On May 20, Michael Billingsley, Jon Clarenbach and Matthew LaRubbio will raise a glass and celebrate years of hard work with the grand opening of their newest business venture, Western Cider.
Missoula’s first hard apple cidery, located on the bank of the Clark Fork River at 501 N. California St. in a remodeled old warehouse, is the culmination of at least two year’s worth of long hours spent with city officials and of construction work during one of Missoula’s most brutal winters on record.
Actually, the concept for the cidery goes all the way back to 2010 when Billingsley started grafting apple trees with a vague dream in his head. In 2012, he planted 2,500 cider-specific trees in the Bitterroot Valley and continued to plant hundreds every year.
A few years after that, he got to talking with LaRubbio and Clarenbach, and a plan was hatched. Today, super-rare apple varieties from some of those trees comprise a few of the dozen different varieties of alcoholic cider on tap in the shiny new tasting room in a formerly blighted industrial site just off of West Broadway. In fact, Billingsley was making a big gamble that planted the seeds for Western Cider way back then.
“They were all bittersweet, bitter-sharp varieties,” Billingsley said. “We call them spitters. You don’t really want to eat them. So if they don’t go into cider, there’s no other market for them. So it was kind of an all-in thing.”
Western Cider opened back in April, but the guys are still putting the finishing touches on their “cider garden,” an outdoor patio area with picnic tables that will feature trees of the same apple varieties as the orchard. They have local food cart vendors scheduled for most nights of the week, and they’ll eventually offer charcuterie. The May 20 grand opening will feature a special cider release, music from The Beet Tops and Night Blooming Jasmine, cellar tours, giveaways, dancing and more.
The new outdoor patio, when it opens that day, also promises to help the owners tell the story of how they are truly an orchard-to-tap cidery.
“It’s kind of a demonstration orchard of 15 different varieties,” Billingsley said, pointing to the trees he’s recently planted, with views of a snow-capped Lolo Peak in the background.
“We really want to connect people from the apple to the glass so they can really make that mental connection of, ‘Wow, this is where this cider came from.’ And the whole terroir (the characteristics of flavor produced by the environment in which the apples are grown) behind cider, just like in wine, really makes a difference,” Clarenbach added.
Three of the ciders on tap are from Billingsley’s orchards, one is from a neighbor’s orchard, and the other eight come from around the region.
Most cider apples have tannins, acids and aromatics that ordinary eating apples just don’t have. For one cider, the guys use a popular eating variety called McIntosh, known as a “Mac,” for a single-variety cider that smells and tastes just like apple butter, while other ciders are extremely dry and astringent.
Their most popular cider so far is called “Western Medicine,” and it was fermented with peaches and then aged in whiskey barrels from Montgomery Distillery. The alcohol content ranges from what you would expect in a lighter craft beer to more of what a wine would be. Since the cidery is technically considered a winery by the state, it is allowed to stay open later than microbreweries.
The Western Cider owners unfolded their business plan in reverse order than the way most craft breweries usually start. Before they opened their tasting room, they started canning two products — Poor Farmer and Poor Farmer Hopped – that were distributed in six-packs to stores and restaurants all over town before they even opened their doors.
Clarenbach said people who have only tasted Angry Orchard are usually surprised at the complexity and variety of the ciders on tap at Western Cider.
“They walk in and see we have 12 different ciders and you see their minds kind of with a mushroom cloud above it,” he said, laughing. “It far exceeds their expectations of what they thought we could offer in terms of cider and also what craft cider is. And that’s what I’ve found in talking with people around the state.”
Montana is late to the cider party, although there are several craft cider houses in the Bitterroot Valley and one in Bozeman.
“They haven’t really experienced craft cider like how people in the Northwest or New England have,” Clarenbach continued. “And that is a big part of our education, explaining the genesis and origin of Michael and the orchard and having people really look differently at cider than they have in the past, because typically people have just drank a sweet cider that’s artificially flavored and sweetened.”
LaRubbio said the customers who have packed the place almost every night so far are a mix between cider newbies and cider nerds.
“There’s different types of people,” LaRubbio said. “Some of the ones that come in that are total cider nerds and really understand cider, understand European cider and cider from out in the eastern U.S. or the Pacific Northwest. And those people are great because we really get to geek out with them and talk cider.
"And then just educating other people on what cider is has also been rewarding. It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun because it’s a blank canvas. But that’s why we look forward to a long future of educating people about cider and getting them as excited about cider as we are.”