Cottonwood Cider House is the child of tradition and innovation. It all began in 1884 when Karolius and Olianna Nelson emigrated from Norway to Dakota Territory, eager to see what the black and unbroken soil of the new world could do for them. Their son Nels would plant the cottonwood trees that give the farm its name today. Their grandson Norman realized the farm’s potential for high yielding crops, and sold his cattle to focus on grain production. He would have the first on-sight grain leg in Cass County. Their great-grandson Chuck switched to organic farming methods and made Cottonwood the first certified organic farm in the county. Now Karolius’s and Olianna’s great-great-granddaughter Stacy and her husband Dan carry the fire.
Although reimagining the farm was Stacy’s birthright, it was also a necessity. Her father had sold all of his grain farming machinery when he retired in 2006, so continuing in that vein presented certain impossibilities. Stacy decided to grow apples, so she turned Cottonwood Farm into an orchard. She grows her trees without the aid of pesticides, and lets native flowers and grasses take root between them. “This attracts natural pollinators. Birds nest in the branches,” said Stacy. “Sure, we find the occasional peck in an apple, but growing as nature intended means our fruit tastes like the land rather than chemicals.”
Stacy’s decision to make hard cider was natural too. Her husband Dan had always enjoyed brewing craft beer, a fine distraction from his full-time job as a corrections officer. With Stacy’s newfound abundance of apples and Dan’s brewing expertise, the stage was perfectly set for the creation of Cottonwood Cider House.
“Going from working with five gallon carboys to 500 gallon fermentation tanks was quite a steep learning curve,” said Stacy. “Dan has the patience of a saint, though, and his familiarity with the process on a small scale was all he needed to master our big new facility. He’s the best cider house manager an orchardist like me could hope for. A match made in heaven!”
Stacy and Dan plan to produce 6,000 gallons of hard cider this year, 30 times what they did during the last. Their cider is unsweetened, crisp, and dry as they permit their apples’ natural sugars to ferment until the drink is 6.9% alcohol. This is low enough to prevent the boozy sting from overpowering their farm’s delicate terroir, but high enough to elevate your own spirits after a bottle or two.
“I’m proud of our cider,” said Stacy. “We have our hands in every step of the process. We planted the trees and care for them, pick the apples, juice them, ferment them, and bottle it all by ourselves. It’s a wonderful feeling to tell our customers how proud we are of what we do.”
“Knowing that every bottle of cider we make continues the legacy my great-great-grandparents began over 130 years ago…that’s a feeling that’s kind of hard to put into words.”
By David Scheller