Growing cider apples is a long process.
You don’t want the tree to bear fruit for the first couple of years, so you pluck the flowers off, Matthew LaRubbio explained. The tree redirects its energy into growing taller and stronger.
Then, finally, in a few more years, it will be ready to bear prime cider apples.
Missoula’s Western Cider grew the same way.
The business started as a seed in 2009. Co-owners and friends LaRubbio and Michael Billingsley were inspired while working in a peach orchard.
The next year, Billingsley bought 500 apple trees. In 2012, the rare heritage cultivars went in the ground just outside Stevensville, and the future owners of the cidery really got to work.
They converted a former tannery and tire manufacturing building on the Clark Fork River into a cider fermentation building and tasting room at 501 N. California St. in Missoula.
They created a brand and nurtured their orchard. Their canned hard cider, Poor Farmer, showed up in local grocery stores right before the Western Cider building opened in April 2017.
Now, LaRubbio and Billingsley, along with co-owner Jon Clarenbach, have seen the fruits of their labor. Western Cider won Best New Cidery, and their McIntosh cider won Best in Show, at the Portland International Cider Cup in June.
“It legitimizes what we’re doing,” LaRubbio said. “Out of 170 ciders, we got best cider out of all of them. It’s huge.”
LaRubbio sees craft cider as a continuation of the craft movement and Western Cider as a way to emphasize the importance of farming and local produce.
Western Cider is currently the only cidery in Montana that grows its own apples. The rest of their apples come from other local growers and from growers in Washington and Oregon.
“It all came from planting an orchard,” LaRubbio said. “We really want to tip the scale as far as where we get our apples from.”
Billingsley continues to plant trees every year, and now has more than 4,500 trees in the Stevensville orchard, with more than 50 varieties.
LaRubbio said there are big things in the works for Western Cider. Before the summer is over, Missoula cider lovers can expect to see three of the most popular flavors in bottles on grocery shelves.
By the time fall arrives, LaRubbio hopes to be serving food out of the cidery. Until then, he said, there’s a food truck out by the patio in the evenings.
“The hop cider goes great with tacos,” he said.
For now, LaRubbio said the goal is to make it through a full year and assess the demand. So far, demand is high.
When a cider runs out, it’s out. LaRubbio said people can get really bummed, especially when their Whiskey Peach variety runs out. He hopes this summer’s special, Summer Melon, will draw new customers.
Erik Brasher is the head cider maker at Western Cider. With a background in wine-making, Brasher said the transition to cider has been refreshing.
“There’s a lot of playfulness in everything that’s going on right now,” Brasher said. “It’s really fun to take a fresh look at a beverage and educate people about it.”
The apples are pressed at the orchard and the juice is sent to the cidery. It sits in fermenting tanks for anywhere from five weeks to six months. The fermented cider is filtered and transferred to the brite, another large tank, to be carbonated and finished.
Right now, there are 12 ciders on tap at Western Cider, five of which are “Estate” ciders made from apples grown in their own orchard. LaRubbio said Whiskey Peach, Sour Cherry and Rose are the most popular flavors, but he anticipates Summer Melon to be a strong seasonal contender.
Marion Halsell began working at Western Cider in March. She said the spectrum and potential of cider surprised her, but it’s great because there is usually something for everybody.
“There’s a wide variety of people,” Halsell said. “Most people are drawn to something, be it by the name or the ingredients.”
Halsell added that the passion and vision of the owners has made for a very cohesive business model.
First-time visitor Casey Lalonde said he was excited to try something new, adding that the new venue made sense in the Missoula community.
“The fact that it’s different makes it work,” Lalonde said. His favorite cider so far is Wickson, one of the Estate ciders.
The Rambler was Jeri Stephens’ choice for her second visit to the cidery. She said she wanted to see the patio outside since it was too cold the first time she visited. This time, the weather was perfect.
The sun set over a scattering of patrons and more than 20 young apple trees, which will grow into fruit-bearers within the next couple of years. With Western Cider beginning to bear its own fruit, co-owners, employees and customers alike are excited to see how the business will continue to grow.
Western Cider products can be found in Missoula, Butte, Kalispell, Whitefish and Bozeman, Montana markets. The company is online at westerncider.com.
Katy Spence is a University of Montana graduate student in journalism, working this summer for Missoula Current.