Boston’s Cider Bantamweights

photo 1-8When we first heard why Bantam Cider is called ‘bantam,’ we were a little jealous we hadn’t thought of it first. Originally the name of a seaport town in Indonesia, ‘bantam’ became the word to describe the small but durable chickens sold there for long stints at sea. These chickens were half the size of normal chickens, but exhibited all the characteristics of standard poultry. From there the word evolved to describe the bantamweight boxing class, a diminutive weight class that was nevertheless feisty.

“It means small and mighty, and that was the perfect metaphor for our hometown of Boston as well as us, two women jumping into this business,” said Bantam co-founder Dana Masterpolo. She started the company with Michelle DeSilva, and the two have taken on craft brewing fearlessly, in an industry often dominated by men. Given the history behind the word, it’s a wonder we don’t see it pop up more often in our industry of micro-batch, small-scale food producers who are nevertheless contenders in the growing scene of American edibles.

Michelle & Dana, who met thru mutual friends six years ago, launched their flagship Wunderkind cider in early 2012 after noticing at parties and bars around town that the Boston cider scene wasn’t keeping up with the craftiness invading beer & cocktails. The two were working in architecture (Dana) and insurance/real estate (Michelle) when they started playing around with apples and a Jack LaLanne juicer in their kitchen.

Michelle in the tank room at their Union Square production space, tasting a batch of cider for readiness.

Michelle in the tank room at their Union Square production space, tasting a batch of cider for readiness.

“Prior to starting Bantam, we had both reached a point in our lives when we wanted a change, a big change,” Dana said, “and to make something that we were proud of and where we could be more connected with the local community. Making crafted hard cider seemed like the perfect fit.”

They spent long weekend hours testing apple varieties against different yeast strains, then testing the batches on their friends, until Wunderkind was born. This tinkering was second nature to Michelle, who grew up making backyard wine with her Portugese grandparents.

“She grew up turning anything with fruit into wine,” said taproom staffer Suzi Wood. Michelle has also dipped a toe into cheese-making and experimented with different fruit-infused hard alcohols, so cider-making came natural (Dana says it’s incredibly similar to wine-making—Bantam even uses a wine yeast in their Wunderkind).

Some behind-the-scenes action at the Bantam Cidery, including a shelf of equipment used to test cider ABV and experiment with new varieties.

Some behind-the-scenes action at the Bantam Cidery, including a shelf of equipment used to test cider ABV and experiment with new varieties, and a room full of oak barrels for aging the ciders.

To keep this rooted in their local community, Dana and Michelle began reaching out to local farmers to source apples from the rich, New England orchard landscape. To this day, the blend can change depending on where apples are tasting good, and where more are available—tons of apples each year can’t be sold to grocers due to imperfections and unusual appearances, inconsistencies that bother the average consumer but make no difference in the flavor of a cider. Dana & Michelle work with several farms in Massachusetts (Shelburne Falls & Hawley, to name a few) to claim those apples and more, resulting in a blend of about five different breeds they work with consistently.

This proprietary blend is part of what makes their cider so unique. Unlike the juicy sweet varieties that dominate the market, Bantam seeks out apples with a specific tannic structure, working hard to achieve a lean, crisp body that they keep from being too dry with the addition of orange blossom honey. This gives the Wunderkind the flavor of honey, without the cloying syrupy quality of many mass-produced ciders. At Bantam, they also extract the lees (fruit solids & residual yeast) in a process called racking—getting rid of this juicy sediment helps to keep the finished product nice and dry.

photo 2-7Their Wunderkind was a hit around town, exciting the cider fanatics and wooing the naysayers with its irresistible drinkability (a beer drinker myself, there are often times now when I stare at a craft brew menu and come to the undeniable realization that the Bantam Wunderkind is the best thing on offer). But just as the girls weren’t satisfied with boring cider in a world of craft beer & artisan cocktails, they then set out to make their own version of the microbrewery tour and craft cocktail bar—a cider taproom.

Michelle & Dana had obtained their Union Square production space in September 2013, ending a long run of renting tank space all over MA. The taproom, adjacent to and visible from their offices & production area, opened not long after in March 2014. A former WWII-era bakery, the industrial space is roomy & sparse, with a warm glow from the skylights and minimalist yet focused design. A few communal high-top tables are scattered throughout, merchandise lines one wall, and hints of production are visible through one door that shows the tank room, and another that shows dozens of wooden barrels racked up for aging. At the center of it all is a large blond wood bar, clean and bare save for their draft menus and two mason jars filled with pretzel sticks.

photo 5-3Suzi, who recently joined the team after working as a pastry chef for Ana Sortun’s Oleana & Sofra, showed us around this beautiful bar when we arrived. She met the Bantam founders as their neighbor, when she offered to run the company’s Weimaraner (an adorable pup I got to meet at the taproom that day) for them. She now accompanies them on camping trips to their partner orchards, and workshops new cider recipes with Michelle.

Their most recent concoction, the lush Americain, began as a riff on Sofra’s persian spice blends, but came out tasting exactly like apple pie. This happy accident is going into bomber and 4-pack rotation this fall, making it the fifth Bantam creation to be bottled. After Wunderkind came Rojo, a sour cherry and black peppercorn blend fermented with ale yeast. They also began a limited bomber run of La Grande, a barrel-aged specialty brew that uses several local apples including Reine de Pomme, an heirloom French cider varietal, and ages in Woodford Reserve barrels for four months (the Wunderkind, by contrast, ages just a few weeks), giving it a distinctively oaky flavor that somehow retains the classic Bantam crisp-dry body. And most recently, they bottled the Smoked Saison, a smoked apple libation fermented with Belgian saison yeast that is smooth & redolent of campfires.

photo 4-5Also on draft during our visit were a Ginger Beer, a Hibiscus Lime Mint, and the Wild One. The Ginger Beer, which was celebrating its first day on tap, is citrusy and sweet with loads of ginger flavor, but not too much ginger heat. The Hibiscus Lime Mint, which was dark pink, extra fizzy, and too small a batch to even put on the menu, hit first with big mint aromatics, then mellowed to the sweet floral flavor of dried hibiscus. And the Wild One, a sour funky cider that gets open-fermented with wild yeasts, boasted flavor notes of vinegar and mustard balanced by the sweetness of honeyed apples.

Some of these brews may hit bottles one day, but it will depend on feedback. For the Bantam ladies, the taproom serves as a great sounding board for all the experimentation they like to do. If a crazy cider idea is met with taproom acclaim, it could be the start of a long, successful career for that recipe. We ordered seconds and thirds of the Americain while there, so it looks like their system is functioning quite well.

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You can stop by their taproom Thurs/Fri from 4-7pm or Saturday from 1-7pm to see what the small but mighty staff has come up with lately, or you can come to our after-hours Meet the Maker party this Saturday, October 4th from 7-11pm to meet Dana & Michelle, drink your fill of their unique libations, and pepper them with questions about what its like to quit your day job to make local, craft cider.

Call the store to get your ticket to our Meet the Maker party happening this Saturday, Oct. 4 from 7-11pm, or visit our homepage for the PayPal link!

You can purchase the Bantam Wunderkind & Rojo at AP regularly, and look out for the Americain to hit our shelves sometime this fall. 

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