What Sam Calagione is to beer—maverick, experimenter, innovator—Joe Heron is becoming to hard cider. His two-year-old cider company, Crispin, makes traditional ciders (under both Crispin and Fox Barrel brands), but its Artisanal Reserve line and special releases are something truly unique. "Our job is to convince people it's not sweet beer, it's not something to drink because you don't like beer. We're saying, 'No, you like beer, try this,'" Heron says.
Heron and his cider makers, Bruce Nissen and Ryan Aikens, are twisting the cider formula by experimenting with barrel aging and fermenting with alternative yeasts—stuff that was previously only the domain of experimental craft beer brewers. Heron says: "I wanted to do something that a craft beer drinker would find interesting and authentic. Artisanal Reserve are our American balls-to-the-wall, new-world craft ciders. They are done by nobody in the world."
Going the craft beer route seems to be working for Heron: Crispin was available in four states in 2009, and is now in almost 30. Currently, the Artisanal Reserve series has three ciders in it: Honey Crisp, The Saint, and Lansdowne. While many ciders use concentrate, these are made from fresh juice mainly from Granny Smith, Washington, and Golden apples. "You wouldn't drink grape wine from grape concentrate," says Heron. The ciders are also unfiltered, which gives them a little more body and a slightly cloudy look.
Honey Crisp is made with honey (duh), and was the first of the experimental line. In the glass it looks really light, like lemon juice—surprising when you first see it. While it's definitely sweet (you're probably not going to get a double-IPA-swilling hop-head beer geek into it), it's not cloying at all, and has a shockingly clean finish. It's lightly carbonated, and tastes like something you could drink as an apéritif or just on its own. The apple is there, but it doesn't have that synthetic Sour Apple Pucker smell that some ciders do.
"Once the Honey Crisp took off," says Heron, "we got so excited and started asking ourselves, 'What will we do next?' We said we'd do a maple syrup one. We wanted to do a big, ballsy Honey Crisp, and it came out terrible. It was just horrible. That's when we started playing around with novel yeasts." That led to The Saint, a cider brewed with Trappist yeast and maple syrup. It's sweeter than the Honey Crisp, but also more complex: You pick up on the flavors the yeast imparts, but it's very subtle compared to a Trappist ale, with just a hint of funkiness and spiciness from the maple. "We were told by some consultants that we were crazy to try it," says Heron, who was born in South Africa. "My response was, 'In America you can do whatever you want. Your only failure is lack of trying.'"
In September, Heron added Lansdowne (pictured in the glass above) to the series, a cider brewed with dark Irish stout yeast and molasses. This one is the color of an amber ale, way darker than the other two, with a definite molasses smell and flavor and some spicy flavors as well—wintry where the other two are light and summery. At the end of October, The Jacket, a limited-edition blend of four ciders (including one that was wild-fermented) and Gravenstein apple juice, aged in Jack Daniel's barrels, is scheduled for release.
Right now cider is less than 1 percent of the beer market. "More people drink nonalcoholic beer!" says Heron, who admits he didn't even drink cider before getting into the business. His modest goal for Crispin's future: "I would like to get a salary someday; that would be awesome."