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Sociable Cider Werks: A unique drinking experience

The roomy, inviting Sociable Tap Room
The roomy, inviting Sociable Tap Room
Thompson, Wade

The newest brewery to open up in Minneapolis offers perhaps the most unique tasting experience in all of Minnesota. Open now only two months, Sociable Cider Werks is a new tap house neatly located right in the heart of northeast Minneapolis, and while they serve a wide variety of fine fermented beverages, they’re the first in Minnesota to specialize in ciders.

The creation of Carleton College alums Wade Thompson and Jim Watkins, Sociable Cider serves a wide array of ciders and craft beers. Far from the usual taste profile that one might find in the typical mass-produced cider, Sociable blends some of their hard ciders with brewer’s grains (and sometimes hops) to make a complex, bittersweet product that has gotten the attention of beer and cider enthusiasts alike.

Says Jim, “We both homebrewed beer in college and after that we started experimenting with different yeasts and different apples for our ciders. We always wanted something a bit more malty and with more body in our ciders that we could never find in the popular store-bought stuff.”

One night, after a discussion with fellow brewer Niko Tonks, they had an ephiphany- mixing ciders with wort to give it the necessary body and complexity. (Author’s note: ‘wort’ is the precursor to fermented beer, before yeast is added). The finished products mirror some of more refined and diverse tastes of classic English ciders: semi-sweet and semi-tart, with a dry, clean finish.

The early days of Sociable’s cider production occurred on a typical homebrewing system in Jim’s garage in Minneapolis and was not without some challenges and complications. For one, professional-level production of quality bitter apples (“spitter-bitters”, as they call them) that provided them with their desired flavor profile were only produced in abundance on the east and west coast.

The two reminisced with fondness about the early days of their cider production, where they would have to buy as many bitter apples as they could from the local grocery store for each batch.

“Imagine the looks we’d get walking up to the cash register with two full cart-loads of all apples. People would look at us like ‘who the heck are these guys?!’”

It didn’t many of those trips before they realized that they’d have to find a permanent, production-level source of quality apples if they were to open a cider brewery.

They eventually forged a relationship with Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City, Minnesota. With this partnership, Sociable has access to high-quality apples such as Haralson, Honeycrisp, and SweeTango®. Once they found their current location in NE Minneapolis (after a lengthy search) they knew their dream of opening up a successful, thriving tap room was well within reach.

The Sociable tap house is a warm and roomy space adorned with natural wood ranges and tables and wide windows overlooking their outlying NE Minneapolis neighborhood. The space is rarely without a dozen or so regulars, and at peak times, the brewery is packed to the gills yet still comfortable and homey.

When they don’t have live music from local groups (Thursday nights), Sociable plays a variety of solid tunes from a diverse spectrum of styles. On a recent visit, guests heard the playlist trio of an Albert King blues jam followed by a classic rock ballad, all capped-off by a modern jazz number from Minnesota’s own Bad Plus. Suffice to say, the eclectic Twin Cities-based crowd were tapping their feet through the entirety of their stay.

Sociable’s staple cider, the Freewheeler Dry, tastes impeccably clean and refreshing, straddling the line between bitter and sweet. It’s exactly what cider fanatics love in a dry cider, but far more intricate and unique than the traditional fare. Hop-A-Wheelie, a classic cider dry-hopped with Cascade hops, tastes just like a bittersweet cider should, with a welcome semi-bitter tang coming from the hops. Perhaps the most popular drink is the Spoke Wrench, which is a dry cider blended with “small beer” (low alcohol) milk stout wort.

While this marriage of tastes may sound strange, the resulting beverage is undeniably a cider, with a slight hint of sweetness from the base stout and a smooth finish. The Spoke Wrench is illustrative of the ‘think outside the box’ strategy that Jim and Wade have for Sociable… says Wade, “We truly want to offer people in the community a unique drinking experience and have them walking away satisfied and thinking that they tried something they can’t get anywhere else.”

Do you or someone you know love ciders but have celiac disease or have issues with gluten? Not a problem at Sociable, as all of their ciders and graffs (cider/wort mixtures) are completely gluten-free or gluten-reduced to under 20 ppm (parts per million) as recommended by the FDA / Codex Alimentarius Commission.

This attractiveness of this feature of Sociable’s ciders is not lost on the owners. As Jim notes, “We worked for months and months and probably produced dozens, maybe hundreds, of batches til we fine-tuned our recipes to fall within the 20 ppm guidelines. We always wanted to open a place where people that are ‘gf’ (gluten-free) could come to drink quality ciders and not worry about the gluten content.”

Sociable also offers a rotating repertoire of craft beers, made by in-house brewer (& soon-to-be co-owner/brewmaster of MN’s first Co-Op Brewery, Fair State Brewing Cooperative) Niko Tonks. Given that Sociable boasts a very small microbrewery operation, Tonks has the creative license to try new and interesting thing with his recipes, as each batch goes fast. For instance, two recent offerings- a delightful Cranberry sour and a malty, sesssionable Winter Warmer- were kegged-up and on tap for only two weeks before they were replaced with other beers.

In a nod to the artistic leeway that Niko enjoys at Sociable, a Berliner Weisse-style beer recently tapped was created on the fly from the second-runnings of another of his beers. Says Tonks, “I had some extra wort leftover from another batch and had some time on my hands, so I just tried out this experiment and it turned out to be a really good brew!” Sociable’s goal is to have 4-5 rotating beers on-tap at all times, offering guests a wide array of unique, seasonal selections.

So, what’s in store for Sociable Cider Werks in 2014? A whole lot, as it happens! Once the oppressive Minnesota weather gets a bit nicer, Sociable will open up their garage doors and windows and expand their available seating into the front of the brewery (which also features bocce ball courts). Additionally, one ‘sociable’ event (pun intended) that they have planned is a community cider-making demonstration day. Sometime this summer, the Sociable guys will collect a couple hundred gallons of locally-sourced unpasteurized apple juice and show everyone how easy it is to make wonderful hard apple cider.

The plan is for any interested community members to bring over their fermenters and collect juice at the brewery grounds (for a small fee) and then dump their yeast in on the spot. Short educational demos will be held throughout the day to show people how juice is fermented, and then everyone will get to leave with some fine fermenting apple juice (soon to be hard cider) to take home. Doesn’t get any more local than that! They also have a goal to plant apple trees on the premises so that they can keep their environmental footprint small and eventually source a percentage of the apples from their own back yard.

So, come on out to Sociable Cider Werks and see what all the fuss is about!

(Sociable Cider Werks is located at 1500 Fillmore St. in NE Minneapolis)

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