by Bill and Mary Weaver
Herdie Baisden and his wife Carol Wiersma already had their future production of hard cider in mind when, after extended corporate careers in personnel and management, they began planting their first apple trees in 1999 on the 80 acres they’d purchased along the Wisconsin side of Lake Pepin, near Stockholm.
Their cider orchard has some very unusual-sounding varieties. Some are common to cider made in western England, including Brown Snout, Tremlett’s Bitter, Ellis Bitter, St. Edmunds Russet and Kingston Black. Other strange-sounding varieties are from the French cider-making tradition in the Normandy region, which Baisden enjoyed while he lived in Paris: Medaille d’Or, Dabinett and Reine de Reinette.
“We have 50 varieties of apples in the orchard, about half in sufficient quantities to make cider,” Baisden commented. “French ciders tend to be 3 to 4 percent alcohol. Ours are designed to be a bit higher. In the U.S., the difference between a hard cider and a wine lies in the alcohol content. Under 7 percent alcohol and it’s a cider. Above 7 percent, it’s a wine, and is taxed accordingly.”
To raise the alcohol levels, Baisden sometimes adds honey, produced in Wisconsin by the bees that pollinate his orchard. The apple juice used to make his apple wines and hard ciders is also all “flavored by Wisconsin,” a theme that is central to their business model.
Baisden is product developer for their Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery, which opened in 2008, a task he obviously relishes because it makes good use of his seemingly boundless creative energy. He has developed a hard cider, ‘Scrumpy,’ in the farmhouse tradition of southwestern England, and also ‘Bitter Love,’ blended from two bitter-sweet English cider apple varieties.
Baisden was convinced there was a niche for a bitter-sweet hard cider, just as among beers, there was a place for Guinness. Over two years’ time, he tried blends of varying amounts of two apple varieties, Ellis Bitter and Tremlett’s Bitter. “As it turned out, when the milder, softer phenolics in Ellis were in greater proportion, the resulting hard cider was more pleasing. Now we know where to go with ‘Bitter Love’,” he continued. “We’re going to sell it in 12 ounce glass bottles in a carrier like our ‘Honeycrisp Hard.’”
‘Bitter Love,’ won a bronze medal in the 2013 Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition. “It is a semi-dry, hard apple cider with mild tannins.”
‘Honeycrisp Hard’
Baisden’s biggest hit over the years has been his ‘Honeycrisp Hard,’ made entirely from the juice of Wisconsin Honeycrisp apples and Wisconsin honey. “It’s a carbonated hard cider. I entered it in The Great Lakes 2011 International Cider and Perry Competition, and won a silver medal.” He entered it again in the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition two times, with a slightly different formulation, and won two more silver medals.
“Someone said to me, ‘Hey, you got three silver medals from three different audiences, and people like it. Silver’s not bad. Don’t keep changing it. Work on something else.’ So I did.” This year Maiden Rock expects to sell 11,000 gallons of ‘Honeycrisp Hard.’
Some of Baisden’s wholesale customers are asking higher prices for ‘Honeycrisp Hard.’ “They’re getting some push-back from customers who say, ‘I can get other brands of hard cider cheaper,’” said Baisden. “My wholesalers reply, ‘This stuff is like champagne. This is the best.’
“That’s where we want to be,” he added. “But we’re interested in trying to grow the category to create a larger ‘pie,’ with lots of options for everyone.”
Crabapple Wine
An unusual wine Baisden has created is made from the juice of Dolgo crabapples. “There are very few crabapple wines made in North America,” he commented. “I fell in love with the fruit.
“The Dolgo Crabapple was brought into the U.S. by a North Dakota breeder looking for cold-hardiness. It grows well in the Midwest. Dolgo Crabapples have a nice acidity, and nice sugar, flavors and tannins too — all of which are important in a hard cider or an apple wine.” His Dolgo Crabapple Wine won two medals, in 2011 and 2014, in the Great Lakes International Wine Competition.
Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery only uses fresh-pressed juice, unpasteurized. “After I opened the Cidery in 2008, I took a course in Oregon from Peter Mitchell of the U.K., one of the foremost authorities on hard cider. I want to improve what we do,” Baisden continued. “We are in the present tense. We ARE learning to make cider. All our batches are labeled with R and D numbers.”
Some cider makers claim they can buy very good concentrate from Poland. Baisden, however, refuses to consider concentrate. “All our cider is crafted in small batches, starting with fresh juice from Wisconsin apples and Wisconsin honey.” His workroom contains vats and containers of all sizes to accommodate his many experimental wines and hard ciders. As Maiden Rock’s Cidery grows, Baisden will have to, at some point, expand beyond his own cider orchard and his current Wisconsin apple suppliers.
He is already working on that. Once again, he is taking his concept from Europe, this time from Ireland. “Bulmers, in Ireland, contracts with apple growers, and actually teaches them how to grow apples,” he explained.
In Wisconsin, he won’t have to teach apple growing, but the idea of contracting with growers at a prearranged price appeals to him. To sweeten the deal, he also hopes to supply his growers with some of their apple trees, and to run some experiments on various varieties as well. To that end, Baisden applied for a “Specialty Crop Block Grant,” recently funded by the federal government, which will give the opportunity for nine Wisconsin apple growers, plus Wisconsin’s Peninsula Research Station, to each receive 12 apple trees to experiment with.
“We’ll do our own field trials with research consultation from the Peninsula Research Station in Door County, WI, to gather as much data from these trees as we can.
“Through the grant, we would report on the results of our experiences at an annual meeting of CiderCon in Chicago. The Northwest Ag Business Center in Mount Vernon, Washington has committed to supporting us. We would also have support from the University of Virginia.
Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery has come a long way, with an interesting array of premium new hard ciders and wines. “Flavor from Wisconsin” is an important selling tool. With an adequate supply of Wisconsin-grown apples to press, the future looks bright.
Recently Baisden was one of seven artisan cider makers included in an article in USA Today on “Artisan Ciders Across America.”
Agritourism, headed by Baisden’s wife Carol Wiersma, is another part of Maiden Rock’s business plan. The orchard is opened to PYO, and some of the most avid pickers, Baisden explained, “are from urban areas and have never picked an apple from a tree. It’s a special experience for them, and I want to provide that experience.”
For the future, Baisden hopes to plant some pear trees and to create a prize-winning perry.