The number of artisanal German cider makers feels relatively small, but Instagram seems to be the place to find them. Over the past few years, I’ve seen a tentative network of the smaller, more like-minded makers building. Mine started with Patrick and Wendy of 1785 Cider, and soon after, in June 2020, it was again through Instagram that I got to know Steve O’Connor. Steve is a Kiwi in Muxall, near Kiel, so is possibly the most northern German cidermaker I know. At the time, Steve was someone in the wine trade dipping his toes into cider. Well, probably more than his toes, as he seemed to have already dived right in!
Northern Germany isn’t exactly known as a cider-producing region, but there certainly seems to be a growing number of both of cider brands and makers, and there must surely be some stylistic and terroir-driven differences up there that I’m personally keen to explore and compare to the more typical cider/most/apfelwein/viez regions down south.
As an immigrant to Germany, I also can’t help wondering if there’s a common theme here, as Wendy from 1785 and Steve are also immigrants! But I hope to shine a small spotlight on a couple more locally-grown makers in the coming year.
But back on topic. Steve began experimenting in making cider in 2019, founding a new cidery called Muxaller Cider. This was a side-business to the O’Connor’s small wine import/export and PR business, Couple of Wines, but they have now all merged under Muxaller Wein, as cider is taking precedence. And rightly so!
So let’s grab a cuppa tea (or a cider, if you are so inclined) and have a short chat with Steve about Muxaller Cider.
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Barry: Steve, I know you started your fermenting life in the wine trade, tell us a little about your oenological background.
Steve: Well, my liquid life started in the oil industry, I worked in marketing for Caltex Oil (NZ) Ltd, from there I bought a half share in a small wine tour business in the Nelson Region of New Zealand. Ever the one for learning a bit more, I decided that touring was nice but making wine might be better.
The opportunity to work with Winemaker Jane Cooper arose and I jumped at the chance. Jane was at that time Winemaker for three brands, plus her own, and they all used the one winery. I enjoyed my time there, and working with Jane was a very positive experience of which that knowledge and craftsmanship I use today.
Barry: You know, it’s something I don’t think I ever asked you, as I always assumed you ended up in Germany thanks to Claudia, your wife. Was it love that brought you here?
Steve: No, it wasn’t, Claudia and I met quite a few years later. What drew me here was history. The first German settlers who emigrated to NZ in about 1862 came from the region I now live. I have always been fascinated with history and as to why people emigrate (did it myself didn’t I, haha!).
In this case, the European economy was not so hot and the then Graf zu Rantzau could not keep his people in food etc. so offered them a chance in the new world, to which some 500 took the offer up. They landed in Nelson, a newly formed region, and proceeded to develop and work the land. From Germany they brought apples, hops, and grapes amongst other things. Today the region is famous for those things, in fact the Braeburn apple originated from Nelson.
Barry: Speaking of apples, I’ve heard the tale of you sitting under an apple tree in your back garden, like a Kiwi Newton, falling apples inspiring you to make cider. When did that journey start, and why do it in a region that is not typically known for Apfelwein/cider?
Steve: That story is true, although it does sound far-fetched. I was sitting under our large Boskoop tree one evening contemplating on further projects. Winemaking went through my mind, but here in the region it is still in the infancy phase, but it was at that point, and here comes the kitschy bit, an apple dropped beside me and the first word that came to mind was “cider”!
That was 2019, from a start with 60 Litres in our heating cellar to today, we moved pretty fast to get started in our new project.
Barry: So starting with 60L, that does sound familiar, what is the current scale of your production, as in typical batch size and overall annual production?
Steve: We have capacity for about 30,000 litres. I emphasize the word capacity; we don’t produce that much yet. The batch size for our mainstream ciders is 1000L. For our specialities they are about 200-300L. Last year we produced 15,000L and not all of that has been bottled yet.
We’re phasing out the use of [plastic] IBCs and invested in stainless steel, mostly variable capacity tanks, to give us more flexibility. In fact we invested quite a lot in winemaking technology and equipment.
Barry: This might sound pretentious, but what, if any, guiding philosophy or goals have been influencing you and what you do with cider, and have they changed since you started?
Steve: When we were starting, Claudia and I set about discovering the German market and what was available. We bought a lot of “cider” and tasted, noted (Claudia has fantastic sensory perception and translates that gift beautifully into words), and graded each as best we could.
From what I had read about traditional cider in the UK and cidre in France these were, except for a few, not what we had expected. To be quite honest we were very disappointed, and I said to Claudia “we can do better than that“. So we set about trying to do just that. First we had to find real cider and use benchmarks for our idea of “Modern Traditional Cider“ to evolve. That is, taste traditional ciders. At this point I didn’t know you and Patrick [of 1785 Cider].
Corona put a stop to our travel plans to the UK (Devon and Somerset) but we did squeeze in a trip to Quimper to visit a cidre producer with whom we now have an exclusive import deal. But that aside what we really wanted to do was “Modern Traditional Cider Making”. We didn´t need to reinvent the wheel, just perhaps tighten the spokes, pump the tyres and give the wheel a new coat of paint.
For us, Modern Traditional Cider Making as it applies to us and our cider making means traditional, as in produced or used in accordance with tradition, and modern, characterised by using the most up-to-date techniques, ideas, or equipment. Maybe there is a better definition out there but mine is simple:
- traditional cider apples;
- blending with local varieties;
- minimal intervention using traditional and modern practices and equipment.
Basically, cider making using winemaking practices and traditional ideas. One might ask where are the similarities? The similarities are pretty much in every process. we just use modern equipment, and we can now monitor where our cider is going using analytical science. We have pumped up the tyre , tightened the spokes and painted the wheel, and as before, the wheel is still round.
We use cultured yeast and every year we let one tank go spontaneous. We rack to slow down fermentation. We leave some ciders on the lees to induce another level of complexity. We use minimal intervention (just the bare minimum of SO2). Where we can, we have varietal ferments and blend after the fact. We use soft methods for cider transfer (gravity , CO2 or slow pumping).
So I guess the answer to your question is that we aimed for a balanced cider made to a winemaking philosophy. The basic philosophy hasn’t really changed.
Barry: Clearly there are orchards up in the northern tip of Germany to help add local varieties to your blends, maybe not to the scale of down south, but I recall some old German literature recommending the planting of apple orchards in northern Germany to make apple wine, as grapes wouldn’t take up there. Apart from the tree in your garden, where are you sourcing your fruit from?
Steve: That’s quite an interesting question actually, grapes are growing here now, and I consult to one grower who is making great wine. You see, there is climate change.
We have two trees in our garden, one is a Boskoop and the other is a Holsteiner Cox. The latter is a cross between a Cox orange and an unknown and was grown from a seedling in 1900 in Eutin not far from here (was originally known as “Vahldieks seedling number 3” after Johannes Vahldiek, a painter and orchardist).
Holsteiner Cox is now the main variety in this region. We source 90% of our Holsteiner Cox from the original orchard where it was discovered, our Boskoop fruit also comes from there, apart from the 900kgs I get from my own tree.
In 2020 we signed a deal with some traditional small orchards and apple gardens that allowed us access to more varieties than Holsteiner, and more volume. These orchards use sustainable growing methods, that is they leave them alone. No chemicals used. One orchard was completely overgrown, a jungle, but revealed many old varieties. A treasure chest! In the same year we bought some Juice from our Somerset contact, Browns, Yarlington Mill and Michelin as well as more Dabinett from Devon. So now we had our tannin and our local, and to a degree, traditional apple sources.
Barry: What other local varieties are you using, and how would you describe the terroir?
Steve: As well as the Boskoop and Cox, we have Holsteiner Zitrone, Purpurrote Cousinot, Ingrid Marie, Goldparmäne [King of the Pippins] and Danziger Kantapfel to name a few. Ingrid Marie and Goldparmäne we experimented with as a champagne style cider.
The terroir is interesting with soil mostly sandy loam and clay and there are quite a lot of microclimates. It’s possible to have a Holsteiner Cox with quite a different aroma structure than the one grown in orchard 1km away. The climate is maritime and placed not far from the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, we have our share of wind.
Barry: I know from our very earliest chats that one of your initial goals was to create a set of ciders that would be appealing to a broad base, mostly due to the lack of tradition up there, so I suppose you wanted to hit a kind of… everyman cider? I think you told me that people up there don’t know how to deal with acidic drinks. So, tell us a little about your very first forays in cider-making, the blends, process, and approach you adopted, and why.
Steve: Yes, we gambled a bit there. Knowing that the North German palate was somewhat resistant to acidity we needed to ensure we had some balance in our ciders especially the first one.
We were a bit restricted to as what varieties we could use and needed to ensure we had the acidity balanced with some sweetness. However, with the blending trials we did we couldn’t really come up with a blend that appealed to us (and our neighbours who would be our testing board). I said to Claudia one day “we need tannin”. Well, we didn’t have any varieties that could grant us that wish, so that was when I made some enquiries across the ditch and managed to buy some Dabinett juice from Devon and Browns from Somerset.
I was a bit torn at first as our ciders would not be a 100% regional product. However, after many blending trials and Claudia’s fantastic palate, we found a blend that appealed to us. We had our first cider The Friesenjung, later renamed to Probsteierjung. We had a balance of sweetness, acid and tannin, and a cider that sold.
Barry: I noticed on social media over the first year or so that you were quickly getting a presence in local supermarkets, which I thought was amazing coverage. Was this your target market from the beginning?
Steve: Well yes it was, as we needed exposure and we played the regional product card. Listing in the supermarkets brought us interest from the Restaurants. We sell our cider as not only a beverage for a sunny day on the Terrace but as a compliment to food. Because of the tannic and acidic structure of our ciders, they slip into this category wonderfully.
Our motto is “Cider is not only Summer” this opens the debate as to where our ciders can be placed. We have listings in some top local Restaurants and some wonderful Michelin Star establishments.
Barry: Last year you also started using other techniques, like keeving, for which you won silver in the International Cider Challenge, right? And you also now have a méthode traditionnelle in the bottle from your 2020 pressing. First, as a maker who has also keeved with varying degrees of success over the years, I need to ask how did that work out for you? Will you do it again? And what led you to doing traditional method?
Steve: Yes, we won not only a silver at the ICC but also a gold with 95/100 points at the International Wine and Spirit Competition this year. Those were wonderful testimonies as to what we are trying to achieve here.
The Keeve was interesting. I had low nitrogen juice, and the pH was perfect. I added the Klercidre ingredients and then mistakenly left the cider outside. It snowed for the next four days and I completely forgot about it. It was amongst some empty IBCs.
I went back to the cidery a few days later and realized where it was and went to look at it. It was a clear skin type of IBC not the white ones, I could see a nice fat chapeau brun. I racked the juice from under it into a tank inside and called Claudia and said “Houston, we have a keeve”. We will do it again this year. Perhaps not exactly the same.
I always wanted to do a traditional method cider and decided to use 200l of a 2020 blend I had put aside for that very purpose. It is a blend of Ingrid Marie and Danziger Kantapfel. The bottles are sitting on the riddle board this very minute. Should be ready for Christmas 2022.
Barry: I feel like there’s been a quiet explosion of small cidermakers just starting out the past couple of years. Though the perception of what cider is, or what it can be, has been heavily skewed by more industrial English and Irish brands. People here in Germany seem to assume that quite sweet and fizzy is what defines cider. I feel small makers here can reset those expectations and broaden the field. As you experiment more with different techniques and blends of varieties, are you looking to other kinds of drinkers as cider seems to grow in Germany? Or do you feel any shift in perception around Kiel since you started?
Steve: We have been quite lucky that the largest TV channel in the North has taken an interest in our pioneering of Cider here and have had one small 4 minute report about us broadcast last month. The amount of interest and enquiries during a nod after was phenomenal.
On the 7th of December there will be a 30 min documentary on us and we are gearing up for that. The film crew followed us throughout the year and filmed the various aspects and processes of our business. So, to answer your question, yes there has been a positive shift in perception.
Barry: And of course, you and Claudia are both wine people with your own wine company, which must be a great benefit in terms of existing connections. How have you found the overlap, if any, or how have people in your wine trade perceive cider in general?
Steve: The contacts have been important to channel our ciders into the on trade. It is much easier to convince the Restaurants to at least to try our products. The ongoing perception of cider was Somersby and Co., so we had the task of showing our ciders to be more (to be kind here) dynamic and as good as accompanying food as wine is.
Barry: You have also been developing a relationship with a local brewery, which resulted in a hopped cider collaboration. I often think that the craft breweries and craft beer drinkers are good allies of small craft cider producers, or at least good potential allies in Germany. How has this relationship developed, and has their customer base shown any kind of crossover?
Steve: Yes we have a really good relationship with the guys at Lillebraü in Kiel. They helped us a lot in the initial stages of setting up the business with who to speak to and what to look at in regard to packaging etc, essentially allowing us to not to make the same set up mistakes they did. They bottle our 0,33ml bottles for us as our 4 head filler takes too much time nowadays.
We decided to make a collab hopped cider this year it was a blend of Boskoop, Holsteiner Cox and Wellant varieties. The hops were Ariana and hüll melon which resulted in a really funky extra brut almost brut natural cider. The cider lovers were over the moon with this style and that’s where the beer drinkers found their way in to our cider range. Personally I think the cider has room to develop in the bottle and has already done so in the last 2 months. It has mellowed a little and heading back to extra brut status.
Barry: And what is the future for Muxaller Cider? I know you recently moved to a new premises this year, but what are your plans?
Steve: Our plans are to focus more on Méthode Champenois-style ciders and experiment with older local varieties to produce products that our local consumers can own, that they can say “hey that Cider comes from here”. We want to move forward with different styles and ideas but still keep our feet firmly on the ground with our cider philosophy. Export is a subject that we wish to pursue however we will limit the amount of cider we produce and are quite happy to stay at the level we are at.
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Thank you, Steve, for taking the time to have a chat.
Just before asking Steve for that chat I had ordered a random box of Muxaller’s latest releases, so I thought I’d give them a bit of an airing here. Probsteier Jung is, I would say, their flagship cider. The very first blend Steve produced, with local Boskoop and Holsteiner Cox with Dabinett and Browns. Probsteier Deern is a keeved cider based on Dabinett and Boskoop. Steve’s co-operation with local brewery Lille-Bräu, as mentioned above, resulted in a dry-hopped cider built on Holsteiner Cox, Boskoop and Wellant, hopped with Ariana and Hüll Melon, and finally Schnieker Kerl, a marriage of Yarlington Mill and Boskoop.
Steve and I agree that honesty is important, especially between makers, so take these very brief tasting notes as such.
Muxaller Cider, Probsteier Jung – review
How I served: From the fridge.
Appearance: Leaning towards amber.
On the nose: Oh, an aroma you don’t get from many German ciders, a lightly smoky, phenolic whiff that says tannins. Marmalade, bitter orange peel and strong black tea.
In the mouth: An interesting marriage. The acidity of the German varieties sweep in at first taste, all bright, juicy lime, followed by that orange peel and the tea-like tannins as suggested on the nose, broadening it out on the tongue. The finish is long and almost oily, more marmalade, a touch of herbal thyme and a cleansing zing rounding it off.
In a nutshell: Very enjoyable and thirst-quenching, it disappeared fast. The tannins separate it from most German cider offerings, but the acid notes bring it back to its origins. I bet it challenged the locals. Very nice and would drink more.
Muxaller Cider, Probsteier Deern – review
How I served: From the fridge.
Appearance: Same as above, but a shade darker, with a light haze.
On the nose: More subtle. A touch of barnyard funk and cherry cola.
In the mouth: I didn’t expect it to be sweet, but only realised it was the keeved one on first tasting. Ripe apple skins, strawberry and cream candy, cream soda. There’s a lightly funky element leaning towards barnyardy on the finish, not unpleasantly so, but more dominated by a juicy fruit sweetness.
In a nutshell: A shade too sweet for my palate, which has been ruined by a diet of dry cider for the past several years, but it is really juicy, with added depths that will appeal to those with a sweeter tooth than I.
Lille-Bräu x Muxaller Cider, Gehopft – review
How I served: From the fridge and left to stand a few minutes.
Appearance: A lighter shade of amber with a shade more haze.
On the nose: A slight vegetal note, hop “dankness”, fresh cabbage with amaretti biscuits.
In the mouth: A bracing acidity sweeps across the tongue followed by a massive hop attack, like licking the inside of a bag of hop pellets. I’ve done it, believe me. Lemon-orange citric elements are enhanced by the acidity of the base cider, with deeper notes of pine needles and resin shoring up the whole thing. A tad overwhelming in terms of its sheer volume (this goes to 11), but the building blocks are sound.
In a nutshell: There is plenty going on here for the hop heads amongst us, but I know from bitter experience that this will benefit from a few more months aging to soften the hop profile. I think then it will be a very different and very delicious. I’ll want a couple more
Muxaller Cider, Schnieker Kerl – review
How I served: From the fridge.
Appearance: Amber orange, slight haze.
On the nose: See below.
In the mouth: Oooh. Nicely dry. Burnt orange, cherry, a touch of spice up front giving way to a phenolic, every so slightly medicinal tannic bang that keeps on going with a long, dark, bitter orange peel and cinnamon finish. Low carbonation, so shockingly easy to gulp down despite the relative robustness compared to most German ciders. Really wonderful.
In a nutshell: A robust cider that gives you pause to think and savour. My favourite of the four, so much so I forgot to write nose notes!
The quality of these ciders is top. All super clean, though the Deern has a pleasant barnyardy element that is probably to expected with many keeved ciders, and Steve pulled that one off well. While the hopped cider was, to my mind, still too full of the youthful brashness of generous hopping, I know it will round off beautifully given time, and I very much look forward to trying it again in a few months. The others all share a thread of depth that you don’t often get in German ciders, as Steve specifically chose to bring in English cider apple juice to make the creations he had in mind. And it worked. While Dab isn’t necessarily my favourite cider apple (please don’t banish me), it has certainly enhanced both the Probsteier Jung and Deern ciders, adding extra dimensions to his local fruit. But the use of Yarlington Mill with Belle de Boskoop, a fairly acidic apple, was simply delicious, and Schnieker Kerl is one I wish I’d had a second bottle of to immediately open.