By Veronica Meewes
Photography by Dustin Meyer
You might say that Argus Cidery founder Wes Mickel likes a challenge. The 27-year-old moved to Austin knowing the apple supply was so limited that nobody else had ever attempted to produce a hard cider here. Rather than discourage him, though, this news had the opposite effect. “I talked to three growers,” Mickel says, “and no one was making any wines out of their apples. That really excited me because I knew, with the climate, they were just going to be exploding with sugar. And they were.”
Mickel knows a thing or two about taking advantage of a ripe opportunity. After graduating from college in Arkansas, he attended culinary school at Napa’s Culinary Institute of America at Greystone before landing a gig in San Francisco as culinary rock star Tyler Florence’s right-hand man—opening three restaurants with him and working on several cookbooks. He also had stints as a wine blender at San Francisco’s Crushpad and as a chef de partie at Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood and Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc.
“I love food just as much as I love wine,” says Mickel. “I think at the time when [my wife and I] moved down here…this was ‘hey, let’s have fun,’ whereas food was ‘let’s pay bills.’ And now it’s kind of switching to this paying the bills and food being fun. But both of them are definitely hobbies that I’ve tried to figure out how to turn into a full-time job. That’s kind of the goal here—to do what we want to do on a daily basis.”
And it appears as though Mickel is succeeding, as fermenting apples at the Dripping Springs cidery just officially became his day job. He had been a senior chef instructor at Whole Foods Market, teaching and writing curricula for classes in the culinary center, but just recently went part-time to focus his efforts on the cidery. Whole Foods Market coworker Jules Peterson assists Mickel in developing new blends and perfecting the barrels of liquid gold.
Made from apples sourced at Bat Creek Farm out of Bertram, Love Creek Orchards in Medina and Lubbock’s Top of Texas Orchard, among others, the brew Argus is producing is more complex than commercial ciders on the market. In lieu of traditional cider yeast, Mickel has been experimenting with different types of wine yeast—whether it be Champagne or garnacha strains. “That’s why, flavor-wise, all of our ciders are completely different from everyone else’s,” says Mickel. “Usually people use some kind of British cider yeast that gives it that muskiness. Our thinking was: do a grape yeast, and that would give the cider more of a clean flavor—more straightforward apple. So far it’s done a really great job.”
They also use various blends of American and French oak during the fermentation process, which they incorporate by infusing the cider with bags of the oak chips with toast levels ranging from white to charred. The yeast and oak variables allow for flavor experimentation and help balance the flavor of the mostly sweet apples found in Texas. “Whatever we get on a yearly basis, we have to figure out how to make the best wine out of what we have,” says Mickel. “There are only so many apples. That’s why we try to use all sorts of different yeasts. And we have tons of oak profiles that we pair to the flavors of the apples, as well. It gets very convoluted, and we’ve got these sheets with lines and arrows drawn all over them!”
True to Mickel’s Napa roots, the process he uses closely resembles a winemaking format. The apples are juiced and the juice is stored in large barrels according to apple type. From there, the sugar level is measured, the temperature is regulated and the yeast is monitored to make sure it stays healthy. Next, the barrels are oaked and the different types of apple juices are blended together. The cider is bottled and primed by adding sugar, then the bottles sit for at least five months. The result is a crisp, dry cider with fine bubbles that are, according to Mickel, a step higher than very carbonated beer and a step below Champagne.
With Argus Cidery’s tasting room scheduled to open this fall, cider lovers will be able to sample Mickel’s brews at their peak, as well as Argus’s still wines, which have been aged in oak barrels for over a year. The long-awaited 2011 Bandera Brut (Gala, Early Fuji, Mutsu and Jonathan blend) was released in April, and the new Malus Opus blend (Gala, Cameo and Jonagold blend) will be available starting this month. By late summer, the Lady Goldsmith (Pink Lady, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith blend) will be on shelves, but Mickel suggests that enthusiasts move quickly.
“Because we have such a limited supply of apples, and we make the cider the way we do, it’s hard to keep a constant stock,” he says. “We’ll have a release and everyone will go out and try it and—being that it’s a small production—we’ll be out…and we can’t refill orders simply because we can’t source enough apples here in Texas. What’s the next solution to that?” He pauses, then answers his own question with a smile. “Plant a lot of trees!”
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