At one point, almost 100 years ago, the Bitterroot Valley had more than 10,000 acres of apple trees in commercial orchard operations.
Though they missed the boat on what is, arguably, the best use for their apples.
In the past few years, new orchards have sprung up in the Bitterroot for one purpose: to make hard cider.
The most recent example is Western Cider, which claims to be the first in Montana to sell cider produced from its own orchard.
Those trees were planted in 2012 by Michael Billingsley, who, along with a couple of friends, Matthew LaRubbio and Jon Clarenbach, was growing increasingly interested in old-fashioned cider apple varieties like Kingston Black or Amere de Berthcourt.
“We kinda started from the agricultural side of things,” LaRubbio said. “He (Billingsley) kinda just took a leap, honestly, growing cider apples.”
Western Cider opened in Missoula in April, with 12 ciders on tap, five of which were sourced from its orchard.
The others used apples from other Bitterroot growers, Idaho and Washington.
LaRubbio sees its hard cider as continuing a general trend of craft drinks and food that look to the original creators for inspiration, rather than a commercialized version of the product: take Angry Orchard versus Western’s small-batch cider made with hops.
“Now that it’s such a trend, people are really recognizing this beverage that we all really forgot about,” LaRubbio said.
This summer LaRubbio said they’re focusing on bottling some of their popular rotations like the Western Medicine Whiskey Peach, Sour Cherry and McIntosh, along with the already-canned Poor Farmer and Poor Farmer Hopped.
The cider house will have some seasonal varieties on tap at the California Street location as well. LaRubbio said it will get “experimental,” mentioning a watermelon cider.
“I guarantee you everyone who’s come in here has found one they like,” he said.
While Western is the first cidery offering its own apples in drinks, others are moving that way as well.
Hannah Weinert runs the betterRoot Cider Bar in Florence with her husband Jesse Spalding. The two opened their doors in October 2016 with a small tasting room and monthly tours.
They started out making ciders with gifted apples and eventually planted their own orchard, though they still make ciders with apples from Darby, a Florence neighbor’s trees and sometimes Idaho and Washington.
“We felt like this was kind of our thing,” Weinert said. “Combining our passion and cool ingredients that we can find locally.”
After years of home brewing beers and wines, the couple got some apples and moved into cider. Weinert liked how creative she could be brewing cider.
The tasting room has since closed, Weinert said, so they can focus on bottling cider and distilling brandy under the label fireRoot, though they still offer the monthly tours with tastings.
“We decided to pare down,” Weinert said. “It’s just the next step.”
The goal is to bottle four varieties of cider, while turning out special batches for the monthly tastings. The brandy will be available in liquor stores as soon as its ready.