Prairie cidery focuses on Manitoba apples

Marcus Wiebe made his first large batch of cider in 2018.  |  Dead Horse Cider Co. photo

Some of the varieties used by the business were developed years ago at Agriculture Canada’s research station in Morden

Manitoba’s climate isn’t as apple-friendly as Canada’s main apple growing areas, but a surprising number of varieties manage to thrive here.

“The main varieties are Goodland, Norland, Winter Cheeks, Red Sparkle, Fall Red and Norkent,” Marcus Wiebe, owner of Dead Horse Cider Co., said.

He added that some of these varieties were developed years ago at Agriculture Canada’s research station in Morden, Man., not far from his family’s farm located near Winkler.

Wiebe, 31, said these apple varieties were bred for the slightly warmer climate of the Pembina Valley escarpment’s east side.

“It’s a micro-climate — almost a zone four.”

Wiebe said he didn’t make a conscious decision to venture into the cider business, but circumstances led him to it.

He is the fourth generation in his father’s family to farm on the same land in southern Manitoba. He and his parents, Garry and Edna, were looking to diversify their production and he grew pumpkins on five acres in 2015. A business arrangement with a Manitoba company to buy his pumpkins fell through so he began looking for another viable crop.

He bought an apple press and started learning about juicing and the hard-cider-making process from a cider maker in Saskatoon. He then took a cider making course at Oregon State University.

He made his first large batch of cider in 2018 and hasn’t looked back since.

“Cider making has become a passion of mine,” he said.

“Prairie apples are higher in acid than dessert apples from Ontario…. Different apples, different yeasts and barrel techniques produce different tastes.”

The Dead Horse Creek, which runs next to Wiebe’s farm, served as inspiration for the cider company’s name. The apple-pressing branch of the business is named Burwalde Juice Co. after the Burwalde forest, also close by.

Dead Horse Cider offers Looking on the Bright Cide(r), which is made from a blend of Manitoba-grown apples. Cherry On features a light tart taste arising from a combination of apples and sour cherries, also grown in Manitoba. Far from the Tree is made from a blend of Canadian apples, grapefruit and Manitoba-grown hops for a citrus flavour. Wiebe also produces a limited edition rosé made from Kerr apples, a small red crabapple variety that originated at the Morden research centre. Wiebe said these apples are best when harvested after a frost and they give the wine a reddish tint.

The company’s hard cider varieties (containing alcohol) are sold at Manitoba liquor stores and offered on tap at a few Winnipeg restaurants. They were also sold at seasonal outdoor pop-up patios in downtown Winnipeg during the past few months. Burwalde Juice’s apple juice is sold at Crampton’s Market in Headingley, Man., and Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company locations in Winnipeg.

Wiebe said he and his parents have marketed Dead Horse Cider products, apple juice and their apple-pressing service at Winnipeg area farmers markets.

They hope to spread the word that they will buy some apples grown in backyards and gardens, which are often left to rot or to fill compost heaps each fall. Wiebe aims to process about 70,000 pounds of apples this year.

Wiebe said COVID-19 restrictions have made it more difficult for him to connect with local apple growers because the number of community fairs and markets was reduced.

Winnipegger Linda Sundevic has picked 190 lb. of apples from two trees in her backyard, which Wiebe has juiced.

“One of my trees is Mackintosh and the other is a Goodland variety. It was a good crop from those two trees this year. The branches were bent right down almost to the ground with the weight of the apples. This year they also produced the biggest apples I’ve ever gotten and the sweetest since I left them on the tree for the first two frosts,” she said.

Wiebe also offers customers like Sundevic the chance to sell him their apples in return for a gift card that they can redeem for bottles of the Manitoba Apple Community Blend hard cider he is making later this year.

Sundevic had half of her crop made into 25 litres of juice.

Wiebe said it takes about four lb. of apples to make a litre of juice. He supplies the juice containers and the juice is processed using ultraviolet pasteurization. The finished product has a shelf life of two weeks and must be refrigerated.

“People are always a little shocked at how good the juice tastes,” he said.

Sundevic said she was impressed with Wiebe’s service and the final product.

“It has a beautifully clear tone and a bright, crisp flavour. I’ve tried their Dead Horse Cider before and am glad I could contribute apples to this great product. I’ll definitely be ready next year to do business with them again.”

Wiebe has started a fledgling orchard on his farm with 160 trees. “That’s our whole next step,” he said. “It’s going to be a long process in the orchard.”

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