Three Missoula entrepreneurs have unveiled plans to transform a blighted former industrial site on the banks of the Clark Fork River into Missoula’s first hard cider production facility, demonstration orchard and tasting room.
The Western Cider Company will be located at the site of the old Bakke Building, a 7,200-square-foot warehouse at 501 N. California St. that has languished in disrepair for the past 20 years.
Now business partners Michael Billingsley, Jon Clarenbach and Matt LaRubbio are just beginning the process of investing nearly $1 million into a huge remodeling project they expect to complete by January.
They hope to have a canning facility to distribute two types of alcoholic cider from Billingsley’s apple orchard in the Bitterroot Valley. They’ll also have a 40-foot long bar and an outdoor seating area facing the river so people can come taste other varieties of cider at the site.
In a river town like Missoula there is a surprising lack of businesses that have outdoor seating next to the river, and this project will be a significant step toward changing that.
Billingsley said he began planting hundreds of apple trees six years ago on his orchard north of Stevensville, and now they’re literally and figuratively bearing fruit.
“I’m really excited to see a return on investment,” he said. “It’s been a lot of work. This is going to be our forever home and we’re excited.”
There are several cider tasting rooms in Ravalli County, but Missoula, until now, had seen booming growth only in craft breweries and micro-distilleries.
The cidery means Missoula will join the re-emergence in the popularity of ciders, a trend that has particularly taken hold in the Pacific Northwest.
“We’re kind of at the start of the craft cider renaissance, just like craft beer,” Clarenbach explained. “Angry Orchard holds about 80 percent of the cider market. So it’s a lot like the beer industry in the '90s or late '80s where Budweiser (dominated) and then all these upstarts like Redhook and Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam popped up.
"We’re going to be doing a lot of what the brewery industry did at the start: education, introducing new styles and then over time people’s palates will be more educated and they’ll be able to appreciate things like English-style ciders,'' he said.
LaRubbio compared cider’s emergence in places like Seattle and Portland to the explosion of the craft beer and high-end coffee industries.
“The U.S. is starting to do the same, similar to the coffee and craft beer movement,” he said. “There’s a lot of experimentation, some traditional ciders. Kind of all across the board.”
Clarenbach said that Western Cider Co. will technically be classified as a winery, so they won’t be bound by the same 48-ounce limit and 8 p.m. closing time that restricts craft beer breweries. They'll also be able to sell local meats and cheeses and have room for food trucks.
Their canned cider may be fermented with hops and may appeal to beer drinkers, but many ciders – especially those made with a single variety of apple – are a lot like wines.
“There’s a little bit larger flavor profiles and a little bit more complex flavors,” he said.
Billingsley said that he’s worked very hard to grow bitter, astringent cider apples that are harder to grow but make a high-end cider. However, another cider they’re making will come from dessert apples to make it appealing for sipping on river trips, and it’ll have a lower price point.
“Growing cider apples is really rare in the U.S.,” LaRubbio said. “There’s a shortage here. We just don’t have the kind of orchards that Europe has.”
During the Prohibition era, many old orchards in this country were cut down. After alcohol was legalized again, many brewers found it was easier to make beer out of grains rather than wait years for apple trees to mature. In places such as Spain and France, cider is much more commonplace.
On Thursday, the trio was granted $50,000 in Façade Improvement Program funding from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s board of directors, along with $17,203 in Tax Increment Financing and $9,315 in Life-Safety Code Compliance Program funds.
The money will allow the developers to make additional improvements to the facade, including landscaping, a metal awning for the patio, more attractive and energy-efficient overhead doors, a double-door front entry, exterior lighting and upgraded paint types.
LaRubbio said they’re excited that they finally found the perfect location in the heart of Missoula that's along the bike path, near an area like the Old Sawmill District that is undergoing a redevelopment, and also on the river.
“In Missoula it’s hard to find a building that’s got large production space, has any real presence for a tasting room,” he said. “A lot of the great buildings have been (bought). So Mike became kind of a private investigator/realtor scouring the city. And he ended up finding this. It’s definitely got an interesting history.”
The building was built in 1952 by Henry Silver for the Pacific Hide and Fur Co., and was later used as a tire retread facility by the Bakke Tire Co. The lot has been mostly consumed by weeds, stacks of building materials and odd vehicles for the past decade.
“We’re looking to start an institution,” LaRubbio said. “We want something that lasts and can really be interesting and integral in the community. We hope to be an anchor tenant in this area. We’re looking forward to the rest of this development. This area is just a little bit underutilized.”
Clarenbach said he hopes the business attracts a lot of bikers and pedestrians. They also plan to have some sort of lawn game in place to keep things interesting.
“We think this is a really good spot for us,” he said.