By BARRY ADAMS Wisconsin State Journal
MOUNT HOREB, Wis. (AP) — Ken Ruppert and Karin Condon have a new appreciation for their apples.
For decades, they had largely ignored the fruit growing on trees scattered about the pastureland and wooded areas of their 208-acre beef cattle farm between Dodgeville and Mineral Point. But in February, Ruppert’s and Condon’s crop began taking on a fermented and liquid form at what is being billed as the first cider pub in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin State Journal recently reported.
Brix Cider, which features apples from 18 farms in southern Wisconsin, stands two blocks south of Mount Horeb’s Main Street and next door to the looming new headquarters of Duluth Trading Co. The business, housed in a former cheese warehouse, is also drawing attention to other local food producers and giving those unfamiliar with farming a peek into the state’s changing agricultural industry, from which small, family dairy farms are rapidly vanishing.
“We welcomed it because we thought someone might as well use them,” Condon said of their overlooked apple crop, as she stood inside the pub on a recent Friday night.
“They asked us if they could pick the apples and we said, ‘Yeah, go ahead,’ because the only ones eating them were the cows,” added Ruppert, 61, who was born and raised on the Iowa County property. “I don’t think we ever thought there was any value to those apples. They were just wild trees.”
Brix Cider was started by Matt and Marie Raboin, who live south of Barneveld on six acres with their two young children, Teddy, 3, and Vera, 1. This is where, in 2014, the couple began planting scores of apple trees. Today, their orchard has more than 1,000 trees, which are starting to produce 110 varieties of apples.
The Raboins have squeezed about 250 gallons of juice from their own apples, but 85 to 90 percent of the juice for their 11 ciders is made with apples from other growers.
The goal is to produce about 1,000 gallons of cider a year in a production center next to the tasting room. But about 50 percent of sales at Brix Cider are designed to come from locally sourced food.
And that’s what separates Brix from other cider operations, like Door County’s Island Orchard Cider in Ellison Bay, Lost Valley Cider in Milwaukee and The Cider Farm south of Hollandale, which is building a tasting room next to Brennan’s Cellar’s on Madison’s Southwest Side.
Just like the apples, the food at Brix comes largely from area farms and other local food producers.
“I think that the local thing will resonate,” Matt Raboin said. “I hope it will. We’re banking on it.”
The $300,000 project by the Raboins, who took out a second mortgage on their home to finance it, includes a kitchen filled with carrots from Taproot Farm & Fruit in Ridgeway; honey from Gentle Breeze Honey in Mount Horeb; and onions from Cross Roads Community Farm just south of Pine Bluff. Flour comes from Meadowlark Organics near Ridgeway, Cress Spring Bakery north of Blue Mounds provides the bread and cookies, and some of the sausage is made at Hoesly Meats in New Glarus.
The opening of the business came after an arduous journey with several disappointments over two years. The Raboins thought they had a building in Blue Mounds but it was sold to someone else. Then came a plan to put the business in the Mount Horeb Food Emporium, a collection of food producers in the building they now call home.
However, the emporium plan, a project by Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action in Mineral Point, never came about and fell apart in 2017 after the Raboins had signed a lease and after Matt Raboin quit his job and began renting freezer storage for the 4,500 gallons of juice he had pressed for his business’s expected opening in spring 2018.
The Raboins, frustrated, began exploring other options, including not only other buildings but also food trucks, warehouses, restaurants, old empty buildings and build-to-suit options. Enter Steve Schlecht, executive chairman of Duluth Trading Co., who has invested in several projects in downtown Mount Horeb. Schlecht had recently purchased the building where the cider pub eventually opened and called the Raboins to offer them the front half of the building for their business. They were scheduled to open on Jan. 30 but postponed it for a day because of the polar vortex.
“It was a little bigger investment than we had originally planned on but we managed to cobble it together and here we are,” Matt Raboin said.
“With Mount Horeb, we knew it was growing and we knew it was going to boom,” Marie Raboin said. “And it’s a nice 10-mile commute for us, which is nothing.”