Cider houses rule: Texas ciders are on the rise with Argus Cidery and Austin Eastciders

It’s not just for thick-knuckled soccer fans to hook back in British pubs anymore. While sales of hard cider make up less than one percent of U.S. beer sales, store cash registers rang up 85 percent more sales of the fermented apple juice in 2012 over 2011, according to the research firm Information Resources Inc.

That trend is taking root in Texas, too. Even when you consider the blossoming craft beer and craft distilling scene in Austin, it’s a bit surprising that there are two cideries here, too. What? Cider made in Austin? You’d figure cider would be made in big apple growing states like Washington, Michigan and Virginia, but Texas?

It’s time for Texas cider. Argus Cidery and Austin Eastciders are making the first ciders in Texas since Prohibition.

Jules Peterson and Wes Mickel of Argus CideryGetting started at Argus Cidery
Just outside of Austin on the way to Dripping Springs sits an open, barn-like structure that houses the Argus Cidery tasting room. A gentle breeze eases into its wide entry and over the tasting bar, before spilling into a cozy sitting area where David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust spins on a reproduction gramophone. Small groups of people sip cider at the back bar and at the three community style tables. The cozy setting, created by interior designer, Lilianne Steckel, makes for an easy place to spend an afternoon with a few glasses of Texas cider.

“We have amazing apples in Texas, but there is not great awareness that they were here,” said Wes Mickel, founder of Argus Cidery. “There are Texas apples with very special and [right] qualities to make the dry style cider we like. They aren’t traditional cider apples, but more cooking apples. Finding these apples was the catalyst for the business.”

Mickel incorporated Argus Cidery in April 2010, started production in July of that year and opened the tasting room in February 2013. He previously followed his passion for food, wine and beer while attending culinary school at Napa Valley’s Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, as a chef, wine blender and avid home brewer. Turning his hobby into a career seems to be working out.

“I’m having a lot of fun and we’re doing alright,” he said.

Mickel and cellar master, Jules Peterson, make vintage dated ciders and currently has five varieties on the market — including the rich and oaky Lady Goldsmith and single vineyard Cameo — selling for $20 for a 750 ml bottle. They have three releases every year. Each variety’s style has distinct flavors based on the particular apples used, but Argus adapts its processes to ensure each is dry and oaky.

Argus CiderThe apples Argus uses make it different from the traditional English style ciders. Argus uses apples you might eat right off the tree, while traditional cider apples are far too astringent to put on your table. Another point of departure is that Argus uses native yeast for a bit of Texas flair.

The newest summer release, Idalu Brut, is made with north Texas gold delicious and yellow delicious apples and fermented using wild and champagne yeasts. Argus treats this cider like a sparkling wine, by letting it go through malolactic fermentation after primary fermentation and finishing with a dosage to bring out the bubbly in the bottle. The result is a cider that is reminiscent of an aromatic cava with a tart and tangy apple kick and plenty of carbonation to give it a refreshing summer feel.

“It’s not sweet at all, like you might expect if you are a fan of cider,” said Mickel. “The apples don’t add a lot of bouquet on their own, but the oak aging, wild yeasts and natural bacteria give it the aromatics.”

Argus made 365 cases of Idalu Brut and it will begin showing up on store shelves soon at places like Antonelli’s Cheese Shop.

Argus is currently available mostly in Austin with some distribution in Dallas and Houston, but that could change soon. As the cidery expands, broader availability in Texas, as well as other states, is on the horizon.

Argus has grown from making 150 cases in the first year to 1,200 cases in the third year and hopes to grow to 5,000 cases in the near future.

Ed Gibson, Austin EastcidersAustin Eastciders brings cider to the East Side
Ed Gibson, founder of Austin Eastciders, grew up in Bristol in the southwest of England, which is known as the “Cider Capital of the World.” “There is more cider consumed in Bristol than anywhere else in the world,” said Gibson. “It’s a cultural part of the area, and I grew up in that environment.”

In Bristol, Gibson realized that cider was about to have a renaissance, so he jumped on the opportunity by opening a specialist cider pub on an old Dutch barge. He eventually tired of the dreary English winters and decided to bring his cider knowledge to the U.S.

After visiting Austin, he fell in love with the friendly people, the music, the culture and outdoor living and decided he wanted to be here. Soon after, the idea for Austin Eastciders was born.

“When I moved here, I decided that the market for cider was about to take off,” he said. “It became an obvious thing to take to a party in Austin. It felt like a fun, great thing to do in Austin that could also pay the rent.”

Gibson is a fan of traditional unfiltered, cloudy, still ciders made with wild yeast and spontaneous fermentation. He believes that the finest ciders in the world are made that way, using cider apples.

“Real cider apples are distinctly different from eating apples, in that they have higher acidity and tannins,” said Gibson. “If you ate them, they would be too astringent and dry your mouth out. Those qualities make a perfect, smoother, drier, more complex cider than eating apples do. Cider apples give more depth of flavor. The best ciders are made with as wide a variety of cider apples as you can get your hands on.”

Gold Top CiderGetting Austin Eastciders off the ground has been a bit of a process. Gibson initially worked with Martin Rich, his favorite cider maker in England to make his first batches of Gold Top Cider using Texas apples, which he shipped to the United Kingdom and blended with old English cider varieties. That first run of Gold Top was a hit and it quickly sold out in places like the East Side Show RoomAlamo Drafthouse and Foreign & Domestic.

Since then, Gibson has been working through visa and regulatory issues to prepare for his new site on Springdale Road. He plans to open the new Austin Eastciders venue, which will house the facility and a tasting bar, in September 2013. It’s a unique location with a historic railway station and length of track tucked away next to huge warehouse. It gives the place a rustic charm that matches the Eastciders’ brand.

“Cider was the most popular drink in the U.S. before Prohibition,” said Gibson. “It has a rich history. I worked with Simon Walker, a fantastic designer, to create a brand identity around that. It’s about rediscovering the traditions of cider in [this] country.”

Austin Eastciders aims to make cider with bittersweet American heirloom cider apples, grown in southern orchards. The plan is to use Winesap apples grown in Idalou, Texas, and Arkansas Black apples grown in Virginia along with some Texas desert fruit and United Kingdom cider apples. Gibson describes Gold Top Cider as a modern take on traditional style cider that is carbonated and filtered, but using wild yeast.

“It’s a great fit with Texas barbecue. The first time I had barbecue, I lost my mind. I’m an addict. It’s a match made in heaven with cider, which loves to be paired with robust food. In that way it’s a great alternative to a craft beer.”

Austin Eastcider will be available on draft for about $5 a pint in late September. Watch for notices of advanced sampling parties on the company’s Facebook page.

This story was previously published on CultureMap.

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Happy Chardonnay Day

For those of you who aren’t strict adherents to the “ABC” philosophy – Anything But Chardonnay – National Chardonnay Day, which is on May 23, 2013, is an excellent reason to pop open a bottle or two. What’s that you say? Its just a dumb marketing gimmick to get us to  buy more of the world’s most planted wine grape? If you are like Beautiful Wife and me, you appreciate any excuse to have a glass of wine.

This year we tasted through a flight of California Chards in a variety of style.

 Giguiere 2011 Clone No. 809 Musqué Chardonnay ($16)

Our first wine is the newest edition to John and Lane Giguiere’s Dunnigan Hills portfolio, Clone No. 809. This grape clone is also referred to as the “musqué” clone, named for the French term meaning perfumed (‘musky’) or Muscat-like. Because its highly aromatic the winemaker chose to age it in stainless steel – completely unoaked – to let the natural fragrance and flavors shine through. This 100% Clone No. 809 Chardonnay lives up to its name, with a full nose of honeysuckle, orange blossom, peach and pear. It has vibrant flavors of tropical fruit and citrus. This is a pleasant summer sipper to pack in your picnic basket.

 JUSTIN Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay ($19)

The next wine was a fun juxtaposition. The 2012 JUSTIN Vineyards Chardonnay was barrel fermented and aged in French oak giving it a classic California Chardonnay style. JUSTIN grows its Chardonnay grapes in California’s Central Coast, which gets hot days and cool evenings that bring out the ripeness in the grapes.   This wine has enticing scents of apple blossoms, peaches, green apples and cloves. It tastes just like it smells with lemon, apples, peach and butterscotch with a crisp, clean and lemon thyme finish. This pup would be great with fried chicken or grilled trout.

 Landmark Vineyards 2011 Overlook Chardonnay ($25)

Landmark Vineyards, nestled in Sonoma, is all about Chardonnay. The winery produces five Chard styles, with Overlook being its entry level. Landmark Vineyards is truly California’s Chardonnay, blending grapes from  21 vineyards. Fermented in French oak barrels the Overlook boasts a rich, classic California Chardonnay style ideal for the traditional Chardonnay lover. It has scents of honeysuckle, lemon and pear. Its  full bodied with apple pie, nectarine and toast flavors. Pair this lovely lady with spicy Chicken Tortilla Ramen from East Side King.
Chateau Montelena 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($50)

We kicked it up a notch for the last bottle of the night. Chateau Montelena is famed for stunning the French by bringing home the white wine trophy from the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting. Chateau Montelena’s Master Winemaker Bo Barrett continues to produce their Chardonnay with the same attention and practice they did over 40 years ago. Lemon, orange blossom and hone greet the nose. Its a big, round Chard with white peach, green apple flavors and hint of almond. This wine only gets better with age and would be a delightful Chardonnay to tuck away in your cellar if you didn’t already guzzle it down for National Chardonnay Day.

What did you drink for Chardonnay Day?

The wineries provided samples of these wines through its PR agency, Calhoun & Company.

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Great Gatsby Inspired Gin Cocktails

The other night I had an insanely disturbing dream. I woke up panicked in a pool of sweat. I dreamt that I was living during the height of Prohibition, and couldn’t get a drop to drink. Gasp!

Apparently not everyone suffered without a drink during Prohibition in the roaring ’20s.  In the remake of  the movie based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby  who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the booze is readily flowing. The boot-leggin adventures splash around the story, but the only cocktail called out by name in the book is the classic Gin Rickey.

Coincident with the opening of the movie, Tanqueray Gin brand ambassador, Angus Winchester, rolled into Austin to give a history lesson on the lovely spirit and pimp his version of “Dutch courage,” aka gin (gin is enjoying a resurgence in the past few years. Watch for my story on Texas gins on June 1.)

Mr. Winchester poured us tastes of Tanqueray London Dry, Tanqueray Ten and Tanqueray Rangpur, made from the Indian rangpur lime, as well as mixed a couple cocktails to show off the versatility of gin. The main botanical in gin, juniper, will jump in bed with any flavor. It snuggles up to sweet fruit juices, puckers with sharp citrus flavors and fondles bitter flavors like Campari.

So what does that have to do with The Great Gatsby? Bathtub gin was purportedly all the rage during Prohibition and it’s rumored that the well-heeled got their grubby mitts imported gins like Tanqueray by delivery of floatable cases.

If you are feeling a bit nostalgic after watching the flick, skip getting the pixie flapper haircut that Carey Mulligan is sporting and instead try a few of these classic Prohibition-era gin cocktails with recipes courtesy of our friends at Tangueray.

Gin Rickey

Said to be the preferred pour of F. Scott Fitzgerald, this simple serve is best imbibed on a hot summer day. Don’t forget the chunky ice cubes.

  • 1.25 ounces Tanqueray London Dry gin
  • 1 ounce lime juice
  • 5 parts soda water

Build in a highball glass, stir, top with soda water. Drag to mix and garnish with a lime wedge.

French 75

This snappy little champagne cocktail’s claim to fame is that it’s the only drink in the classic canon created during Prohibition.

  • 1.25 ounces Tanqueray Ten
  • 0.5 ounce simple
  • 0.5 ounce lemon juice
  • Top with champagne

Shake and strain into a rocks glass and top with champagne. 

White Lady

Introduced in the late 20’s, The White Lady was born from the drink the “Delilah,” which included crème de menthe. The Savoy’s Harry Craddock replaced it with orange liqueur and it became an instant classic.

  • 1.5 ounces Tanqueray London Dry Gin
  • .75 ounce orange liqueur
  • .75 ounces lemon juice

Pour all of the ingredients into a shaker, fill with ice, shake and strain into a chilled coupe glass.

The Southside

The Southside is the signature cocktail at the legendary former speakeasy the 21 Club. It’s also said to be the favorite drink of notorious Prohibition-era bootlegger Al Capone and his gang.

  • 1.25 ounces Tanqueray Ten
  • 0.5 ounce lime juice
  • 0.5 ounce simple
  • 2 sprigs of mint
  • Soda

Muddle one mint sprig with lime & simple. Add Tanqueray and shake well. Pour into glass over crushed ice and stir until the outside of the glass frosts. Top with soda and garnish with sprig of mint.

The Franklin
Let’s not forget Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously celebrated the end of Prohibition with a dirty gin martini. Whether it was with Tanqueray – one of the few gins today that was in production in the 30s – or not is lost to history, but this classic cocktail ushered in a new era of American drinking.

  • 1.5 ounces Tanqueray London Dry Gin
  • 1 tbsp dry vermouth
  • 2 tbsp olive juice
  • 2 olives

 Fill a mixer with all ingredients including the olives. Cover and shake hard 3 – 4 times. Strain contents of the mixer into the cocktail glass. Garnish with an olive.

Thank god my nightmare isn’t real and I don’t have to buy gin from bootleggers. I’ll be mixing these all summer. Drop by and join me.

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6 tequila cocktails to try for Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo tequila cocktailsCinco de Mayo is often confused with Mexico’s Independence Day, but the date actually marks the Mexican army’s improbable trouncing of the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Similar to St. Patrick’s Day, most people aren’t concerned with the reason why it’s celebrated, and see it as a great excuse to down alcoholic concoctions inspired by the country. And what’s more appropriate to drink than tequila?

With nearly 1,000 brands of tequila to choose from in the U.S. (not too long ago, not that many could be found), we’ve gathered a few stand-out tequilas and recipes that are bound to tilt your sombrero.

Drinking in the area code

Tequila 512 hit town last November and is quickly gaining notoriety. It picked up a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in March and was recognized as “Best Blanco Tequila in Austin” by the Austin Tequila Society last fall. Not bad for a tequila created by one man, Scott Willis, who has boot-strapped the entire operation on his own.

Willis was inspired by the local distilling trail-blazer, Tito Beverage, and decided to follow his passion for the art of craft tequila. He has spent six years perfecting a specific recipe that has a prominent agave flavor, and is smooth enough to be accessible to the American palate. Tequila 512 is made with 24 hour filtration to mellow it out and an oxygenation process for a silky mouth feel.

While Willis named after Austin’s area code, it is made at the La Cofradia distillery in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.

“I traveled to Mexico to find a distiller that would make my tequila. Most distilleries won’t do custom recipes,” said Willins. “I was also interested in finding a distillery that sourced its agave from a specific region. Where the agave is grown matters a lot to the flavor.”

Tequila 512 is starting on a small scale and Willis hopes to sell 1,000 cases in the first year. You can find it at retail shops for under $30 and at restaurants like Shady Grove.

Willis prefers to drink his tequila straight, but when he is in the mood for a cocktail he mixes a classic skinny margarita.

Organic 512 Skinny Margarita

  • 2 ounces Tequila 512 Blanco
  • 1.5 ounces orange juice
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • .5 ounce agave nectar (light)

Shake well and serve over ice in a brandy snifter.

Keep it in la Famila

The Camarena’s have been making Familia Camarena Tequila in the Los Altos Highlands of Jalisco Mexico for six generations and entered the U.S. market in 2010. The approachable, easy drinking tequila is made from 100 percent blue agave and is one of the better value tequila’s around for $20 or under. This tequila is a solid base for excellent cocktails. The website has a huge list of recipes and they sell a nice “Tipple Toolkit” with everything you need to make them at home. Here is a delicious drink from mixologist Joel Black, of Tinga in Los Angeles, CA.

Camarena Grand Slam

  • 1.5 ounces Camarena Reposado Tequila
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • .75 ounce  agave nectar
  • 1-2 slices fresh jalapeño
  • 2 cubes fresh pineapple
  • 1 pinch fresh cilantro

Muddle all ingredients, except tequila in a shaker tin. Add tequila and ice, shake nice & easy and strain over fresh ice in a double old fashioned glass. Garnish with a pineapple square, jalapeno slice and fresh cilantro.

See unicorns with Sparkle Donkey  

Legend has it that people have been drinking Sparkle Donkey Tequila in Mexico for more than 100 years, but it just found its way into the U.S. last fall.  Made in the Jalisco region, Sparkle Donkey Silver, which won a Gold Medal at the 2012 BTI International Spirits Competition and  the Reposado tequilas are available around Austin for just north of $20. Try this simple mix with a kick, but don’t have too many or you may be seeing unicorns.

The Mule Driver

  • 1 part Sparkle Donkey Silver
  • 3 parts orange juice

Combine in a shaker over ice, shake well, and strain into a rocks glass.

Spice it up

If you like a little zip in each sip, Tanteo Jalapeño Tequila is worth a try. This 100 percent Blue Weber Agave blanco tequila is infused with locally grown organic jalapeños. It will put a fire in your eye straight up, or you can try it in a tangy twist on the margarita.

Mexican Spiced Apples

  • 1.5 ounce Tanteo  Jalapeño Tequila
  • 2 ounces apple juice
  • .5 ounce fresh lime jice
  • .25 ounce agave nectar

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice Shake well and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with an apple slice.

Get out of the house

There are several bars in Austin restaurants celebrating Cinco de Mayo, with excellent tequila-based cocktails. The energetic matron of Drink.Well, Jessica Sanders, will convert the bar from Derby Day festivities to Cinco de Mayo overnight. In addition to their creative cocktails, their standard margarita will knock your socks off.

Drink.Well. House Margarita

  • 1.5 ounce Siete Leguas Blanco Tequila
  • .75 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • .5 ounce Paula’s Texas Orange

Add all ingredients to a cocktail tin with a scoop of ice. Shake well. Strain into a glass with ice. Garnish with Lime. *For those who like a little extra oomph, Jessica recommends adding four drops of Bittermens Hellfire Shrub, which makes the drink nice and smoky/spicy.

Here is what Jessica suggests for those who want to celebrate in a more “elegant” manner.

Agave Old Fashioned 

2 oz Siembra Azul Anejo Tequila
.5 oz Cacao-Chai Infused Agave Syrup (I use cacao-chai tea from ZHI tea)
2 dashes of orange bitters
2 orange peels

Add the infused agave syrup and bitters with ice to a double old-fashioned glass. Add the tequila and stir until chilled and properly diluted. Express an orange peel over the cocktail and garnish with the expressed peel.

Libationist Joyce Garrison at the W Austin is mixing up a few amazing specialty cocktails for Cinco de Mayo including a classic Paloma.

W Austin Paloma for Cinco de Mayo Paloma from Joyce Garrison at W Austin

  • 1.5 ounces Don Julio Reposado
  • 3 ounces grapefruit soda
  • 1.5 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
  • .5 ounces lime juice

Build in a tall glass and garnish with lime.

Whether you stay in or head out on the town to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, you won’t go wrong with these ideas.

Disclosure: Samples were provided by Tequila 512, Familia Camarena Tequila, Sparkle Donkey and Tanteo Jalapeño Tequila

This story was previously published on CultureMap.

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Superstar Wines at the Austin Food & Wine Festival

Ray Isle at the Austin Food & Wine Festival Houston native and executive wine editor of FOOD & WINE, Ray Isle, took the stage for the day’s final wine session with a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he takes the stage to present Superstar Wines at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. He worked the audience with casual professorial grace and easy wit. The standing room only crowd eagerly drank up every drop of information he shared about the discovery of fantastic wines.

“There are about 230,000 wine brands available in the U.S. When you walk into a wine store and look at a wall of wine, it’s hard to know what to pick,” he said. “The people who work in dedicated wine shops are typically obsessive about wine. They didn’t go into this business to become a millionaire. It might cost a dollar more to buy wine at these shops, but it’s really worth it to buy wine from someone who cares enough to select really good wine.”

Buying guides, scores and wine shop smarties are great ways to get introduced to new wines. “Once you know what you like, drink what you like, and then branch out from there. There is no need to be a wine expert. Just have fun,” he said.

Each year the magazine publishes its pocket size Food & Wine 2013 Wine Guide buying guide, which profiles 500 top wineries around the world and their benchmark wines. The wines for this session were selected from that guide and had to meet two other criteria; they had to be readily available in Texas, and they had to be Isle’s favorites.

“These are cool wines and wineries. The tasting line up gives us an around the world view of different styles,” said Isle.

Superstar Wines at Austin Wine & Food Festival The first wine was a prototypical New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Dog Point Vineyard 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough. It had strong grass, jalapeño juice and grapefruit citrus flavors with strident acidity that gives it lightning strike zip. The un-oaked, crisp white wine sells for about $20 and would be a great accompaniment to fried chicken.

Wineries in California have been making great wines with traditionally French blends. Qupe Marsanne 2011 Santa Barbara County is a classic northern Rhone white blend made with Marsanne and Roussanne grapes. It’s a richer wine than the previous one with scents of hay, honeysuckle and pears along with ripe pears, melon and lemon zest flavors. Grilled fish would find a friend in this $20 white wine.

Next up, Isle compared Pinot Noir from California and the Burgundy region of France. The Melville 2010 Pinot Noir, Estate, made in the Santa Rita Hills, jumped out of the grass with rich ripe fruit scents, soft tannins, and juicy strawberry jam flavors.  At $25, this is a solid value for food-friendly California Pinot Noir.

The birthplace of Pinot Noir wines, the Burgundy region of France, is the home to Bouchard Pere & Fils 2008 Beune du Chateau Premier Cru. In France the goals is to have the wine express the place where its grown rather than the hand of the winemaker, which results in wines that typically have more mineral flavors than U.S. wines. This Premier Cru didn’t disappoint with aromas of raspberry and dust with limestone, juicy raspberry and dried herb flavors. While a bit more expensive at $34 a bottle, this is still a relative value for Burgundy wine.

On to the northern region of Piedmont in Italy for the Vietti 2008 Barolo made from the Nebbiolo grape. Many burgundy drinkers love Nebbiolo as the thin skin grape also tends to express the area where it’s grown. This fresh crisp wine has big cherry flavors. Barolo is very high tannin giving it an astringency and structure that lets it pair wonderfully with fatty foods like alpine cheese and risotto. Typically you can’t touch most cru Barolo for under $70, but the Vietti is a good bargain at $55. It is available at Whole Foods Markets, Austin Wine Merchant as well as other shops around Austin.

Isle finished the session with a bold, juice La Jota Vineyard Co. Howell Mountain Estate 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa valley. The winery was started in 1890 on a Mexican land grant on top of Howell Mountain. It has a generous berry and vanilla flavors, solid tannin structure and rich, lush texture like a velvet robe on your tongue and bellowing alcohol. Unlike some big name California Cabs that sell for hundreds of dollars, this one is only $75.

At the end of the session, the crowd wasn’t eager to leave and dozens swarmed Isle to ask more questions. It was clear the appreciative audience couldn’t get enough of this year’s Austin Food & Wine Festival.

Disclosure: I was provided a press pass to cover the festival. 

What are you drinking?