At Headhouse Farmers Market on Sundays, Three Springs Fruit Farm sells everything from peaches to pumpkins to sour cherries, but it’s especially well-known for its apples. Come autumn, racks and racks of apple crates create a gold-rose wreath around its sizable market stand, and shoppers scoop them up. Those in the know also make sure to pick up a jug of Three Springs cider, one of the best around.
And now, that juice is about to get even better — at least, if you like to drink.
Welcome Ploughman Cider to the world of Philly booze.
The cidery, which will ferment, bottle and sell hard cider from apples grown on the Three Springs farm, got final licensing over the summer. Bottles of its first product, a 9 percent ABV American strong cider dubbed Stark, will begin selling when the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approves the label — something that’s likely to happen this month.
For Ben Wenk, the 32-year-old, seventh-generation Three Springs partner in charge of the ciderworks, it’s not a moment too soon.
‘We could make this’
Wenk has been hard at work making Ploughman a reality for more than four years. The idea actually started to ferment all the way back in 2007, over a couple of drinks at a Headhouse Square bar.
Taking the century-old farm’s produce to an outside farmers market was Wenk’s idea in the first place. When he returned from college with a degree in agroecology and decided to join the family business, he convinced his father and uncle to let him try out retail sales. He signed up for several markets, and also started relationships with several top Philly chefs, to whom he still makes personal deliveries each week.
Around two months into Three Springs’ inaugural Headhouse season, things were going well. Dave Wenk had joined his Ben in Philadelphia that day, and after a solid day of sales, father and son decided to kick back with a pint. They headed up the stairs at the Dark Horse Pub (where Cavanaugh’s now stands), and took a look at the tap list.
“Hmm, never had this beer before,” said the older Wenk, pointing to the menu listing titled “Strongbow.” He ordered one, and quickly discovered it wasn’t beer at all — it was hard cider.
But not hard cider like he’d come to think of it. This wasn’t sweet and cloying like Woodchuck. It was bright, sharp, tangy and buzzy. And pretty darn delicious.
“This is so different,” Dave said to his son. “We could make this.”
FYI, most cider apples are ‘spitters’
So Wenk bought some bourbon barrels and started playing around. He used easily-attainable champagne yeast, and started fermenting. After a handful of batches, the stuff he was making was good enough to drink, and he started hosting cider parties for friends.
He didn’t think seriously about developing the project until a few years later, when he found out a couple of fellow Adams County apple farmers had applied for an actual license to launch Big Hill Ciderworks.
In 2012, Wenk made the case to his father and uncle. “We could really do this,” he told them. Because he’d been so successful at building out the farm’s retail business, they decided to let him try. They allocated six acres of their 450-acre estate to the cider cause, and Wenk got busy ordering the right kind of apple trees.
“Cider apples are different from eating apples,” Wenk explains. “There’s some crossover, but most cider apples are spitters.”
There are various ways to classify cider apples, but Wenk thinks of them as being of four types: Sharps, sweets, bitter sweets and bitter sharps. “The last two are hard to come by,” he says, but those are the ones that make the product he wanted — cider that bites back, but is ultimately drinkable and refreshing.
Eventually, he found a supplier and ordered his custom buds: A set of 40 Michelin apple trees and 80 Ashmead’s Kernal apple trees. These went into the ground at Three Springs in 2015, and are now around 5.5 feet tall. This year, they even began to bear fruit, but were “defruited” instead of harvested, to concentrate energy on growing out roots and branches.
Meanwhile, he’d been squirreling away extra or overripe apples from the rest of the farm’s crop. As of last spring, he had some 3,000 gallons of raw juice ready and waiting to be fermented.
But he still had to get the license.
Creating a destination
Adams County grows a lot of apples. In fact, it’s the fifth largest apple producing county in the entire US, coming in after four in Washington, New York and Michigan.
So as cider has taken root in American drinking culture — production has leapt more than 700 percent over the past five years, generating more than $1 billion in 2015 sales — the farmers of south central Pennsylvania have taken note.
The region is already home to Jack’s Hard Cider, Good Intent Cider, Reid’s Cider House and Big Hill Ciderworks, whose principals in 2014 told PennLive they were working hard to turn Adams County into a “‘destination’ for hard cider.”
Wenk is all about this. He’s thrilled with the idea of joining the cohort. But Menallen Township, where Three Springs (and now Ploughman) are located, was less sanguine. While some of the other ciderworks has been approved without much consideration or worry, the prospect of more and more of them around led to some clamping down.
“They threw the book at us,” Wenk says. “As is their right…but getting our license took over a year longer than expected.”
As of now, though, everything is ironed out, and it’s full steam ahead.
Ploughman’s facility is not very big: A single room of less than 600 square feet at the bottom of a storage facility that decades ago was used to house livestock.
Wenk was able to squeeze eight 300-gallon fermenters into the small space. He doesn’t have enough capital to install insulation, so he’s keeping the whole room at the 60-degree optimum temperature instead. (Easier because it’s halfway below-ground with only a single door and window, one of the reasons Wenk chose it.)
And because his expertise is in growing the apples, not fermenting them, he hired a consultant to help direct that part of the operation: Edwin Winzeler. Winzeler’s full-time job is as researcher at Penn State in the department of plant science, but he’s been a hobbyist cidermaker for more than a decade.
“We were super lucky to get him,” Wenk says.
After Three Springs grows the fruit, it’ll be sent to Eden Garden Farm for pressing. Then, Winzlerer will help choose what yeast is used for fermentation. It will vary from batch to batch depending on the characteristics of the juice, says Wenk who also has a student at Dickinson College working on isolating a proprietary yeast from cultures taken from the farm.
When the liquid is ready, a mobile bottling operation will swing by and slide it into bottles (mostly 750-ml, but possibly some 500-ml, too). Labels by Philly artist Alex Peltz will be slapped on the outsides, and the cider will be ready to hit the shelves.
Where to find it
Where will Ploughman Cider be available?
Definitely at its place of genesis, the Headhouse Farmers Market. Wenk tentatively has a tasting planned for Sunday, Nov. 20, and expects to have bottles for sale there on Dec. 4 and Dec. 18. (Guess around $15 a pop.)
Ploughman will also be added to the drink menus of some of Three Springs’ current restaurant customers. On the schedule so far is a tasting event at Martha, a class at Cook and cider dinners at Aldine, High Street on Market and Stargazy. It will also be included in Fair Food’s annual beer festival, the Brewers Plate.
How many more places Ploughman will pour is up to Wenk’s sales skills. It’s not always an easy sell, because “cider is made like wine,” he explains, “but consumer expectations treat it like beer.”
The seventh-gen fruit farmer is very bullish on cider in general, though.
“The greatest expression of an apple is fermented in hard cider with local yeast.”