Just a few weeks ago, I was at some holiday party of the not-very-interesting variety. Then a guest opened a bottle of cider they'd brought-Millstone Cellars' Ciderberry blend-and things suddenly got very interesting. The clear, carnelian liquid was unlike any cider I'd ever tasted, with a playful nose of fruit that opened into a crisp mid-body, a tad bit sweet but not overwhelmingly so, with aromas of citrus and cedar. It was a complex concoction, and I kept refilling my glass trying to name all the flavors within. I realized I was drinking this cider like it was a fine wine. Heretofore my experience had been that bottled hard cider is fizzy, sweet, and basically boring. I wondered if this sophisticated rendition was some kind of European import and was astonished to find out, upon reading the label, that it's made in Monkton-just a quick run north from the city.
In fact, it's only been since late November that father-and-son team Curt and Kyle Sherrer have been selling the first three bottlings from Millstone Cellars, the artisanal cidery (yes, that is the correct term-after all, wine is made in a winery) they founded in an 1840s grist mill. The Sherrer family has spent the past 10 years working to bring the brick, stone, and timber structure back from near-ruin, and as the restoration progressed, they began kicking around ideas for a business to run on the premises. Curt had worked in wine production previously, around Maryland and Virginia, and thought maybe they should open a winery. But 23-year-old Kyle, recently graduated from University of Baltimore with a degree in finance, had a different suggestion: Why not make small-batch cider, handcrafted using traditional methods and only locally grown apples.
Kyle's instincts were on the mark: Millstone's ciders have been well received in Charm City. Just six weeks after its introduction, the first three varieties in production-crisp, dry Winesap; the sweeter Harvest blend; and raspberry-infused Ciderberry-are already carried in nine Baltimore-area liquor stores and drinking establishments.
"We recognize our first step is just getting people to taste it-who's going to spend $16 on a bottle of cider without trying it first?" says Kyle, who reports that sales soar in stores after Millstone tasting events. He has also taken Millstone ciders to the Baltimore Farmers' Market, where he was able to offer tastings while doing direct sales. Response was enthusiastic, he reports.
The Sherrers set out to make a product very different from retail "six-pack ciders" like Woodchuck. Indeed, Millstone ciders, with their subtle and complex flavor structure, have much more in common with wine and are meant to be paired with food. Curt, who earned a degree in viticulture from UC Davis, says, "I studied all the intricacies of grapes-tannins, flavors, body-and it turns out that apples are just as complex."
The apples in Millstone ciders are all heirloom varieties, like Rome Beauty and York Imperial, and come from three different local orchards. These are pressed into fresh cider, which is then poured into wooden barrels and yeast-fermented, allowed to age in the oak for anywhere from five months to a year. Each variety is fermented separately, to allow for the fruit's distinct flavors to emerge. "Some are tannic, some aromatic-each one brings some unique aspect," says Curt, noting that, for example, Winter Banana apples do have a slight hint of banana.
Once the ciders have been adequately barrel-aged, the tasting process begins with an eye toward creating blends. "We pour everything into glasses, taste, make some notes, then take a break. Come back and do it again, over two or three days, until we start to get some ideas of how different varieties might work well together," Kyle says. The finished ciders, now alcoholic, are blended together and then further blended with locally produced honey (to add sweetness, since the yeast has consumed all the apples' naturally occurring sugars in the fermentation process, leaving an extremely dry cider). Some blends also incorporate fruit like raspberries or pears, which come from nearby farms.
Millstone Cellars will soon be introducing a new product line: artisanal meads. Mead is made using raw varietal honeys like tulip poplar and black locust as the base sugar for fermentation (rather than apples, as in cider), occasionally hops, and other potential add-ins like fruit juices, herbs, and flowers. The mead is also oak barrel-aged but requires a longer resting time. Nearly ready for release is Millstone's newest product, Ember-a clover-honey mead flavored with locally grown baby ginger. It's a most intriguing drink, barely sweet, with a bright, forward spice flavor nuanced with deep hints of moss and smoke.
The small-batch mead and cider-making process is venerable but also somewhat variable, meaning that even given the same ingredients, no two batches of Millstone Cellars cider or mead will ever turn out exactly the same. However, both father and son regard this as a good thing. "We aren't interested in doing repeats, blending the same thing over and over," says Kyle, with Curt chiming in-"Our approach is 'Let's just do what's fun and tastes good.'"