St. Louis is the home of one of America’s best-loved beer makers, and now it’s home to a hard cider maker as well. This alcoholic drink made from fresh apple juice goes down easy, gives drinkers a buzz without bitterness, and is usually made by small, artisanal cideries. The first St. Louis cidery, Brick River Cider Co., is scheduled to open a pub, The Tap Room, soon. “Our advertised grand opening is February 16th, 17th, and 18th. Our soft opening will be either two or three weeks before that,” says Brick River owner Russ John.

A few years ago, Russ took over his family’s midwestern farm and apple orchard. The former toy store and real estate businessman began looking for ways to expand his newly acquired agricultural venture. Inspired by his own love of cider, he decided to open a ciderworks in St. Louis. “Cider has been a very growing thing in the adult beverage world for six to seven years,” he says. “It has saturated both coasts and begun to move to the center.”

the tanks at brick river cider

In a twist on family moonshine, the John family has been making hard cider for at-home consumption for 150 years. “I’ve got a product that supposedly my grandfather made during Prohibition,” Russ says with a laugh. “If I popped the cap, it would probably be … not good. It will go on display at the cidery. I can imagine it as good and keep it in the bottle. It’s a better story than the disappointment that would come from drinking it.”

Russ’s grandfather, Theodore Jahn, was a Union soldier during the Civil War, and he ended his campaign in St. Louis. At that time, St. Louis was a brick manufacturing hub. Theodore, who changed his last name to John later in life, began packing and transporting bricks up and down the city’s rivers. During his travels, he saw much of the country and decided to homestead in southeast Nebraska where he founded the grain and apple farm Russ still owns and manages. When Russ is at the farm, he sleeps in the house his grandfather built on the property in 1890. With his grandfather’s legacy in mind, Russ named his ciderworks after his family’s beginnings on St. Louis’s brick river.

Brick River Cider
Jeff Shulins of Mother Road Mobile Canning monitors canning equipment

To brew cider, Russ uses fresh-pressed juice from midwestern orchards. Pressing fresh apples on location in St. Louis is not feasible, he says. “Two-thirds of the weight of an apple is juice, and the other third is dry. If you need a ton of juice, that leaves you with 1,000 pounds of dry matter at the end. I’d have to truck it back to the country to feed it to livestock.” Instead, Russ leaves the pressing to the growers.

Even though cider and beer are similar in some ways, making cider is more like working with wine or other fruit-alcohol drinks. Beer, made with grains, has a different process. Much like good wine comes from certain grape varieties, good cider comes from small, dense, heritage apples. Ciders from other varieties will end up dull, Russ says. Rainfall or frost can also affect the taste of the fruit—and the cider. “Winemakers label the year wine was made because a 2016 cabernet won’t taste the same as a 2015 from the same vines on the same ground,” Russ says. Cider flavors also vary, depending on the fruit-growing conditions for the year. But the consumption culture is different. “People won’t be tasting ciders next to one another,” he adds.

Evan Hiatt and Russ John of Brick River Cider
Evan Hiatt, brewmaster (left), and Russ John, the owner of Brick River Cider Co., are eager to open The Tap Room in February.

Russ hired Evan Hiatt, brewmaster at the now-defunct Six Row Brewery and also an experienced winemaker, because of his unique background working with wine and beer. “It’s important to have a good hand with a fruit product as well as a grain product,” Russ says. “Grain is inherently more stable to work with. Working with fruit juice is a different animal. We’re doing it in the craft tradition: work with growers; be in touch with the fruit in your land.”

Russ and Evan have worked in tandem to perfect the Brick River cider. “I have to have made a cider five or six times before I feel like I’ve got it to where I’d sell it to the public,” Russ says. “Each time to make it takes a couple of months, so anything you see here I’ve been making for a year before you see it.”

Brick River produces four craft ciders; two are available in stores already. “The two canned at grocers are our cornerstone products,” Russ says. “The first, actually called Cornerstone, is a clear semi-dry cider that has a slightly tart, delicate flavor profile. The second, Homestead, is an unfiltered, cloudy, sweet, turbulent cider. We go through different making processes to get those differences.” The limited-edition Brewers Choice cider will be exclusive to The Tap Room. Brewer’s Choice is a hopped cider with a craft beer or ale undertone.

Brick River Cider headquarters in St. Louis
Workers install the Brick River sign that will give the old brick firehouse its new life.

Russ envisions The Tap Room as a “vegetable- and fruit-forward cider pub with a menu focusing on shareables.” Crafted by St. Louis chef Christopher Lee, the menu will offer meat and fish, along with vegan and gluten-free entrées. Christopher developed his bill of fare with the Midwest’s English and French heritage in mind. An English-style pork pie shares the menu with a goat cheese torte with dried apricots and walnuts. For dessert, there is an apple spice cake and a chocolate torte with hazelnuts, caramel, and Maldon sea salt.

After searching for two years for the perfect spot to craft and serve small-batch ciders, Russ settled on a firehouse that was built in 1890 on what was then the outskirts of St. Louis and is now a neighborhood called Downtown West. Cider brews at the back of the first floor; the pub will occupy the front. An elevator and a wide staircase will take guests upstairs for restaurant seating and the kitchen. The surrounding neighborhood is friendly and developing into a popular area for nightlife.

Russ, Evan, and Christopher are eager to begin slinging artisanal ciders and serving up platters for parties in the rehabbed firehouse. They’ll never be like the massive conglomerate beer maker that shares their city, but there is room for them in the welcoming market of St. Louis as Missourians learn to love cider.

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Photos by Michael Pera