Hard apple cider is light, bright, crisp - and oh so misunderstood.
It dawned on me, soon after my first tasty swig of caramel apple Loon Juice, how truly misunderstood hard apple cider is. Maybe it was the Loon Juice speaking. Or maybe I’m just woefully ignorant.
But as I toured the Four Daughters Vineyard and Winery in Spring Valley earlier this week, I realized it wasn’t all my fault. There I learned, courtesy of cider maker Justin Osborne, that the alcoholic beverage suffers from a definitional problem: It is categorized as wine by the federal government - you have to get a wine license to make it - but is often sold as an alternative to beer at bars.
Here is another thing I didn’t know: Four Daughters sells more hard cider than wine, even though everything about Four Daughters, from its name to its amazing vineyards that surround the building, is suggestive of wine.
So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that first-time customers to Four Daughters are taken aback when they see hard cider sold on the premises, as if it’s not essential to what it does. “Hey, you’re serving Loon Juice. That’s cool!” And Osborne’s response is “No, we make it here.”
It’s not a challenge that is unique to Four Daughters. Even big-name hard ciders, such as Boston Beer Company’s Angry Orchard, are challenged by the lack of brand recognition. One web-based survey revealed that 37 percent of adults were unable to name a single cider brand. Translation: There’s a huge opportunity for cider to connect with consumers.
Four Daughters’ entrance onto the cider market three years ago has worked to its advantage. While demand for macro-cider brands such as Angry Orchard and Woodchuck has flattened out, that for craft cider is rising, Osborne said.
“Craft ciders are going up and macro ciders are going down,” he said.
Today, Four Daughter’s Loon Juice is sold in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Its operations are ramping up in Wisconsin. And Osborne dreams of cracking the Chicago market.
“If we can recreate even a fraction of our popularity that we have here,” Osborne said, “then we could do some cool things.”
Part of Loon Juice’s claim to fame and appeal is that the beverage isn’t just made from any old apple. It’s made from Honeycrisp apples, Minnesota’s state fruit.
“With wine, you have all these ideals. If you want to make the best wine, you have to start with the best grapes,” Osborne said. “I thought, ‘what would happen if you applied wine thinking to cider thinking?’ So I verified that there were enough Honeycrisp apples, and we started making just Honeycrisp cider.”
Osborne said that Loon Juice is popular in the Twin Cities, where it has 100 tap lines in bars and restaurants. Ironically, one place it has struggled to get the same traction and is in neighboring Rochester. Osborne is unsure why the discrepancy exists. One theory he’s heard is that Rochester people live in such nice houses that they don’t go out as much as their counterparts in the Twin Cities.
But the goal is to do better in Rochester.
“I would like Rochester to be proud of having one of the larger cideries in the entire region. I would like to be a bigger presence in Rochester,” Osborne said.
He notes that many Minneapolis breweries have been around for 10 years to 15 years. Four Daughters has hardly been around the block. “We’ve been putting our Loon Juice in the marketplace for three years. We are very young. It takes a long time to infiltrate,” Osborne said.
I’ll be there to help, one glass of cider at a time.