KC’s ‘thirst for cider’ has local makers playing with bourbon barrels, cocktails
In hindsight, making cider was an obvious choice for Jeff Means of KC Cider Co.
He and the company’s two co-founders, Brad Means (his brother) and Trafe Brewer, were all home brewers. They were each enamored with complex ciders from the Pacific Northwest. And they understood the cider-making process.
So when Jeff Means and Brewer took a motorcycle trip through Missouri in the fall of 2016, just at the start of apple harvest, it all came together.
“(Trafe) was like, why haven’t we done this?” Means recalls. “We stopped at a brew shop on the way back and threw some buckets on the back of our bikes, got some apples and pressed them.”
Why not indeed? Alcoholic, or hard, cider was a Colonial mainstay, and most orchards grew apples specifically for making it.
Consumption declined in the 19th century, but cider remained common enough until Prohibition, when production ceased and orchards were razed. Recovery came only recently, when U.S. thirst for all things craft surged.
Kansas City now has at least seven craft cider producers. Each has its own approach, although their ciders are all lightly effervescent, range from dry to semi-sweet, fall between 5-1/2 percent and 8 percent alcohol by volume and are usually gluten-free.
They’re adventurous, too. Fresh apple flavor is usually at the forefront, but you can just as easily order ciders infused with hops or fruits, aged in beer or whiskey barrels or crafted into cocktails.
KC Cider Co., whose fourth partner is Chris Meyers, uses Mosaic, Citra and Ekuanot hops to add citrus notes and an IPA-like character to its So Hopped Right Now. It also makes the dry Prohibition-Style Dry Cider; a grapefruit hopped cider called The Tropics-Release #1 that Grinder’s Pizza in the Crossroads uses in cocktails; the cucumber-mint Disencumbermint; and the deliciously balanced pineapple-coconut.
“We’re beer brewers in the way we approach it, and we’re not afraid to break away from what this is classically supposed to be,” Means says. “We’re really willing to experiment.”
Even when KC Cider Co. adheres to its recipes at its production space in the old Goetz Brewery in St. Joseph, Mo., batches develop differently. Means embraces its dynamic nature.
“No pour will ever taste the same,” he says. “This is a live, organic product.”
If that sounds a bit like winemaking, it is. Apples are pressed and the juice fermented, just like wine. Cider’s even regulated like a wine.
Unlike wine, though, the best varietals — high-sugar, acidic or tannic apples with names like Golden Russet and Brown Snout — for making cider are hard to come by.
“There are a 1,000 apple varieties cultivated around the world, and a couple hundred are really designed for cider,” says James Lowery, winemaker at KC Wineworks and its sister company, KC Ciderworks, in the Crossroads Arts District. “No one is growing those.”
That’s why Lowery’s growing his own. He planted Wickson trees, a crabapple variety high in both sugar and acid, on one-half acre at KC Wineworks’ vineyard near Macon. They should begin producing in about 2020, but he doesn’t mind waiting.
“That’s back to the whole winery side of it. We’re used to growing our own,” says Lowery, who discovered cider while working in New Zealand’s wine industry before coming to Kansas City.
For now, Lowery combines Jonathon and other Missouri apples for his Crossroads Apfel; the Reserve Series, which is aged in barrels that previously held Wicket & Peg bourbon; and seasonal ciders like hibiscus-orange and honey-ginger. Lowery also makes a Hopped Apfel, which will this year for the first time incorporate the Cascade, Chinook and transplanted wild hops he grows at the winery.
Hops are popular with cider makers because they add complexity to juice from dessert apples of the sort you find in grocery stores. But hopped ciders also appeal to beer drinkers like Kirk Berggren of KC Wine Co., a farm winery and event space in Olathe.
“I can’t brew beer, but I can make a hard cider because it follows the same fermentation process as wine,” he says.
Berggren buys apple juice from a Kansas orchard for his traditional-style cider, but then uses “beerier” yeasts and slow, cold fermentation to impart a bit of crisp, hoppy character. KC Wine Co. sells cider on tap and in bottles at its tasting room, as well as cider slushies. Berggren plans to up cider output as much as he can while still using Kansas apples.
“It keeps the money local, and I can get the product I want,” he says.
Cindy and Dennis Reynolds of Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery near Paola also went local with their cider by collaborating with longtime neighbor Louisburg Cider Mill in Louisburg.
“It’s good to support other local growers,” Cindy Reynolds says.
Somerset Ridge’s dry Lucky Dog Hard Cider earlier this year won a silver medal in the Seattle Cider Awards. It’s available at the winery’s tasting bar in Paola, at Somerset Ridge’s newly opened Kansas City wine and cider bar near 135th and Holmes streets and at area retailers and Whole Foods stores.
KC Bier Co. sources its base from Louisburg Cider Mill, too, although that’s proved something of an annual adventure.
“We rent a U-Haul and then load big containers onto it, drive to Louisburg and fill them with fresh, (sweet) cider hot off their press,” says KC Bier Co. head brewer Karlton Graham.
He ferments that into his Apfel Cider, a slightly sweet cider sold at the brewery’s Bierhalle and Biergarten in Waldo. KC Bier in early August released its Birne Cider, made from Bosc pears. It’s available on-site now and will be at KC Bier’s Oktoberfest celebration.
“It’s traditional in Germany,” Graham says.
KC Bier’s ciders are seasonal; when they run out, they’re gone until the following year. That’s the case for many local ciders, including Boulevard Brewing Co.’s City Market Cider. The crisp and sweetly tart cider made with Jonathan and Fuji apples quickly sold out in 2017. Boulevard will make it again sometime this autumn, as soon as they can buy their juice from Sibley Orchard in Sibley, Mo.
It’s worth the wait, though, says Jeremy Danner, Boulevard’s ambassador brewer.
“Everyone who works at Boulevard loves beer, but we don’t drink beer all the time,” Danner says. “There’s a vocal contingent around the brewery that also loves cider.”
So do Kansas Citians. Demand for Cinder Block Brewery’s ciders has increased steadily since its opening five years ago. The brewery now offers them on tap in its tasting room and at a handful of restaurants in Kansas City, Johnson County and Lawrence.
Cinder Block regularly sells a dry and slightly tannic French Cider and a tart-sweet English Cherry cider made with fresh cherry juice. Seasonal offerings include its Black Squirrel Cider, made by aging cider in the whiskey barrels that were used for maturing Cinder Block’s Black Squirrel Russian Imperial Stout beer, and the Moscow Mule, blueberry and raspberry tea ciders featured at an event earlier in August.
That’s all good, says KC Cider Co.’s Jeff Means.
“There’s enough room in the market for us and all these other people,” Means says. “By no means have we satiated the thirst for cider.”
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance cocktails and spirits writer. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Cider in cocktails
Apple cider of the fermented, alcoholic sort is perfect for autumn cocktails, and it matches well with everything from whiskey and rum to gin, tequila, vodka and even red wine. But which cider? It can be a hard decision, given that Kansas City now boasts seven local craft cider makers.
The only way to pick a favorite is to taste them, says Ria Kourri, assistant general manager at Grinder’s Pizza in the Crossroads.
“There are so many things out there, you’ve just got to try them,” says Kourri, who always keeps a range of ciders in stock.
Kourri is at the moment especially taken with KC Cider Co.’s The Tropics-Release #1, a hopped cider infused with fresh grapefruit, that she combines with mezcal for a Paloma riff called the El Camino.
“It works perfectly,” says Kourri, bringing out the grapefruit even though “it still has that essence of cider.”
Makes 1 drink
1-1/2 ounces Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce agave nectar
5 ounces KC Cider Co.’s The Tropics-Release #1 Cider*
Smoked chile salt and lime wedge for rimming the glass (optional, see note)
Lime wheel, for garnish
If a salted rim is desired, prepare a Belgian tulip or other 10-ounce glass by using the lime wedge to moisten the rim, and then dip the rim into the smoke chile salt, pressing slightly so the salt sticks. Set aside.
Combine mezcal, lime juice, agave nectar and cider in a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake. Fill prepared tulip glass partway with ice, strain cocktail into it and garnish with lime wheel.
Note: to make smoked chile salt, combine equal parts smoked salt and chile powder of choice
*Or any dry apple cider and a splash of fresh grapefruit juice
Where to find local craft cider
The good news? There’s more local craft cider available in Kansas City than ever before. The bad news? It can be hard to find. Many rotate seasonally, are produced in limited amounts or only available on tasting room taps.
A general guide is below, but fans should also check out Untappd.com and cider-makers’ websites and Facebook pages. When in doubt, call and ask where to find it.
KC Bier Co., kcbier.com
Available seasonally on tap at KC Bier’s Bierhalle and Biergarten and at its Oktoberfest celebration.
KC Ciderworks, kcwineworks.com
On tap at the tasting room and select area bars, restaurants and breweries; 750mL bottles are sold at retailers including Cellar Rat.
KC Cider Co., kcciderco.com
On tap only at Colony KC, Grinders Pizza in the Crossroads and other bars and restaurants listed on its website; growlers can also be filled at some Mike’s Wine and Spirits locations.
Boulevard Brewing Co., boulevard.com
Seasonal release is available on draft and in four-packs; watch Boulevard’s website (especially its Beerfinder tool) and social media to see when and where it will be.
Cinder Block Brewery, cinderblockbrewery.com
On tap at the brewery’s tasting room and in select restaurants in Kansas City, Johnson County and Lawrence.
KC Wine Co., kcwineco.com
On tap and in bottles only at the winery’s tasting room.
Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery, somersetridge.com
Available on tap and in bottles at the winery’s tasting room, the Somerset Wine & Cider Bar and some area restaurants, retailers and grocery stores.