In the beginning was a building. The rundown 19th-century gristmill in Monkton, some of its iron gear works moldering within the brick-and-stone structure, caught the attention of Curt Sherrer.
The winemaker and lawyer spent about 10 years restoring the place, but then his labor of love birthed a tough question: What now? How to make money in the place? He and his son, Kyle, who had just graduated from the University of Baltimore with a degree in finance, considered an array of ideas. Winery? Coffee shop? Offices?
Kyle Sherrer, a craft beer aficionado, suggested what appeared to be the Next Big Thing in alcoholic drinks: cider. Given the historic setting and cider's link to early American food culture, it seemed a fine fit.
Since putting our their first hard ciders and meads in the fall of 2012, production has grown from 5,000 gallons last year to 12,000 this year, with projections for 26,000 in 2015. Much of the production and storage moved this summer to a warehouse in Cockeysville, and they're now in search of a more historic locale as their headquarters.
Kyle Sherrer recently agreed to answer some questions about Millstone.
Why do you think hard cider is having this revival?
This all, in my opinion, harkens back to mainly the craft beer explosion. People are more interested in trying new and innovative stuff these days. And if it wasn't for the craft brewers opening you up to trying new things, you would never see this. What we come up against, especially the longtime wine drinkers are much less likely to switch over and try our product because they're used to drinking, you know, full-bodied reds or clean whites. What we're offering is a much different experience flavor-wise.
Also, you're seeing the resurgence of people wanting to get a closer connection to their farms, eating local. Gluten-free is another reason why ciders are becoming popular as well, I think. … Either because of medical reasons or they want to become part of that health craze.
It's been noted that you take some cues from craft beer makers. How?
If you look at what a lot of the higher-end craft beer makers are doing, they're taking influences from everywhere — from cooking to wine fermentation to looking back into history on how certain things were done. Playing with new ingredients, new styles. We're bringing the same ideology to the ciders we're making. But at the same time, we're trying to produce this rustic-style cider.
We're sticking to this 150-mile range for sourcing all of our ingredients — fruits, honeys. So it adds a new twist and wrinkle into the whole, I guess, idea of trying to do as much as possible playing with all these different styles, but still limiting yourself based on what you can get in the area. … A great example of this is we foraged a bunch of spice bush right behind our mill. It's a North American native plant that creates these berries. And when we use it in our meads, it gives off this peppercorn, peppery flavor. So we didn't actually have to use pepper to get that flavor profile.
You define your approach as "Old World." How do you mean that?
So back in the day, generally there would be very little done to the ingredients. Now you see winemakers using lots of sulfites and other ingredients. We try to do everything as naturally as possible. So when we bring in the juice, we're doing no pasteurization. With the meads, there's no heating. Everyone always compares this to a brewery, and there's no brewing process in it at all. We literally bring in the juice.
Some of the stuff we just go naturally off the wild, native yeasts that are present on the apple skin. And sometimes we are using cultured yeast strains, but all the yeast and bacteria are still there and present. So once the main yeast kind of finish up their process, the yeast and bacteria take over. Everything we do is oak barrel-aged. We're aging in oak generally six to eight months, using the temperature as somewhat of a gauge of how we do our fermentations. Generally everything starts at around 50 degrees, which is a quite cold fermentation during the wintertime, and then everything goes up to around 60 or 70 during the summer, which kind of works with the processes of the yeast and bacteria that we're working with.
How do these methods affect the taste?
Generally they're going to be a little more tart and acidic. Just a lot more going on there. Some people are in love with the style. You'll see this style in a lot of Old World ciders. If we're mimicking any sort of style, it's mainly the Basque region or Spanish-, French-style ciders — where what you're seeing with a lot of other craft cider makers is use of a lot of English cider apples but then clean fermentations.
What's your favorite drink, in cider or otherwise?
Generally I'm liking whatever is the weirdest, funk-forward (earthy — think of a barnyard), tart style that we're working on. I really like a lot of the sour meads and ciders that we've been doing recently. My father skews more toward wine-style flavors. It's interesting because when we do our barrel samplings, he's generally very much about the aromatic qualities, while I'm much more focused on the flavor. So it's interesting to have the dichotomy going forward. … I drink a lot of craft beer, and my father generally prefers wine.
Title: Co-owner, Millstone Cellars, Monkton
Education: University of Baltimore