Of all the apples grown in the United States, some of the most difficult to find are those that lend themselves to the production of hard cider, according to Chris Collins, proprietor of North Shore Cider Company, which opened this year at 707 Howard St.
“When you combine cider apples – some are very bitter, some are very sharp – they make a great juice that you can ferment and give it a lot of complexity,” Mr. Collins explained. “They just aren’t apples that you sit and eat, or put in a dessert.”
Planting of apple trees appropriate for hard cider production dwindled during Prohibition, and never regained its footing, he added. That makes a business centered around hard-cider a formidable challenge, but it is one that Mr. Collins has eagerly accepted at his business, which opened early this year on Howard Street in south Evanston.
He officially opened last February – initially serving the cider in “growler” and “howler jugs – and began serving the cider on tap in July.
“I didn’t know how soon I wanted to transition the business [into tap service], but it just made sense to start,” he recalled. “We were already open these hours, and I thought we might as well take advantage of it.”
A native of St. Charles, Mr. Collins is a former bond analyst who has lived in Evanston since 2009. He decided to open the store in late 2015.
“Making cider was a hobby,” he explained. “I started home-brewing, and I still home brew, here in Evanston. My home-brewing equipment was taking up more and more space in my basement, and my wife said, ‘Why don’t you make me some cider? I’d love some cider.’ I said, ‘Alright, I can do that.’”
Mr. Collins now remembers thinking at the time, “It’s just apple juice and mead—how hard can it be?”
In hindsight, those were famous last words.
“For me, making a good cider was harder than making a good beer,” he said. “That just set me on a path wherein I wanted to be making a good cider. I started experimenting with different yeasts, using the freshest-possible apple juice – so much so that I got a press and a mill that I still use back here [in the store] for small batches.”
Mr. Collins also took a University of Wisconsin extension course about orchard management in 2015. “I planned my own orchard of cider-specific apples and would then use those to make cider. The problem with that was that apples take a number of years in order to have a meaningful harvest – anywhere from three to five years. It would take a while to get any cash out of the business.”
His apples are currently farmed in Michigan. Mr. Collins usually keeps about six different flavors on tap, and will try to gradually increase that number to 12.
Among his recent seasonal offerings are “Punkin” – spiced with pumpkin pie spices such as cinnamon, allspice, clove, cardamom, mace and ginger – and “Crantastic,” sweetened with cranberries.
He supplies ciders to restaurants in both Evanston and Chicago and hopes to begin packaging the cider for sale in the near future. Though some customers like sweetened ciders, North Shore Cider specializes in those that are drier.
“We don’t like to add sugar back into it,” Mr. Collins said. “…That’s me speaking from a purist’s standpoint.”
After spending nearly a year looking for the location, Mr. Collins said he is glad he settled in Evanston, and added that local officials, among them Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, provided a great deal of support along the way.
Customers, he noted, “have been very supportive. They may not know what cider is about yet, but they come in to see the business, which I really appreciate. Howard Street can be a great place to be. … It’s developing into a place that people want to come to and stay at.”