Hard cider, when done right, can be as good as beer or wine. Better even. Think about what we’re working with here. Beer starts as starchy water. Wine starts as grape juice. Hard cider starts as apple juice. There are 7,000-plus apple varieties to choose from in various colors, shapes, and flavor profiles.
Further, apples thrive across America.
Cider was one of the most popular drinks in America from colonial times to the 20th century. In 1920, the 18th Amendment went into effect, Prohibition started, and cider was cast to the margins of drinking culture until the first half of this decade.
And now, this fall, the great American tradition of cider-making has come to metro Phoenix.
In September, a cidery called Cider Corps started distributing from Mesa. The cidery is run by brothers Josh and Jason Duren. The brothers craft an impressive line of ciders using techniques thoughtfully cribbed from beer-brewing and wine-making. Cider Corps ciders can already be sipped in some 40 restaurants and bars, a few of them in Tucson and Prescott, most in metro Phoenix.
This week, the brothers are focused on building a tap room for their brewing home in Mesa. A pair of to-the-sky 100-barrel brewing tanks rise not far behind the tap-room-in-progress.
These tanks — eight to 10 times the size of what most local breweries are using to brew beer — are where apple juice graduates to hard cider.
“We get apple juice from Washington, in the Yakima Valley,” Josh says. The younger bro, Josh has a tattoo on his arm of a hand grenade shaped like an apple. “We order 5,500-gallon tanks of freshly pressed juice.”
A truck delivers the juice — a blend of Honeycrisp, Cripps Pink, and six total apple varietals the Duren brothers have specially requested — to their doorstep. They then rout juice to the tanks.
The magic of fermentation begins.
The brothers use three kinds of fermentation. Accounting for some 10 percent of the total fermentation, the first is a gentle fermentation using yeast from fruit skins. Jason, who has an orange beard and the build of an NHL defenseman, says the wild yeast fermentation’s purpose is to “add more mouthfeel, body, and flavor.”
What kind of flavor? “If you grab an apple off a tree and bite it versus one on the ground, the difference is wild yeast,” he says.
The second fermentation is the muscular one. It is where the bulk of the sugar-to-alcohol conversion occurs. The bros use a pair of brewer’s yeasts: Burton ale yeast and English ale yeast (for now). This creative choice surprises other cider makers, Josh says, who are “used to Champagne or wine yeast.”
Winemaking methods provide the source of inspiration for the third fermentation: malolactic fermentation. This process begins two-thirds the way through a batch. What happens, in simple terms, is that about half the apple juice’s malic acids (tart) are turned to softer lactic acids. The result: the brothers don’t have to add sugar to even out the acrid tang.
Two months in, metro Phoenix’s first craft cidery is already next-level.
The brothers started making cider in earnest back in 2013, after Jason returned from his deployment in Afghanistan. During his time in the Marines, Jason suffered two brain injuries in explosions. When he got back, Jason started brewing cider with Josh in the garage. This eased some of the war's pain.
“Cider-making is kind of a therapeutic release for me,” Jason says.
The brothers started humble and hustling. Their first batches started with a press made from four-by-fours and a carjack. They juiced apples from Sprouts and an orchard in Duncan, Arizona. The cider wasn’t the best.
But the brothers kept going, working, tweaking. They got better and better.
A turning point came when Jason started to study sustainable horticulture at ASU. He turned just about every one of his projects into an opportunity to study apple trees, apples, yeast, and gain knowledge about fermentation. This brought the brothers' garage-based cider operations to a new level.
“We could have opened up a cider house three years ago,” Jason says. Back then, the brothers were making good cider (they say). But they wanted to wait until their cider was stellar.
That wait ended last month.
Cider Corps brews cider more in the French style. The French stuff is high-alcohol and superdry. If you closed your eyes and sipped some, you might think you were drinking Champagne. (English and American ciders, on the other hand, tend to be sweet.)
The Duren brothers don’t go as dry as the French do. The basic Cider Corps cider has less alcohol (6.5 percent) and not too much sweetness. Its gentle touch of sweetness is the result of starting with juice with a specific starting gravity (sugar level), carefully fermenting, and stopping fermentation at the right moment. This leaves the right amount of sugar in the end cider.
Cider Corps does about a dozen flavored ciders. Some of the flagship flavors are hopped prickly pear (on the sweeter side), lime-ginger-orange, cold brew coffee (in collaboration with Provision Coffee Bar in Gilbert), and pumpkin pie. Yes, these are all hard apple ciders.
A taste of the pumpkin pie cider reveals the promise of Cider Corps. The fragrant pumpkin flavor shines through, complementing the apple’s freshness. The cider is far dryer than expected, letting the nuances of everybody’s favorite ribbed orange squash pleasantly unfold. All kinds of pie spices loiter in each sip, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and vanilla intertwining, cool and mellow on the edges.
This is a great cider, and the brothers make it the hard way.
They quartered and roasted 50 pumpkins. They skinned the pumpkins and simmered them in apple juice spiked with cinnamon and the above spices, reduced the mixture by half, and added the juice to finished cider. If you do the math, there are two pumpkins to every cider keg.
Rúla Búla, the Tempe Irish pub, is the only place that has the pumpkin pie cider on tap. The pub makes good use of the stuff. For one drink, a half-glass of Guinness floats atop for a snakebite. For another, the bartenders mix the pumpkin pie cider and Four Peaks' Pumpkin Porter. But if you want to put your lips to a glass of 100 percent pumpkin pie cider, you will be able to soon.
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On November 11, Veterans Day, the Duren brothers will be inviting people into their tap room in Mesa. The tap room won’t be completely finished. But the brothers have rented picnic tables, and there will be a 15-tap bar pouring a variety of ciders (including a series of pie ciders expanded to berry and peach cobbler). This will be the first public tapping of Cider Corps Cider. The party starts at 10 a.m. and will roll into the evening.
If the event goes well, Cider Corps may open its tap room early. The brothers are still raising funds to complete operations. Some donors will get shares of the ciders Josh and Jason have aging on oak — barrels recycled from wineries, old bourbon batches, and even 12 West Brewing (Gilbert).
The American tradition of cider-making has taken root locally, and with the right people. It will be interesting to see how that tradition develops from here.
Cider Corps. 31 South Robson, #103, Mesa.