Matt and Marie Raboin, co-owners of Brix Craft Cider, have always had an interest in cider making. About eight years ago, they made their first batch, and were surprised at how good it turned out.
In the years that followed, they continued to dabble — even while living overseas in Africa, where Matt’s job with the U.S. Agency for International Development took the couple.
“We’d try to press weird fruit and then add the yeast,” Marie said. “And sometimes it worked.”
“But sometimes it turned to a marinade,” Matt joked.
Feeling a bit homesick, the Raboins moved back to Wisconsin, buying an older home in rural Barneveld. They knew they wanted to give a small-scale business a try, and they knew apples grow well in the Driftless Area.
“In the end, it made a lot of sense,” Matt said.
The Raboins planted their first apple trees in 2014, and have continued to add more varieties to their orchard over the years. In 2017, they had about 1,000 apple trees growing in their orchard, with close to 80 varieties.
“We’re still picking which apples are the best ones for cider,” Matt said. “It’s an experiment in progress.”
As a new year begins, the Raboins are beginning to scout orchards and other locations to make a plan for the upcoming fall, when they will be busy picking apples and pressing them into juice to be made into cider.
Last fall, they spent two or three days a week picking apples and then spent another day pressing them. This year, they expect to be picking as many as four days a week, with the fifth day spent pressing. The biggest picking week last year was the first week of November, shortly after many orchards closed after the Halloween “pumpkin season.”
“We want to get the apples as ripe as we can get them,” Matt said. “They make really good cider, those late apples.”
Last year, the Raboins visited 14 orchards, bringing a crew and picking as many apples as they could. Some orchards were “pick your own,” while others were abandoned orchards or orchards that someone had told them to check out.
Visiting these orchards allows the Raboins to continue to expand their own orchard with different varieties of apples. And although it takes time to graft, grow and then harvest a decent first crop, it is certainly worth the wait for Matt and Marie.
“It’s definitely a patience practice, propagating trees,” Marie said. “It’s not like vegetables; you’re in it for the long haul.”
The couple sourced the majority of their 2017 apples from orchards no further than 50 miles from their home. And they actually had more offers than they could pick this past year, Matt added.
One especially interesting orchard the Raboins picked from in 2017 was an orchard formerly owned by the Ringling Brothers, Marie said. Now state owned, navigating the orchard was an undertaking, but Matt and his crew found plenty of apples, although they had to carry the large bushels on their heads.
“Now we have ‘The Greatest Cider on Earth,’ ” Marie said with a smile.
Through a project at UW-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, the Raboins were recently able to participate in a blind taste test of cider produced from their own apples and from The Cider Farm of rural Mineral Point, Cider House of Wisconsin in McFarland and Albion Prairie Farm of rural Madison. In conjunction with Nicholas Smith, fermentation outreach specialist at UW-Madison, and Michelle Miller, associate director of UW-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, Matt will be giving a presentation on apples for artisanal cider at the 2018 Wisconsin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Conference Jan. 21-23 at the Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells, incorporating aspects of the recent project into the presentation.
“Hundreds of years ago, people had their favorite cider apples. Many of those have been lost to history,” Matt said. “But we have a couple around, although the antique cider apples are hard to find.”
This year, the Raboins tried something new by keeping apples picked at each orchard together when pressed. Marketing for these ciders will include a stamp that details which orchard the apples came from to make the cider. Matt and Marie believe keeping these apples together makes their cider unique from others.
“We’re so small that maybe we can experiment more than some of the other big producers,” Marie said.
They are also preparing to open a tasting room in Mount Horeb in a space across the street from what will become the new Duluth Trading Company Headquarters. The lease is signed, the loan is secured — and now the Raboins are anticipating an opening date of early June.
At the Mount Horeb location, the couple aims to be open five days a week as a “cider-pub” that serves six to eight of their ciders on tap, light food and maybe even some music. The Raboins also plan to move production of their cider to this facility; they currently rent winery space at Indigenous Wines and Ciders in Stoughton.
“It will be nice to have our own space,” Matt said.
“And it will be a lot closer,” Marie added.
The Raboins also have plans to expand their wholesale distribution by 10 times their capacity at the moment, reaching out into 50 to 70 different outlets and making their ciders available through their tasting room in Mount Horeb.
2018 will include more outreach for Brix Craft Cider too, Marie said, including a class or two at their new location on how people can make their own cider at home.
“(2017) was a good year,” the couple shared on their Facebook page. “Thanks to everyone who has supported us along the way. 2018 is sure to bring lots of excitement with new ciders, a tasting room and cidery.”
For more information on Brix Craft Cider, visit their website at brixcider.com.
If you go
What: 2018 Wisconsin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Conference.
When: Jan. 21-23.
Where: Kalahari Resort, 1305 Kalahari Drive, Wisconsin Dells.