s cider varieties as they bottle condition, and three oak barrels they are using to age the Keepsake series.
“Every year, we’ll siphon off some of our cider, barrel age it until the next year, and then blend it with some of that year’s cider,” Bovino explains. “We’re not priming, but with the Keepsake [series], it’s just bone-ass dry and it’s really tannic and it’s got all that wood and whiskey. So having a little sweetness and some bubbles, we decided, was really the way to go.”
In keeping with their ethos of using basic natural ingredients in their cider, the Keepsake series is sweetened using honey from bees at Sogn Valley Orchards. “It’s more expensive, but I think we all agreed, these bees are pollinating some of the trees that we’re getting apples from in Sogn Valley, so we felt it was still in keeping with our values.”
Those values include a commitment to traditional methods of production, eschewing artificiality of any kind, and always striving to produce ciders of the utmost integrity. Above all, Keepsake seeks to let the apples speak for themselves in the cider.
“What the apple gives us, we’re going to go with,” says Watters.
“We don’t want every year [to say], ‘This is exactly what you’re going to get every single year, you know it’s going to taste like this,’” Bovino says. “There are some products that you can buy in the market that have got a recipe, and it’s going to be pretty much the same, and people like that consistency. Whereas, I think for us it’s really exciting to see what each year is going to bring.”
“We are interested in consistency in that we want to consistently reflect our local apples.” Watters continues. “So if one year it’s really, really sunny and dry, the apple’s going to taste different. Every year we’re going to try to consistently do our best to let the apples do the talking and give them everything we can, put our heart and soul in it—that’s what I can say we’ll consistently do. We think it will make a great cider, and if it’s not great cider we’ll take the loss. We’ll consistently put out a good product.”
To that end, each step of Keepsake’s process centers on bringing forth each apple’s flavor. After the apples are picked they are “sweated” or stored in a dry area for up to two weeks. During the sweat, apples continue to ripen and respire, losing some of their water content. But what is lost in water is gained in flavor and complexity as the apple’s starches break down into sugars.
Keepsake also differentiates itself from commercial brands by halting the fermentation process when the ideal natural sugar levels are reached for their Woodskeep Medium cider, instead of fermenting it dry and back sweetening with sugar. It requires extra attention, but Keepsake believes the resulting cider better reflects the apple’s natural flavors.
Keepsake’s Wild gives drinkers a taste of hard cider in its purest form. After pressing the apples, Watters and Bovino forgo sulfites and allow the natural yeasts found on the skins of the apples to ferment the juice into hard cider. The result is a darker cider with funky barnyard aromas and a woody, tannic apple flavor. The complexity is remarkable considering the hands-off approach to the process.
While the familiarity with hard cider is growing fast in the U.S. and in Minnesota, these types of wild ciders still aren’t widely known to consumers. “This is why our wild cider we’re pouring now is exciting, because we get to talk about [natural fermentation] and introduce people to something that they’d never expect to experience from a cider,” Bovino says.
There’s a wistful, childlike wonder in Watters and Bovino’s voices when listening to them talk about the cidery; the kind that sends you back to the first time you ever planted and watered a seed and watched a green tendril sprout from the soil. Sipping Keepsake’s cider here at the orchard reminds one of an obvious truth: beer, wine, and cider are first-and-foremost a product of the land, not the fermentation tank.
In part to translate the agricultural identity of their ciders to the market, the Keepsake team is selling the bulk of their cider through a CSA-like cider club. Sold in full- and half-shares, membership to the cider club includes quarterly drops of Keepsake’s flagship ciders, as well as exclusive ciders only available to the club.
Outside the cider club, Keepsake will have its ciders available at Town Hall Brewery on June 6 for Cider Fest, a ticketed tasting event that will feature some of the best ciders in Minnesota and the nation.
Find more information about Keepsake Cidery by visiting keepsakecidery.com.
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