Like Johnny Appleseed before him, Brad Genung is a pioneer, a risk-taker.
Although he hasn’t begun to grow his own cider apples yet, Genung is using them to create Apple Knocker Hard Cider at Owl Creek Vineyard, where he is owner, winemaker and brewer. But the apples aren’t far behind. He has plans to create trellised orchards for apples specifically needed to create hard ciders, which are higher in tannins and acids than dessert or culinary apples.
And, like Johnny Appleseed, who in the early 19th century crossed the country — including Indiana and Illinois — planting cider apples, Genung sees a future in orchards here, not only for himself but as a way to recreate the heritage of cider apples in Southern Illinois.
“It won’t be a big orchard,” Genung said. “Just big enough to show it can be done and to establish an economic reason for growing cider apples here. It could be great for local apple growers who could supply hard cider makers across the country.”
For now, though, Genung is bringing in apples grown elsewhere to supplement the local apple supply used to create his hard ciders.
“We’re good at growing grapes on trellis systems, so we should be good at apples the same way,” he said. “We can take advantage of the resurgence of hard ciders.”
Genung’s cidery, one of about 50 in the United States, stands alongside wine production on Water Valley Road in Cobden. The idea for creating hard cider began brewing in Genung’s mind and at the winery in 2008; his first product was released in 2012.
“When we first started, it was a little like in the beginning of the modern wine industry in Southern Illinois,” Genung said, referring to Ted Wichmann, who planted a commercial wine grape vineyard in 1980 at Owl Creek, years after prohibition put an end to the region’s wine production. Genung bought the winery from Wichmann in 2005. The two still work closely together.
“Ted must have been asking himself, ‘What am I doing here? Is this going to work?’ It’s a risk, but it’s very exciting, too,” Genung said.
Is it like beer?
Is it like wine?
“It is its own animal,” Genung said. “A cousin of craft brewing and winemaking.”
Genung brews his hard ciders in oak barrels, like wine; but some of the brewing techniques are like beer, such as the use of hops.
Technically, hard cider is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from fruit juice, most traditionally apples. It can be sparkling or still; Apple Knocker ciders are lightly carbonated with an alcohol content of 5 percent. Compare that to beer and wine, and hard cider makes sense for many people.
“It’s lighter than wine with less alcohol, and it’s not as filling or heavy in character as beer,” Genung said.
Unlike settlers who created hard ciders — like cousins wine and beer — because water was unsafe to drink, drinking hard cider today is strictly for pleasure. And, like many other things brought to us from Europe, Americans are making it their own.
“It was brought to Southern Illinois by the early settlers in the 1700s, but we are creating a uniquely American style of hard cider,” Genung said of the hard cider brewing boom that began in the Pacific Northwest.
Genung, a founding member of the U.S. Cider Assocation and a member of the Illinois Craft Brewers Association, has three styles of gluten-free hard cider on the market today.
Hard Knocks is a dry hard cider and oak barrel fermented; it’s Genung’s first and still his favorite.
Bad Apple is made from green apples. It’s tart and crisp, on the drier side but not as dry as Hard Knocks.
Sweet Knockers is sweeter but definitely not overly sweet — “just sweet enough,” Genung said.
He wouldn’t disclose what kinds of apples he and his team hand-crush to create the ciders.
“We use blends, but cider makers never tell what that blend is; it’s part of the magic,” Genung said, smiling.
All three can be purchased from Southern Illinois liquor stores in 22-ounce bottles, or “bombers,” to use the craft vernacular, for $5.99 each. A smaller bottled version is available in restaurants. If you want it on tap and in bottles, head south on U.S. 51 to the winery.
Always the inventor, Genung is working on the creation of two more: Knock’n’Roll will be a sweeter hard cider with added raspberries; Hopped Up will be a “hopped up” version of hard Knocks, with strong citrus notes and higher acids.
As tastings reveal, Apple Knocker Hard Ciders easily stand alone. But they also make a great beverage pairing. Think about foods that go well with a delicate white wine. But Genung has a simpler way to approach it: “Just think about what would go well with apples,” he said. “It can be a counterpoint, like a sweeter cider with salty foods, or it can be similar, with similar flavors working together, like a drier cider with squash.”
Some of his suggestions include pork chops, squash, roasted vegetables, marinated chicken and soft cheeses.
Genung’s favorite food and hard cider pairing? “Pistachio nuts with Hard Knocks. The salty, buttery nuts are delicious with the drier hard cider.”