CAMBRIDGE — On a recent Monday night in a comfortable living room, seven people are gathered around a table made from a rustic barn door. They are friends of Michelle da Silva and Dana Masterpolo, who have just finished blending their third batch of Bantam Cider Wunderkind, a product they launched in January. They had recruited their friends to taste the cider and tell them which glass tastes the most like the original batch.
Over the course of a few hours, the hosts pour six blends. Tasters sip and offer reactions: “Floral,” “tart,” “acidic.” Da Silva takes a deep whiff of sample No. 5 and muses over its winey notes. “It’d play well with cheese,” she says. Every so often, one reaction elicits exuberant agreement. “Sweet honey notes,” “yes!,” “absolutely!”
Where once entrepreneurs looking to be part of the ancient tradition of drink-making dreamed of owning a winery and working the harvest, now they join the ever-increasing number of craft brewers or they open a distillery and produce spirits. But one alcohol category is still relatively uncharted: hard cider.
“At house parties, there’d always be a featured craft beer, a nice wine, and maybe a fancy cocktail and a cider option, but the ciders were always commercial brands,” says Masterpolo. “Packaging wasn’t as sophisticated as the wines or beers. And the flavor profile was always sweet. We thought there’s an opportunity to produce something creative and more connected locally.”
To solve the packaging issue, the pair offers a 22-ounce beer bottle (priced at about $7.99). They reasoned that for cider novices, the bottle is less intimidating than a wine bottle, and familiar to craft beer fans. The Wunderkind label is stark, minimalist, with “Bantam” printed in an austere font. The word bantam is commonly used in boxing to describe lightweight but spirited and aggressive fighters. For the duo, it seemed to capture their stature as a small company duking it out in a competitive city.
The entrepreneurs’ story is one that is common to many in the artisanal world. They had stable jobs. Masterpolo is an architect (she still moonlights as a project manager) and da Silva worked in real estate. But they had creative impulses that didn’t have an outlet. Originally they considered making wine. Da Silva had been interested in the process since her childhood in East Cambridge, where her Portuguese grandparents made wine. Cider won out because they were attracted to the idea of working within, and being a part of, the region’s rich agricultural heritage. These days, the women are running the operation single-handedly, picking the apples, pitching the yeast (they produce the cider at Westport Rivers Winery), monitoring the fermentation, and delivering cases.
“We’re in New England, and we wanted to do something connected with the community,” says Masterpolo. “We wanted to use apples from New England. We identified six or seven fruit varieties and started testing with different varieties of yeast. You can imagine the matrix of possibilities, since apples take on the flavor of the yeast.”
In America, cider has long been the go-to option for anyone disinclined to a beer’s brawny hoppiness or blandness. But sweet mainstream cider brands are essentially Americanized, a far cry from the yeasty, vaguely tart, gently effervescent beverage that has a long tradition in Europe, particularly in Normandy, England, and Spain. Normandy ciders have their own Appellation d’Origine Controlee.
The Colonists initially made cider, then German immigrants arrived and brought their brewing traditions. Soon beer displaced cider as the popular drink. In 2011, US cider sales were up 25 percent, according to SymphonyIRI Group analytics, and that doesn’t account for the bevy of new products since. Beer titan Anheuser-Busch launched Michelob Ultra Light Cider in May. Miller Coors purchased the Minneapolis-based Crispin Cider Co. And in the spring, Boston Beer Co., makers of Sam Adams, released Angry Orchard.
No new business is without challenges, and makers of any agricultural product are at the whim of nature. But the biggest obstacle cider makers face is one that’s dogged them for a while. “Something I’ve had a hard time convincing people is to take cider on its own merit,” says Paul Correnty, author of “The Art of Cider Making” and a founder of CiderDays, a festival in Western Massachusetts. “It can take the place of both. You can cook with it in place of wine, or have it with a meal in a wine glass or in a beer glass. It’s neither, but can play the role of both.”
And then there are always the small technical mishaps to contend with. For the Bantam pair, it’s the day that glass shards went flying when a jug of cider exploded because of pressure. “No matter how much we’re learning and how good we feel about the cider we’ve developed, we’re always humbled working with an agricultural product,” says Masterpolo. “There are always surprises.”
Bantam Cider Wunderkind is available at Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750; Bauer Wines,
330 Newbury St., Boston, 617-262-0363; Concord Provisions, 73 Thoreau St., Concord, 978-369-5555; Julio’s Liquors,
140 Turnpike Road, Westborough, 508-366-1942; or go to www.bantamcider.com.