Western Cider is bringing the apple back to Missoula
The fun in apples begins with their names—Somerset Redstreak, Frequin Rouge, Hudson’s Golden Gem, Ashmead’s Kernel, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Wickson Crab, Harry Masters Jersey, Brown Snout. Taken together they could be a cast of eclectic barnyard characters in a Babe film. For Michael Billingsley, Matthew LaRubbio, and Jon Clarenbach, co-owners of Western Cider, these apple varieties are the basis of their vision: to return apples to the Bitterroot Valley and bring craft cider to Missoula.
“Cider is a new thing to people in Montana,” Michael told me as I sat down with him in Western Cider’s taproom and production facility on California Street. “We wanted to open a tasting room so we could educate people who come in on how it’s made and all the different flavors you can taste.”
Indeed, until I tasted the flight of eight ciders available in the taproom, I had no idea how varied and complex ciders could be. The tastes range from crisp and dry to sweet and floral. There is a rich oak-aged Farmhouse cider fermented from a blend of apples grown on Michael’s orchard and a dark crimson Aronia Rose cider that mixes apples with aronia berries and infuses them with rose petals.
“Right at the turn of the [19th] century, the Bitterroot grew more apples than Washington or anywhere else in the West,” Michael explained. During the heyday of the apple harvest in the Bitterroot, up to 500 railroad cars of apples left the valley each week until drought, blight, hard frosts, and the expansion of Washington apples quickly sunk the industry around 1920.
In 2010, he planted 2,000 trees comprised of 18 main varieties on his 20-acre property outside Stevensville. Today, he has more than 4,000 trees and 50 different varieties.
“Pruning is one of my all-time favorite things to do. You develop a relationship with every tree. All 4,000 trees are a little different, and I know each one, every single one,” said Michael. “There’s really only one orchard in the Bitterroot [Swanson’s] that’s established enough to provide us with apples.” Western Cider buys all the McIntosh apples from Swanson’s 100-year-old trees but most of their apples are sourced from Washington.
Even though Washington apples are readily available, Michael also wanted to produce fine craft varieties of cider from apples grown on his own orchard. At the time, the problem was there was sparse information about growing cider-specific varieties in Montana.
“When I planted my orchard, there were hardly any cider apples being grown around this [part of the] country, so it was a bit of a gamble,” he said.
He spent time in Normandy, France, and Northern Spain to see what they were growing and learn some of the orchard techniques they’ve used successfully for more than 1,000 years. Nevertheless, much of his process has been trial and error. “I’ll graft over trees that aren’t doing well due to disease or cold hardiness,” he said, “to one that is doing well.”
Michael toured me through the warehouse, where pallets were stacked high with Western Cider’s two distributed can lines—the Poor Farmer Classic and the Poor Farmer Hopped.
“Typically, distributors put cider by Angry Orchard and Twisted Tea, but our cider’s so much better,” Michael said. He explained that in Portland or Seattle, with so many ciders to choose from, there’s a whole craft cider section on the shelves. Michael is hopeful that by producing another can line and a bottle line with some of their small-batch ciders from his own orchard, Western Cider can “create its own space on the shelf.”
For now, Western Cider is focused on bringing back the excitement of the apple harvest to Missoula and on reminding Missoulians that they already love apples.