The passion for making cider runs deep for T.J. Callahan, co-owner of the Chicago-based restaurant group Farmheads.
So deep, perhaps, that he’s willing to ignore some of childhood’s earliest and most vital lessons. “I’m hogging it all for myself,” Callahan says. “I know they tell you when you’re a kid that you’re supposed to share, but I’m not going to.”
Thankfully for his restaurants, which include Farmhouse Chicago, Farmhouse Evanston, and the upcoming Farm Bar, Callahan isn’t planning to horde his latest product away on his 140-acre Owning Brown Dog Farm in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Rather the success of his latest line of craft ciders, released initially in February, was so successful that Callahan realized he might be on to something.
A big something, he says.
“The response has been gigantic. Our cider sales are climbing all the time,” Callahan says. “Once we start talking to people about cider and start pouring it for them, and have them taste these great ciders, then they realize ‘Oh my God, I can only get these at Farmhouse?’ It’s been really, really exciting for us.” For the foreseeable future, that’s exactly what Callahan plans to do: make a unique, crowd-pleasing product, and feature it exclusively in his restaurants. The method behind Callahan’s cider is driving its popularity. Unlike the typical varieties found flowing through taps, Farmhouse’s offerings are throwbacks to a time when cider was a fixture in American cuisine.
“Before prohibition, cider was always America’s No. 1 alcoholic beverage back in colonial days. Every man, woman, and child in Massachusetts drank 35 gallons of hard cider a year. Water was considered unsafe,” he explains. “When Johnny Appleseed was planting trees, it had nothing to do with pie.”
The difference is in the ingredients. True hard cider, Callahan says, is made from the bittersharp and bittersweet apples. What you typically taste at a local pub or restaurant is cider made from culinary apples. “That’s essentially similar to going to the supermarket, buying grapes, taking them home, crushing them, and making wine,” Callahan says. “If you have really good technique and you really know what you’re doing, you could probably make something that’s drinkable. But no one’s going to confuse that with a fine Oregon Pinot Noir.”
The issue, however, is that Callahan says .0001 percentof the apples grown in America today are actually “true cider apples.” One of the few options available happened to be located nearby his farm.
Around a mile away, Deirdre Birmingham and John Biondi own the decade-old The Cider Farm, which produces the bittersharp and bittersweet varieties. Callahan, who’s also planted 160 trees on his own property, struck a partnership to begin harvesting and producing authentic cider. He says the process has been like “drinking from a fire house” when it comes to education.
“I’ve been learning about cider at an unbelievable rate,” Callahan says. The original release of Don’t Tell William—a cider made with Ellis bitters, Brown’s apples, tremhoms, and with a very dry, lightly effervescent finish—arrived in February. Free Priscilla—derived from the Priscilla and Liberty apples—came in May.
Given the overwhelming response—Callahan says 5 percent of the company’s sales are coming from cider—two more varieties are on the market. The first is Pomologist—a bittersharp and bittersweet cider with more tannins, and a heavier-duty body, and Touchwood, a take on Don’t Tell William that was aged three months in a wooden apple brandy cask with added wild applewood. Callahan says he’s already nearly run dry of Touchwood kegs.
The success has led Callahan to think about the future. There’s a chance, he says, that someday he’ll open a restaurant where they will ferment cider on-site. But until then, the experience ahead will be as varied, and enjoyable, as producing wine.
Like wine, Callahan says cider can experience subtle changes, even in the same blends, yearly based on the crop. “Every season, the fruit is different, so the cider will be different,” he says. There are also some additional positives, part of the reason he says cider sales were up more than 80 percent last year.
“Some of the other things you may or may not know about cider: it’s gluten free. It’s roughly half the calories of wine. Everything you can say about wine is true of cider. It can be effervescent. It can be still. It can be sweet. It can be dry,” Callahan says. “It can be fermented and ready in a few weeks. It can be aged in barrels for years.”
For this last batch, Callahan says they ended up fermenting eight different blends and four different ciders as finalists before the tastings began. He expects the process to only grow, especially in his farm-to-table restaurants where cider simply, and completely, works.
“We try to offer a sense of the Midwest, a sense of place,” he says. “I think cider is such a natural fit for us. You think about ciders as this rustic, farm-centered kind of thing, and that’s exactly what our restaurants are. We’re extremely excited to keep doing this and to see where it takes us.”