An Apple a Day

By Phoebe Larson
Wade Thompson ’07 and Jim Watkins ’07 go rogue in the world of hard cider and craft brewing.

Sociable Cider Werks

To craft beer enthusiasts, hard cider is something of a black sheep. “Cider is like Zima,” says Jim Watkins ’07, who launched Sociable Cider Werks last November with Wade Thompson ’07. “It’s a four-letter word. It’s considered the drink of choice for college girls.”  

Sociable Cider WerksBut Sociable is not your sorority’s cider. For one thing, unlike mainstream ciders such as Woodchuck and Angry Orchard, which are made from juice concentrate, Sociable is made from fresh-pressed apples grown in the Midwest. Second, the business is licensed as a brewery, not as a winery, which is more common among cider manufacturers. With fruit as its main ingredient, cider might logically be made like wine, fermenting the apples over time. But Thompson and Watkins introduced an unusual step. “We add a brewed component,” says Thompson. “We make beer ‘wort’ or starter, pump it into our apple juice, and ferment them together.”  

The process results in, as Sociable’s tagline suggests, a “decidedly different” concoction. Freewheeler, the brand’s signature brew, tastes like one might expect a cider to taste—but bolder and not as sweet as those mainstream brands. “Sweet apples, such as Honeycrisp and McIntosh, are mainly for eating and lack tannins, which contribute to bitterness,” says Watkins. “Bitterness is essential for structure or body. It engages the back part of the tongue and gives the beverage some weight. When we couldn’t get that bitterness from the apples alone, we thought, ‘Well, let’s brew it in.’ ”

That’s when things got interesting. They created Hop-a-Wheelie, a dry, bitter cider with a citrus hops overtone, and Spoke Wrench, Sociable’s take on a stout beer, which pours as black as, uh, Guinness. “We can brew in any type of beer wort from an amber to a saison,” says Thompson, “but not every style works. It has to pair well with the apple juice. The juice doesn’t integrate with all beers—sometimes it comes out more like a layer cake. Our goal is not to override or to mask the taste of apple, but to make it better. It’s a lot of trial and error.”

The seed for Sociable began with Thompson’s father-in-law, who has brewed cider in his home for nearly 20 years. “Freewheeler is inspired by his recipe,” says Thompson. “He brews one big batch of cider per year. Jim and I had both brewed beer, so we took an interest and asked him to teach us how to make cider. It wasn’t long before we realized that this could be our business.”

Sociable Cider WerksThompson and Watkins had been talking about going into business together for years. After graduating from Carleton, the two economics majors became roommates in New York, where Thompson worked as an investment banker for Piper Jaffray and Watkins worked as a stock trader for Citibank. “It was grueling,” says Watkins. “I’d get up at dawn to be at the trading desk by 5:00 a.m., just as Wade was coming home. We barely saw each other, but when we did, all we talked about was moving back to Minnesota to start our own business—whatever that might be.”  

“It was an interesting time,” adds Thompson. “We started our jobs—and immediately the world blew up with the 2008 financial crisis. The high energy and excitement of Wall Street was also high stress. You didn’t want to tell people you were a banker.”

These days the two are proud of their vocation, but the long hours haven’t changed. They do everything from concocting new varieties and brewing the cider to staffing the Northeast Minneapolis taproom (open Thursday through Sunday), marketing their product, and growing the business. In the coming months, Sociable cider will be canned and sold in Twin Cities liquor stores. More than 20 local bars and restaurants already carry the cider on tap, and many more are on a waiting list. Thompson and Watkins recently purchased more tanks to quadruple their capacity next year. “That said, we’ll never grow at such a breakneck pace that we sacrifice our product,” says Watkins. “We’ll always use fresh-pressed apples—never juice concentrate—and quality ingredients.”

Friends lighten the load. Stop into the taproom—an open, airy space with cement floors, wood-paneled walls, a foosball table, and a food truck parked outside—and you’ll find any number of Carls tending bar, conducting brewery tours, and just hanging out. It’s like a nonstop Carleton house party.

The scene is at the heart of Sociable. “It’s why we make this stuff,” says Watkins. “It’s a lot of work, but we love it. At the end of the day, Wade and I are brewers, man.”

Sociable Cider Werks

Five Hard Facts About Hard Cider

  1. Sociable Cider WerksBabies used to be baptized in hard cider.
    During the 14th century, priests knew that water was unsanitary—and potentially lethal. So baptism by cider pleased the clergy and the parents and surely the Lord Himself.
  2. It’s really old.
    The fermentation of apple juice dates back at least 2,000 years and was a common drink among the Romans thanks to Caesar and his soldiers, who brought it back in 55 BCE from England, where they’d found Celts sipping a brew made from crab apples.
  3. And it’s as good as gold.
    Between the 1600s and the 1800s, British estate owners paid their workers, at least in part, in hard cider. Before you apply for a visa, note that the Truck Amendment Act of 1887 made it illegal to compensate workers in this manner.
  4. John Adams loved hard cider.
    Believing it promoted good health, Adams drank a tankard of cider every morning for breakfast. He may have been right. Adams lived to age 91.
  5. It takes a whole tree.
    The average apple tree produces 30 to 50 apples each season. It takes about 36 apples to get one gallon of cider.

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