Getting to the core of craft cider

To Brad Genung, cider is not just his business, it’s his passion. Like so many small businesses, his cidery was born of necessity. The story begins more than two decades ago and a world away from the rolling hills of Union County in southern Illinois.

As the 1990s drew to close, Brad grew tired of his work in equity research and big city life. Looking for a change of career and scenery, he found both in the Shawnee Hills. “It’s a beautiful area and I was familiar with it through friends at SIU (Southern Illinois University). I also knew there were several small wineries in the area and the demand for wine was growing. Regional wine was taking off, so I started looking for property.”

His plan was to buy a farm, establish a vineyard and open a winery. As he searched for the right property, he got to know local winemakers and enrolled in a viticulture program at Shawnee Community College.

He found property, but before he could launch his own winery, opportunity knocked. The principal owner of Owl Creek Vineyard was looking to retire. Brad was familiar with the product and the price was right. Brad and wife Christine became the new owners of Owl Creek Vineyard.

Running a small business is never easy, but taking over an established business with a good product, a modest but solid distribution network, and a presence on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail made things easier. Building on this base, the Genungs soon expanded their distribution to cover most of the state.

Then came the recession of 2008. As it deepened, Owl Creek felt the pinch. Shawnee Wine Trail was attracting fewer visitors and many of the small bottle shops that stocked their wines were either closing or cutting back on inventory.

“To survive, we needed to diversify,” says Brad. “We needed to diversify into something that played to our core strength, which is taking fruit and turning it into really tasty alcoholic beverages. This region has an enormous amount of apples and long history of apple production. The cider industry was taking off, so we decided that was the direction we needed to go.”

Once the most prevalent alcoholic beverage in America, alcoholic, or hard, cider practically disappeared during prohibition and failed to resurface. In the mid-1980s, entrepreneurs and hobbyists in the New England states sparked a renaissance. By 2008, there were several hundred craft cideries and a handful of national brands in the U.S.

Brad and his staff brought in 14 local varieties of apples, which were ground, pressed to extract the juice and fermented using familiar wine yeasts. The results were positive. “We were floored by its complexity. It nailed down the direction we needed to go.”

More work was necessary to ensure they could create a consistent product batch after batch. Other cider makers weren’t communicating much about their processes, so Brad and his staff relied on their winemaking instincts and experience.

In 2011, Brad attended a cider academy at Cornell University. Cornell is the premier apple research facility in the U.S. As part of its mission, it sponsors seminars by veteran cider makers from the United Kingdom, where cider remains a major part of the beverage landscape.

According to Brad, the seminars were both informational and intense. “You had to be a professional vintner or brewer to take part in the discussions, but it was key to helping us figure out a lot of things.”

Even with this increased knowledge, making cider was still a learning process for someone schooled in winemaking. For instance, processing grapes is simpler. Individual grapes are basically little bags of juice. They go into the press, pressure is applied and the juice flows out.

Apples are more like suitcases containing sponges full of juice. They must be ground to a certain consistency and pressed slowly to extract the juice. Brad compares it to squeezing juice out of lumpy applesauce. Different yeasts have an effect on fermentation and the taste of the final product.

The first three ciders under the Apple Knocker brand debuted after several years of experimentation and perseverance. The unusual name originated from the region. Originally, an apple knocker was someone who sold apples or a term of derision meaning a country bumpkin.

Located in an area dominated by orchards and fruit farms, the town turned the slur into a badge of honor. An apple knocker is even the Cobden High School mascot. Brad saw the name as a tribute to the community’s history and fitting for the first small Illinois cidery willing to battle the established national brands.

Thanks to a good product, savvy marketing and eye-catching packaging, the Apple Knocker distribution network quickly spread into central Illinois, across Indiana, Missouri and Nashville, Tenn. On paper, it was an impressive footprint, but there were issues.

Brad explains, “Within the network, we compete on price points with companies much larger with lower production costs. That is difficult in a distribution network with a lot of people getting dollars you would like to keep at home. Plus, we wanted to build a new facility. We made the decision to pull back and focus more on retail.”

The new facility, situated on the Genungs’ farm on Cobden Schoolhouse Road, was open for less than six months before Illinois, and other states, were in the grips of the pandemic. Owl Creek Vineyard faced the same restrictions as other bars/eateries in Illinois.

With the advent of warm weather and relaxing of restrictions, the Genungs were able to reopen. The combination of beverages, music and ample seating in an outdoor atmosphere draws customers every weekend.

Apple Knocker generally maintains seven to 10 ciders on tap including three flagship ciders — Hard Knocks, a dry cider; Bad Apple, a semi-dry; and Sweet Knockers, a sweet cider; and several short-run or limited-edition ciders. These ciders may or may not become permanent offerings.

Like craft brewers, Brad and his team constantly experiment with various yeasts, adding other fruits or juices, and barrel aging. The strain of yeast, such as a bread yeast, champagne yeast or ale yeast makes a difference in the finished product. The addition of juices influences the flavor.

Two popular flavors currently on tap are Knock-n-Roll, which is infused with raspberries, and Pina Colada, which tastes like its namesake with the addition of toasted coconut and pineapple juice.

With barrel aging, the cider draws flavors from time in used bourbon barrels. Apple Knocker currently has a maple bourbon on tap. Past barrel-aged ciders include peach bourbon and a coffee bourbon which is blended with cold brewed coffee and barrel-aged cider.

While many of these limited edition ciders may only be available periodically, others may join the flagship varieties and become available in bottles and tap.

Using local apples, which are primarily eating or cooking apples, Apple Knocker produces about 30 varieties of cider and is looking to expand its offerings.

Brad and Christine planted a 200-tree orchard of cider apples including Redfields, Hugh’s Crab, Harrison and Canfield, which should begin bearing fruit in about five years. Another pursuit, inspired by a similar project in Maine, is identifying heritage apples in southern Illinois. Heritage apples are varieties that are no longer cultivated or have fallen out of favor, usually because they were originally grown for cider and may not be palatable for eating.

“A large part of Shawnee Hills National Forest is old farmsteads abandoned in the ‘30s and many had orchards,” Brad explains. “The next great cider tree may be in the forest. … We plan to hike to locate trees and harvest the fruit in the fall. Then, if we find something worthwhile, come back in winter to harvest cuttings and propagate them in our own orchards.”

Because of the pandemic, the idea has been put on hold, but he has forest service approval and with luck it could begin as early as next year.

The pandemic has affected the future regarding expansion and distribution. Brad is uncertain when Apple Knocker will reestablish its distribution network and what it will look like, but he is certain it will happen, and Apple Knocker will be part of the continuing development of American cider.

“Winemaking has, over the years, developed certain styles and standards. American cider still has no real styles, so we can be a part of defining what the American hard cider industry will be,” Brad says.