We spoke with former Widmer Brothers brewmaster and current Square Mile cider chief Joe Casey about the jump into cider, his use of hops and how Square Mile could be the two-way gateway brew the beer and cider industries have been looking for:
The Spur & Vine hop cider seems like such a natural extension of the work Widmer Brothers has been doing with its Rotator IPA series. How did you get into making it and how has it been received?
I don't know if you know this, but Widmer Brothers as a brand used to make a hard cider back in the mid- to late-'90s. The brand was called Wildwood and it was a hard apple cider that we made for a handful of years and distributed mostly in the West, with a couple of pockets in the East.
I don't think the world was ready for a craft cider yet and it eventually went away, but we do have some experience with the cider world. Square Mile is a little bit craftier: We're producing more of a hopped version and treating it more like beer as opposed to a cider.
It's easy to conflate cider with beer when Magners and Angry Orchard can be found alongside Guinness and Samuel Adams, but they're made through very different processes. What kind of adjustments do you find yourself making when you go back and forth between the two?
The transition's kind of easy in a way. I think one of the reasons you're starting to see more cider these days is that there's a stronger crossover from the craft beer drinkers and craft beer makers into the cider world that wasn't there 10 or 15 years ago. I think that's part of it. Not only is the market ready for it, but the brewers are ready to expand production and do more things beyond craft beer.
As far as moving back and forth between the two, I heard a quote a while back that I kind of liked: Fermenting cider is like wine, but packaging cider is like beer. I think there's some truth to that. We're finding a little bit of the art up front on the cider side until it's ready to go into the package, and after that it's very familiar territory.
Your cider production is coming out of an orchard and facility in Milton-Freewater, Ore., about four hours from Portland just across the state line from the vineyards of Walla Walla, Wash. What kind of production capacity are you working with out there, and what are your hopes for the varieties you'll be able to produce?
There's a fair bit of capacity at the location where we're making Square Mile, so I think there's some room to grow. I think that cider consumers are also looking for a little more variety, so it's possible at some point that you might see some new products come into the line.