I almost exclusively chase new these days since there are so many of them on the market that it’s hard for me to keep up with them. I still have my favorites and return to them often enough, but when I find a new local selection, I just can’t resist.
That’s how a found 49th State Brewing Company’s Elliott Orchard Ale. The beer’s available in 16 ounce singles or six packs, or on draft at the downtown Anchorage brewpub.
Without paying much attention, I grabbed a can, and a few other choice fermented goodies from the front of the pub, and dashed away for other new beer callings.
As happens so many times, I didn’t know what I was getting into, but was glad I did. When I got home and pulled out the Elliott Orchard Ale, it gave me pause.
Elliott Orchard Ale is a collaboration between 49th State and Cultivar Cider Company. It’s described as “reminiscent of taking a bite of a fresh, Honeycrisp apple.” Did I just unwittingly buy a hard cider? Cider’s definitely not in my style lineup, even though I just said I didn’t care about styles.
It’s not that I don’t care for cider. It’s not that I don’t care for wine or mead, either. I enjoy them all. These beverages just aren’t in my vocabulary. And, when I say “vocabulary,” I don’t just mean the words that describe them; I’m talking about the entirety of ingredients, composition, manufacture, process, aroma, flavor, and everything else associated with true style appreciation. My palate doesn’t do these styles justice.
I had to admit this shortcoming when I called 49th State to ask about what I’d just bought.
I connected with 49th State owner David McCarthy, Director of Sales and Marketing Andrew Cockburn, Director of Sales and Marketing, and Head Brewer Devin Wagner. All of these guys are incredibly passionate about what they do, and are all driven by this latest accomplishment in the institution’s ongoing, deeply shared vision of bringing sustainable foods in Alaska to the forefront.
“Cultivar is actually a separate business and is a brand under Alaska Pacific Beverage Company,” says McCarthy. “We created a separate brand to stand alone, and the reason for the name is connected to our philosophy, which is sustainable foods in Alaska.”
I’d already Googled the word cultivar, which I simply assumed was a title for someone that cultivates stuff. It’s more than that. It really means an assemblage of plants selected for desirable characteristics and is usually selected and cultivated by humans. This makes sense for 49th State’s vision when put in that perspective.
“The Cultivar name is this choice of selecting specific breeds of apples that can sustain our environment, our soils, and our lives. The goal is to help grow knowledge out there that is actually about apple orchards up here first, then our full circle philosophy supporting agriculture. How do we bring the brand to fruition and in tune with our philosophy,” continued McCarthy.
I simply had no idea that, - as McCarthy explained - the history of apple cultivation in Alaska stretches back to at least 1902. He also alluded to at least five or 10 apple orchards in operation up here right now and that Elliott Orchard was handed down to the modern day Elliott from his father and has continued to produce before and since then.
“We had a great conversation with Elliott about how his father planted the orchard originally. Elliott was so excited about what we were going to do, so we struck an agreement to work with him long into the future,” says McCarthy. “’We want to buy all of the apples in your orchard,’ we said. Elliott asked ‘which varieties?’ ‘All of them,’ we responded.’”
This was an initial step in the path of creating a new platform for a little known sustainable fruit in the state. We’re the first business in beverage manufacturing doing something like this,” says McCarthy.
“We’ll produce the hybrid cider/ale every season with the apples that come in as a collaboration between 49th State and Cultivar. We buy the apples, we make a parent product which is pure cider, and the remainder of the juice is sold to 49th State.”
This isn’t just good news for 49th state and cider and beer lovers; it points to additional opportunity for other apple producers across the state to find commercial uses for a fruit that right now is mostly sold at farmer’s market or in a You-Pick-It arrangement at the local orchards. The Cultivar team contacted four different markets in the process of landing on Elliott Orchard, most of which were combination farmer’s market and You-Pick-It sellers. “We’re trying to bring awareness that this stuff is sustainable and it’s in our state. We’re trying to connect people. I’m so fascinated by the unique businesses that are made, raised and grown in Alaska,” says McCarthy of his ambition.
Making Elliott Orchard Ale - which is actually what’s known as a Graf in brewing vernacular - is a labor of love. 49th State brewer Devin Wagner had to first press, or juice, the apples.
“These apples aren’t much bigger than a racquetball; I had to juice a lot of them, but I love doing it,” says Wagner of the resulting hybrid which is about 45 percent cider and 55 percent amber beer base.
Wagner started out with a small press, but then connected with local apple and cider expert Ira Edwards who loans his massive air compressor driven press around to support the industry, in addition to producing his own non-commercial ciders. “We couldn’t have made this without Ira; he’s a real salt of the earth kind of guy,” says McCarthy.
I’ve known Edwards for years, thanks to our collective homebrewing past. He hadn’t tried the Graf yet. “Yeah, I was happy to loan them the press,” says Edwards. “It’s been around. I’ve been loaning it to Double Shovel, and it’s been to Girdwood Brewing and Turnagain Brewing,” he says, “and the best part is that it’s not living in my garage.”
“Are apples popular up here? They are; our orchards are just not well known,” says Edwards. “Elliott’s got about 60-70 trees. He’s super smart. There are probably eight or nine apple orchards in the Anchorage-Mat Su are that have over 60-70 trees, there are at least seven orchards in the valley, some in the works on the Kenai Peninsula, and Fairbanks has an orchard with 700-800 mixed apple, pear and cherry trees,” he says.
With Elliott Orchard Ale, the goal was to feature the apples from mixed varieties. “Elliott produces over 110 different varietals of apples; the sheer number of different types adds character,” says Cockburn.
“I wanted to let that cider character shine through, but also to give it a backbone of malt with some color. I think it’s a great marriage of two products,” says Wagner. “Hopefully you’ll taste that in the quality of the product that starts in the orchard with the apples.”
I asked Wagner about serving the beer; this is something that’s not designed to be drank right out of the can. “I prefer a tulip glass, and I would crack the beer at about beer cellar temperature,” says Wagner, meaning don’t drink it ice cold; the full aroma and flavor comes out when the graff is a little warmer.
Not that I’m the best guy to describe a graff, but in my own glass, I get a slightly hazy, burnished dark cold brew with a frothy, slowly dissipating head. This lends an evenly balanced aroma with both cider and ale notes that don’t compete with each other and are both soft and complex. The sensation is tangy/sweet.
Across my palate the brew starts decidedly tart with lots of apple character, and there’s no hop flavor, and only a hop’s balancing bitterness. This extends into and beyond the swallow. It’s a complex, apt representation of beer and cider together and the ample carbonation props up the medium mouthfeel in this delightful, juicy beverage. Yup, as described, it’s like biting into a fresh apple.
More will follow, but the flavor will change every season with what the soil and weather does at the orchard, and the resulting subtleties will add excitement. Get some of this fascinating new product while it’s still around this year and watch for other exciting products from Cultivar as they emerge.