Commonwealth Ciders, a new cider-brewing venture started by East Kensington’s Philadelphia Brewing Co., is taking off onto local bottle shop shelves and into cider-lovers’ hearts.
When people think of apples and cider, they probably think of fall and cool weather. But East Kensington’s Philadelphia Brewing Co. is shaking up that association with a crisp new thirst-quencher that’ll go just fine with warmer weather.
Bottles of the Commonwealth Ciders’ “Traditional Dry” have been on the shelves of beer distributors and bottle shops all winter, but the fruity offerings from Hagert and Martha streets are just beginning. A recent release saw kegs of lemongrass-ginger show up at area bars for test run. And, in the tanks right now, a raspberry-apple brew is happily fermenting along its way to local taprooms.
Despite the city’s booming brewing culture, these hard ciders (with labels boasting “Exported From Kensington”) are some of the few being made locally. The only other commercial maker in the city is Revolution Cider, based out of Frankford.
So, what led Philly Brewing Co. to get into the cider business? Co-owner Bill Barton is quick to point out that PBC isn’t making the cider, exactly.
“Philly Brewing makes beer,” said Barton. “Commonwealth Ciders makes cider.”
The distinction, though, is mostly a bureaucratic one; different federal agencies oversee the making of beer and cider, with the Food and Drug Administration taking charge of the latter. It’s why you don’t see the PBC name on the bottles, while you do see nutritional facts that (perhaps, for the calorie-conscious, thankfully) aren’t on beer labels. Still, when it comes down to it, the same brewers who make the popular beers like Kenzinger and Walt Wit are also making the brews at Commonwealth Ciders.
Barton said the first Kensington ciders appeared as a test batch back in 2011. “It was really well received, so we decided to take a shot at it,” Barton recalls. At first, they wanted to make the new Commonwealth Ciders with local apples, but a rough growing season turned them off.
“We looked at the crop report, and it was about the worst report in 75 years,” Barton said. “The prices were just outrageous.” They ended up using apples from Oregon, but are keeping an eye on local growers in Bucks County to see if an affordable opportunity arises. For the raspberry-blended batch now brewing, PBC drivers trucked in berries that had been pureed by a Lehigh Valley supplier. Barton said the batch, along with the ginger-apple cider, should be available in bottles in late May or early June.
One of the driving factors for creating Commonwealth Ciders was the surging popularity of gluten-free diets and gluten-free beverages. Because most beer is made with grains, which contain gluten, people on the diet are often left with few choices at the bar and at the beer distributor.
That’s even truer for people who try to support local brewers like PBC and Yards, the only two commercial breweries in the city.
Commonwealth Ciders allowed PBC to break into that market, providing ciders for the gluten-free crowd while also mixing up their offerings and giving something new to fans of their beer. And, even within the wider world of ciders, Commonwealth stands out as being drier and crisper than commonly available brands like Woodchuck.
“We really wanted to make a very dry cider by fermenting almost all of the sugar out it,” Barton said. “We did tastings of other commercial varieties, and they were just too cloyingly sweet for out palette, and I don’t think that’s what our customers like either. We wanted to make something different.”
They were able to achieve the dry character using the same yeast – the microorganisms that turn sugars into alcohol – they use to make beers like their Pennsylvania Pale Ale. But one big difference they came across between making beer and cider was the amount of time it takes for the cider to change from sweet juice to dry booze.
“We were starting to get nervous, the first batch we made,” Barton recalls. Beer will typically start to ferment within a few hours, a process signaled by lots of frothy bubbling in the tank. “The cider just sat there, nothing happening.”
But soon, the cider also took off too, and Barton and his brewers were happy with the results. It seems the region’s cider drinkers are just as happy, with cases selling “very well,” according to Barton. The new beverage also has lot of people asking questions during the brewery’s free Saturday tours (noon to 3 p.m.). Some, Barton noted with a laugh, want to know how they get the gluten out of the naturally gluten-free apples.
“We just tell them we have a very expensive gluten removing machine right here at the brewery,” Barton said.
Reporter Brian Rademaekers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.