Farmhouse Cidery Visit: MillStone Cellars
Hard cider gets a bad rap – especially with the likes of Woodchuck and Angry Orchard being the most accessible brands. Both peddle basic, sweet varieties of this fermented apple beverage and are produced in high quantities to push out to the masses. But we’re here to tell you that if you look outside of the beer distributor portfolio, you’ll find some exquisite and interesting takes on this gluten-free alcoholic beverage. Hands down some of the best ciders in the country are coming from a tiny little place in Monkton, Maryland called MillStone Cellars where they make rustic ciders, meads and cysers.
Why is rustic cider from MillStone so very different from all the rest? Their website sums it up well with this explanation:
“MillStone Cellars is a farmhouse cidery that crafts all oak barrel-aged dry ciders. We focus solely on the production of rustic style ciders, cysers and meads, heavily influenced by the native yeast, microbes and local growing conditions. We source all of our ingredients within 150 miles of our cidery as well as growing and foraging our own. We strive to distill and preserve all things that make our region and climate unique, presented to you in a bottle of cider.”
Some bonus facts about their beverages: No preservatives, No filtering, Gluten free – it’s pure, natural goodness.
Wait! What’s a cyser and mead anyway? Quite simply, mead is a beverage made by fermenting honey. And, a cyser is cider blended with mead.
Derek and I were mesmerized by MillStone Cellars after our first taste during a beercation to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. One of our favorite spots, Henlopen City Oyster House, had MillStone Farmgate hard cider on their rare/special bottle list. We were intrigued by the elegant bottle styling – flip top cap that was wax sealed. Fancy! We sipped slowly out of stemmed glassware – savoring every little drop of this complex, dry cider. It really was like a fine wine. We had tasted nothing like it before and we’ve had quite a few hard ciders in the past 20+ years of our brew adventures. And, just a few short months after that trip, we had the pleasure of meeting owner and fermentation genius, Curt Sherrer at The Black Gryphon in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania for a food + drinks pairing dinner featuring MillStone Cellars hard ciders, meads and cysers. Curt was so informative and engaging as he talked through each drink that accompanied each dinner course served. Afterwards, he encouraged us to make a visit to MillStone and that we did!
We made an entire day of our visit to MillStone with some friends on a brisk, Fall Saturday. Every 2-3 months we get together to explore a brewery, cidery, winery, restaurant, taproom, etc. It was our turn to organize the outing and come up with something fun and tasty. So we arranged for a very special visit to talk with Curt, while sampling the lineup and exploring every square inch of the place.
MillStone Cellars sits along a winding country road in an 1830 grist mill that’s been renovated for cider production and sales. Many of the original elements of this historical building were left intact – from the mill wheel pit in the basement to the 3rd floor taproom that has hardwood floors and hefty wooden beams in the ceiling. We’ll walk you through our visit starting at the basement level.
We started our tour in what could be described as the basement. Curt showed us the “wheel pit” which they are working on bringing back to life. This is where a large, water driven wheel connects to the various gears used to drive the mill. MillStone acquired the property in 2003 and Curt has been personally involved in restoring the building. There were various small rooms to discover in the basement – some of which were packed with barrels containing fermenting cider.
Curt explained how all of their ciders and meads are fermented in barrels which they source from various suppliers. They utilize a blend of native and/or cultured yeast which plays a big role in developing the unique flavors found in their products. They also condition their ciders and meads in the same barrels on the lees, yet another technique that sets their product apart in an increasingly crowded market segment. Many of their ciders are aged for at least 8-10 months in barrels before blending and packaging.
‘Lees’ refers to deposits of dead yeast or residual yeast and other particles that settle to the bottom of the barrels after fermentation and during aging.
1st Floor – Info Center & Retail Store
MillStone’s beverages can be enjoyed in the 3rd floor taproom or you can snag bottles in the 1st floor retail store to take home after your visit. We’re not gonna lie. There might be some sticker shock when looking at the price list. But it’s well worth it. The quality ingredients, the time to age to perfection and creativity of blending that goes into crafting a beverage like this goes well beyond the mass produced cider you’re used to drinking. It’s more like buying a good bottle of wine or wild beer.
Right now as we’re collaborating on this post, we’re enjoying Pommust Cyser which is apple honey wine with grape pomace barrel aged blueberry honey cyser fermented with cabernet franc pomace. Whoa! That’s a mouthful. A mouth full of goodness!
Bonus: If you buy a case of bottles (12 bottles total), they will take 10% off your bill. We took advantage of that deal and stocked up.
Fun Fact: For each bottle returned, you will get a dollar credit to spend at the taproom. That’s pretty cool! And, if you don’t want to return the bottle, be sure to reuse it as a water bottle for dinner parties, storing your homemade vinaigrette or other salad dressing or even display it in a bottle collection. There are many uses for this lovely vessel.
What else can you buy in the store? Raw honey, t-shirts, growlers and glassware are available for purchase.
2nd Floor – Barrel Room
The second floor of the mill is primarily a barrel aging area containing dozens of oak barrels filled with ciders and meads. We noticed both wine and whisky barrels some of which were sourced from the west coast.
Fun Fact: MillStone ferments and ages each variety of apple individually as opposed to blending various apple varieties prior to fermentation. This gives them greater flexibility when it comes to blending what will become the final, packaged product.
So what exactly is fermenting in all those barrels? Lots and lots of interesting concoctions like cider with baby ginger, cider with honeysuckle flowers, kombucha mead, pressed grapes with cider and a cyser with fish peppers. We were particularly fond of the blueberry honey mead. Once aged, these will not be bottled as is but rather blended into unique offerings.
How does Curt know so much about barrel-aging, making fermented beverages and blending? Well. He has quite the resume:
- He first made wine in high school in his organic chemistry class. The project was to make ten gallons of local red wine (drinking age was 18 then).
- Was a cellar rat for many years.
- Has a Bachelor of Science in Fermentation Science.
- For 10 years, he made wine at two local East Coast wineries.
- Earned a degree in Chemical Engineering.
- Was a U.S. Patent Examiner reviewing alcoholic beverage patent applications.
MillStone sources all of their apples from within 50 miles of their property. A lot of their apples actually come from South Central Pennsylvania which is right in our backyard as well as Maryland. Curt explained the importance of harvesting the apples when they are very ripe and how the quality of the apples is actually better when the crop yield is low. Both contribute to the fruit being sweeter and richer in flavor. The higher sugar content also results in a higher alcohol percentage after fermentation.
One of the long term goals for MillStone is having their own orchards started from cuttings of local and heirloom-variety apple trees.
It’s all about experimentation and exploring new flavors. We got to peek behind the scenes at these mad-scientist-looking carboys filled with herbs and other natural ingredients. Herbs are being cold steeped over a long period of time for intense flavor before being blended into a future beverage release.
3rd Floor – Taproom
The taproom had a small selection of beverages on draft. The day we visited, they had:
- Bonfire (cyser with smoked fish peppers which has a nice heat and touch of smokey flavor)
- Cherrykriek (dark cherry wine blended with a rustic cider – shown above)
- Gingeroot (cider with local organic ginger)
- Sonic Cider (dry, low acid cider fermented and aged in oak for over 6 months with WTMD Radio music being played to it throughout the aging process)
How much does this relatively small cidery produce? A staggering 26,000 gallons this year. And, Curt is looking to expand MillStone into a larger facility that was a former paper mill built in 1914 not far from their current location. It’s much larger at 33,000 sq ft and will have more parking to better accommodate visitors. In addition to a taproom, the new space will include a pizzeria and coffee shop. Stay tuned for more details on that.
We should note that there is currently no restaurant in the current Monkton, MD location but you are encouraged to bring your own food. We toted along a nice selection of fruits, veggies, cheeses and gluten free crackers.
Accessible from the 3rd floor taproom is this rustic outdoor space (aka covered patio) to gather with your friends and enjoy the sight and seclusion of the wooded area around the building. The patio can also be reserved for special and private parties.
While checking out the views, Curt and Caiti Sullivan walked us through 9 different selections to sample. Caiti is the Events and Farmers’ Market Coordinator at MillStone and has a vast knowledge of fermentation (beverage AND food-related), medicinal properties of botanical ingredients as well as sustainable food systems. All of which were of interest to our little group. We threw question after question her way and she dazzled us with her responses and insights. It was a great time of tasting and talking about the different flavor notes detected in each sip.
What Else Is Cooking?
Curt is quite passionate about preserving vintage, abandoned orchards some of which are on state owned lands. He calls them “ancient trees.” These orchards are 100 years old or more. The gnarled, ancient apple trees of olden days were never exposed to large amounts of pesticides and growth stimulants of modern day orchards. Although these forgotten, massive mature trees might produce less fruit due to lack of pruning, the fruit they bare is quite exquisite in flavor. Making them ideal for cider making.
While visiting Albany, New York recently, Curt found one of these ancient orchards that had been left unattended. He convinced the state to let him harvest the apples, make small batch cider, and then sell the beverage locally. This idea has blossomed into a spin off project, yet to be named. Curt is currently eyeing up an old orchard on the Antietam Battlefield in Maryland. We’re looking forward to seeing (tasting) what comes of this initiative!