The apple of their eyes
Grower and entrepreneur have their sights set on the hard cider industry.
Head north on M-37 long enough and the road becomes a winding, up-and-down journey through apple, cherry and peach orchards in an area known as the Fruit Ridge.
Take the round-about to the right at W. 136th Street, and there among the trees is Ridge Cider Co., newly opened in April by Bruce Rasch and Matt DeLong.
Rasch, one of the state’s largest apple growers, was seeking a way to stay closer to the retail side of his product when he met 26-year-old DeLong, a videographer with a love of cider, during a hunting and fishing trip.
DeLong was making fresh bulk cider to sell to wineries and breweries to turn into hard cider, and talked to Rasch about apples and his dream of opening a cidery.
“I had a lot to talk to him about. He learned a lot about me, and I kept an ongoing relationship with him,” DeLong said. “It evolved from there.”
Following nearly two years of talking and planning for a cidery, DeLong and Rasch decided to go for it last February. They chose a building in which Rasch had a previous interest near M-37 in Grant, and turned it into a taproom and production facility.
Originally, the plan for Ridge Cider was to make cider for distribution, but the great location and space offered a new opportunity, DeLong said.
“The more we thought about it: We’re still on the Ridge; 37 is the main drag and is a busy road,” he said. “It’s a great way for locals and fans to come and experience and learn about the Ridge firsthand.”
The experience of owning a cidery is one DeLong has cultivated since he was growing up in Fremont. His childhood home was surrounded by acres of apple trees on all four sides, and his mother made everything under the sun with the fruit grown in the area.
“I loved the fall experience,” DeLong said. “I just love it — and then I learned what happens if you let cider sit and that intrigued me.”
His discovery of fermented cider led DeLong to believe he wanted to be a winemaker and own a vineyard when he grew up. As he got older, he realized he had very little knowledge of grapes but was well versed in apples.
Then, the hard cider segment of alcoholic beverages began to grow — at a rate faster than any other segment.
“It’s the biggest growth since Prohibition,” DeLong said. “I saw an opportunity.”
Licensing was an arduous process, but he began producing bulk raw cider and selling to producers. That was when he met Rasch and they teamed up to make one of the largest single-orchard cideries in the area.
DeLong currently does nearly all of the cider production himself with some help from taproom employees. He said it won’t be long before he has to hire more help.
There is a map of the 800 acres of Rasch’s apple trees on the wall of the taproom to highlight how the apples used in the cider are grown nearby.
Ridge Cider is a long way from needing all of those apples.
Currently, production involves two 40-barrel fermenters and an assortment of large plastic totes. In August, Ridge Cider will receive four more 40-barrel fermenters. Within a year’s time, Ridge Cider will be producing approximately 5,000 barrels of cider, or 150,000 gallons.
DeLong said there’s already talk of adding three additional 40-barrel fermenters in the future.
The 800 acres of apple trees would produce 1.5 million gallons of cider if all of them were pressed, DeLong said.
“It can sustain us for a while,” he said. “Bruce is as innovative as you can find, and he’s ever-growing his apple production.”
It’s the apples that are at the forefront of the cider, despite the appearance of nearly a dozen flavored cider varieties on the taproom menu. The flavors will be adjusted throughout the year as the fruit’s seasons change.
“We don’t want any ingredient to overpower the apple, otherwise you might as well be drinking something else,” he said. “We want that tartness, that acidity to come through from the apple so you can appreciate hard cider for what it is, and there are great ingredients that can accompany it.”
The similarities to wine-making take DeLong back to his one-time dream of a winery, but the current trend also allows DeLong to experiment more along the lines of beer-making.
He said if cider’s history as one of the most popular drinks in colonial America is properly represented, its share of the alcohol industry will continue to rise.
“I’m not sure how big it will get,” he said. “But being the smallest category in alcoholic beverages — there’s a lot of growth left.
“If people see, taste and experience hard cider the way we intend it to, it will continue to grow.”