This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Tom White.
INTERVIEWED NOVEMBER 23, 2015
AT BEGYLE BREWING – CHICAGO
If you’re a beer fan, you already know about the explosive growth of the craft industry. Heck, with over 4,000 breweries now in operation in the US, you can bet there’s one not too far from your front door. But often overlooked amidst the bevy of beverage options available is the craft cider, beer’s apple-centric distant cousin. A long time favorite of drinkers in northern Europe, cider is making quite the comeback in the United States, growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. That trend hasn’t gone unnoticed in Chicago, as places like Eris Cider House and cider focused pub, The Northman aim to open their doors in 2016.
However, beating them all to the punch was Broken Nose Cider Company, currently being made at Begyle Brewing in Northcenter. Founder Paul Cade–in a partnership with the owners of their host brewery–has brought dry, European-style cider to the Windy City. Like many a Chicagoan, we have much to learn about the world of cider. But this was something Paul was more than happy to help us with. One thing’s for sure — this is unlike any cider we’ve had before–and that’s a great thing.
Paul, this cider is fantastic and completely different from the Strongbows and Magners of the world. What are we working with here?
What we’re drinking right now is Old Hat, our flagship cider. There are really three flavor components that are available in cider. Sweetness, acidity, and bitterness, usually coming from tannins which typically are found in fruit skins. So you have those three things to play with. With American commercial apples, we’ve bred out acidity and bitterness, so a lot of cideries have just been relying on sweetness. I think you see that in the market. The vast majority are sweet, semi-sweet, partially dry. But we’re going to release a line of 100% dry cider—ciders that are without any sugars.
Just what makes a cider apple? These aren’t what you’ll find at the supermarket, right?
Well you can make cider from any apples. The thing is, most of the apples that you’ll find in grocery stores are going to be lacking in acidity and bitterness.
And how is the cider making process fundamentally different from brewing beer?
Actually cider makers don’t brew at all, it’s kind of like wine making. The simplest way to think about it is that you press apples into apple juice, you take the juice, add yeast, and start fermentation. There’s a million ways to do that, but that’s the simplest way to describe it. All the sugars we have in apples are super simple sugars, mostly fructose and glucose. So those are all available for yeast to eat. When you ferment a cider out, it’s naturally going to ferment to dryness with no residual sugar. In every beer, there’s at least a little bit of residual sugar because there are a lot of complex sugars that the yeast can’t digest. But in apples, we don’t have any of that. So when you do want to have a sweet cider, generally what happens in the US, is people ferment to dryness–just like we’re doing–then they put sugar back in. That’s called back-sweetening. We’re not going to do any of that. So I think that’s one of the problems we have here. How do you make an interesting cider that isn’t just relying on sweetness? That’s where our kind of challenge came in.
Do they face these same challenges in the cider producing regions of Europe?
The Europeans have been making cider for a lot longer than we have, and they’ve maintained their cider tradition a lot better. There are still farmers all over Europe–especially in England, France, and Spain–that are growing apples specifically to make cider. Here, we don’t grow apples that we intend to make cider with, for the most part. There were some very fore-thinking farmers in the 80’s and 90’s that were planting apple varieties that were specially designed for cider.
You make a good point there, because unlike a crop of hops or grain which can grow in a year or so, an apple tree obviously takes longer.
If you’re talking about dwarf trees, you might get some fruit the third year. The fifth year you’ll probably get a good crop. But if you’re doing fully grown trees, you’re talking 15 years at least. So yeah, there’s a lot of forethought there. The other issue is, with a traditional apple tree, all the pretty apples that you send to a grocery store, the farmer gets a good price for them. All the rest of the apples go to the juicer to make apple sauce or whatever else. But if you grow apples specifically for cider, none of them are being sold for a premium. So it’s also hard to do financially. I think it’s getting easier because there’s such demand for these apples among cider makers. I think it’s hard to say to farmers, “Hey, rip out these trees that are doing really well for you and take a chance on cider apples.”
So where are you sourcing the apples for the ciders we’re drinking today?
We use a blend of American apples that are pressed for us out in the Pacific Northwest. They ship us the must. Must is the technical term for juice that’s going to be fermented, the same as the wine industry. For Old Hat, we go out and pick crab apples from around the city. I’ve been doing this for about three years, so I have trees that I go back to. Crab apples are a wild variety of apple that people generally plant because they look pretty in the spring when they bloom. Then they make a mess in the fall. But since they haven’t been bred to be big, shiny, and sweet, generally they’re very small, acidic, and tannic. We use a small amount of those crab apples blended in with our must, then we ferment that. So we get a little bit of acidity and astringency, from those crab apples. But for the most part, most of the character comes from the fermentation. We’re really interested in getting a strong fermentation with a healthy yeast pitch. That’s where my focus has been in the last two years–really perfecting our ability to ferment apple juice well.
So you said you have trees in the city that you go back to. Are these trees growing in city parks or are they on people’s properties?
For the most part, they’re on my friends’ properties and I just go and knock on their doors every fall. I usually bring a bottle of cider made from the apples I took from them last year. People usually don’t mind!
‘Broken Nose’…what’s in a name?
The name comes from Nelson Algren, a Chicago author. He lived around Damen and Division in the 50’s, back when that was really the seedy part of the city. He wrote about that life. His most famous novel is The Man with the Golden Arm but he also wrote a book called Chicago: City on the Make. When I went to Europe, I wanted to bring some books because I knew I wouldn’t have any electricity, at least in Wales. In that book he says loving Chicago is “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” I loved that quote. I grew up in the city and really enjoyed the grittier, weirder aspects. I thought that reflected the city really well, and I thought it reflected the kind of cider that I like. Cider that maybe wasn’t the sweetest or most appealing, but it was definitely interesting and a little bit out there. A taste that had to be developed in order to really like it.
What else are you working on right now?
Our main focus in research and design right now is funky, wild fermentations. I talked a little about what you can get from apples, but you can also get a lot from fermentation too. In my mind, you can only do so much with a single strain of yeast. It can be refreshing, quenching, but I think the future of cider is using bacteria, and a blend of yeast to make really complex interesting ciders.
Is anyone else out there doing that?
Oh yea, it’s similar to doing sour beer. In 2012, I went to Europe for a season, starting out making cider in Wales. We were really in the middle of nowhere. The place is called Welsh Mountain Cider, and they make really really good cider.
What took you to Wales?
I’d long thought to myself, “Man, I really want to try making cider.” I’d had some great ciders from Europe. I was a homebrewer at the time and was really kind of disappointed in all the ciders I tried here in the US. So I thought maybe I’d just make my own. I started making my own… and they were pretty terrible. But somebody here should be able to make a good cider! It’s not that we just can’t do it here. I figured I’d go to the source.
I just emailed around to different cideries and asked, “Hey, do you mind if I come by and work with you for a season?” I found Welsh Mountain Cider in mid-Wales. They did a lot of foraging for their own apples around the mountains. They also had a little orchard they were starting. They had a big wooden press and milled and pressed the apples themselves. They’d put them in oak barrels and then they waited a year. That was it — they didn’t pitch any yeast or anything. It was just whatever was there was what fermented. And it was phenomenal cider.
That must have been quite the experience.
It was great. We were completely off the grid. They had no plumbing so it was just an outhouse. They had one solar powered radio that they listened to at night. But that was it.
Where else did your European travels take you?
Later I went to Normandy, France. I worked on a dairy farm there. In the morning and evening we milked cows, and during the day we made cider. There too, there was no pitching yeast, it was just whatever was on the apples. What ends up happening with a lot of wild fermentations here in the US, is that there’s one strain of saccharomyces that takes over that fermentation. But in Europe, these guys are using presses that their father’s father used. I mean, they rinse them off after, but really I think they’ve built cultures over hundreds of years that are living in the farm, on the press, and in the tanks. That’s where those really complex fermentations come from.
So you returned to the US with a ton of cider making knowledge. But how did you end up here at Begyle?
I came back from my trip to Europe and was all gung-ho about this. I was like, “I’m going to buy a little orchard in the middle of nowhere and make 100 gallons of cider a year and live off the land.” I thought about it and decided that’s not really what I want to do, lifestyle wise. But I felt like I had a really good grasp on cider making. It still took a while to develop these recipes but in the meantime I learned a lot.
So after I realized I didn’t want to move to a farm and make $300 a year, I thought to myself, “Well, I could do this on a larger scale.” I knew Brendan Blume [co-Founder at Begyle], we went to high school together. I called him out of the blue and said, “Hey, I heard your brewery is going really well. I make cider and I was wondering if I could come by and learn a little bit about your stainless steel, your fermentors, and your processes because I’m thinking about doing something similar.” We sat around, drank some cider, and I think they enjoyed it and were relatively impressed. They actually said to me, “We’ve always thought about making cider.” We decided that I’d teach them a little about making cider and they’d teach me about working on the fermentors. I started an internship here working in the cellar. I was cleaning tanks, transferring beers, and I said pretty explicitly that I had no interest in brewing. It didn’t translate to cider so it just wasn’t interesting to me.
And now you’ve partnered with them, yes?
After a little while I thought, isn’t it kind of silly if I go off and make my own cider and they make their own. Why don’t we just do cider together? They thought that was a good idea. That was a little over a year ago now. That’s when we applied for our federal winery license because cider is considered a wine. In September 2015, we received our federal winery license and state winery license and started producing cider here. Broken Nose was always a concept that I had.
Any plans for your own space?
We’re playing it by ear a little but I’ll be making it here until we can find a cider only space with a little taproom. There are some limitations as we’re working around Begyle’s schedule and we don’t do any wild fermentations here. We’re looking at spaces in the neighborhood now and hope to have something soon.
People obviously come to Begyle for beer first. Do you find there’s an education process when it comes to Broken Nose and cider in general?
Totally. One of the things I like to say is that cider shouldn’t taste like apples. Cider should taste like apples in the same way that wine tastes like grapes. More than anything else, the fermentation quality should come through. There is one way to get a naturally sweet cider which is called keeving. It’s a French method and it’s very hard to do. Very few people do it. But other than that, cider should be dry. It should be a little more champagne like.
How’s the reception been so far?
I’ve had very few people come in and say, “I do not want this.” I’ve had some be a little skeptical. But for the most part it’s been a really great reception. We try to talk to them about it and explain why we did it the way we did. But I’m lucky because I’m dealing mostly with people who come in here and have been drinking really great beer for a long time.
The word is out on a number of nearby cider-centric bars and restaurants opening around the city. How do you feel about these “competitors?”
I think it’s good. Here at Begyle, we look at people like Half Acre not as competition, but as growing the craft beer brand. I’m really receptive to anybody that’s making good cider that I can go and drink. When it becomes a little bit annoying to me, is when someone puts “dry” on the label and it’s actually sweet. Because then I say ours is dry and I look like an idiot. I think we should really be getting our vocabulary down.
What does Broken Nose look like in a year?
I hope that people look at our tap handles or bottles and say, “I know that this is going to be tasty,” whether they’ve had that particular one or not. I would really like to be pushing the envelope, and not just to do it. I’d like to make cider that’s like the cider I made in Europe because I haven’t had that here yet. I’d like people to experience that. I really have zero growth expectations. If we have to continue making cider out of Begyle and people enjoy it, that’s fine. If we become bigger than that, that’s great too. I just want to make sure I’m making cider that I’m proud of and people are enjoying.
What’s in your fridge at home?
Right now, it would be Brita water. I like the process of making alcohol, and the flavors of it, significantly more than I like getting drunk. So I don’t really drink a ton. If I drink a beer or cider at home, it’s for a special reason. The last beer I had at my house was Lips of Faith Le Terroir from New Belgium. If I’m drinking a beer, it’s pretty much going to be a sour beer. If I’m drinking a cider, it’s probably going to be a Tom Oliver cider.
Lastly, how would you briefly describe what Broken Nose is all about to someone you’ve just met?
I want to make interesting ciders, that’s probably the best way to say it. For me, sweet is not interesting. Acidity and bitterness are pretty interesting. But once you get to the yeast and bacteria, that’s where you get really interesting stuff. I want to make a cider that’s interesting to people, and in particular me. The pallet I’m trying to please is mine, and I hope other people really dig that as well.
Photography by Robert Battista.
Cheers to Paul for having us by and teaching us so much about cider making over a couple of his creations. Stop into Begyle’s beautiful taproom to sample a cider or three, as well as any of the many great Begyle beers on tap. Also keep an eye out for Broken Nose ciders at your local pub as they begin to expand distribution.