Apples and fall are synonymous in my world. As cold seeps into the air and the light of day takes on shades of orange, these signs of Mother Nature tell me it’s time to pluck ripening apples from the trees. When collected, they become the treasures to be shined with a pulled down sleeve and bitten into or peeled and sliced to be baked into pies or breads. They can be concentrated into sauce or butter, preserved for future savor. But for me, the prize of the season is fresh pressed apple juice, the nectar from “the noblest of fruits” as honored by Henry David Thoreau.
At The Last Chance Pub and Cider House on Montana Avenue in Billings, spirited apple juice prompted Sam Hoffman to open this production and gathering spot. For Craige Whiteley and Kathleen Benoit in Laurel, pressing apples provided the juice for their annual gathering of friends and family.
From October to February, cider master Travis Charboneau donned his blue rubber uniform for pressing apples every Thursday, collecting 3,000 gallons of apple juice each time. The brick building on Montana Avenue that once housing a glass factory, and in the 1900s the Case Tractor Factory, is now home to The Last Chance Pub and Cider House.
I climbed the steps into the open room with high ceilings. Windows offered views to Montana Ave and the railyard to the south and to the north the core of the apple processing operation. On this day, splashes of apple juice blotted the windows above the green leathered booths, evidence of production activity along with the heavy aromas of sweet and sour. Sitting next to the centerpiece of the room, as the huge glazed brick fireplace flickered warmly with welcome, Sam Hoffman took a moment to share how he came to Billings to set up The Last Chance Pub and Cider House.
“I feel like Red Lodge and Billings are joined at the hip. People from Red Lodge go to Billings to do their box store shopping, to buy cars and to fly out on vacations. They have friends and family here. People from Billings love going to Red Lodge in the summer where it’s cooler, and in the winter, they go to ski,” he said. Of course, Red Lodge has been home to Hoffman’s Red Lodge Ales where he has been brewing craft beers since 1998.
So when he wanted to expand his hobby of making cider, he realized the options of “an 18,000 square food warehouse” being available were limited. He continued, “I grew up in New England where they have a lot of orchards and cider mills. For about 10 years I partnered with John Ross in Fromberg and we were making cider on a home brew level and I felt like there was a real niche to be filled in Montana.”
Three years ago, Hoffman filled that niche, “There’s just not that many people making cider on a commercial scale so it just seemed like a natural outgrowth for the brewery to also offer cider.”
In the summer, Hoffman purchased a press from OESCO, Inc. (formerly Orchard Equipment and Supply Company) that has been manufacturing cider presses since 1954. The upgrade to a vertical rack and cloth hydraulic press system allowed The Last Chance Pub and Cider Mill to press more juice and at a higher quality.
In the last year, Travis Charboneau joined or rather, rejoined the team as head cider maker. “I moved to Billings in November 2016 and they were just finish setting up. I have a very strong brewery background.” Charboneau pressed apples for six months to leave to “move around the country for a while.” With his background from Michigan, home to where the largest crop of apples are grown, he brings experience from work at two breweries there. A move to Denver put him in charge of Cheluna Brewery when he was asked by Hoffman to return to Billings to help make cider.
FULL MONTANA and LCP JUNCTION have anchored the apple cider offerings at The Last Chance Pub. FULL MONTANA is made with all Montana apples, sweetened with local beet sugar and fermented with champagne yeast resulting in a light and dry cider. LCP JUNCTION or Last Chance Pub cider is made with French and English varietal apples for a taste of bitterness and tartness with a dry finish.
For single varietal ciders, Charboneau used Pippins, Jonathans and Carmines. The Pippin is a classic English apple and serves as a benchmark for apple flavors. The dense, crisp and juicy apple is refreshing and hold a good amount of acidity. The Jonathan holds good sweetness balanced with tart tang while the Carmine is sweet, crisp, firm and juicy.
“Personally we do tend to go for higher malic acid, higher acid content which makes for a little astringency but that’s what you think of when you bite into an apple,” Charboneau shared.
After the juice was pressed on Thursday, yeast was added on Tuesday. Then about two weeks later the cider was released for enjoyment. In his single varietal cides, Charboneau intergrated craft and artistry to his cider creation, implementing finesse found in wine making. In his CHARDONNAY BARREL-AGED cider, juice from French and English apple varietals sourced from Oregon is fermented and then aged in Chardonnay barrels while his CAB SAV BARREL-AGED cider sat in used cabernet sauvignon barrels resulting in oaky notes and tinges of pink. The RUM BARREL-AGED cider carried a “rummy” nose with a dry finish.
Charboneau realized the apple pressing months will be hard work. But there were rewards. “The fun part of making cider is the new challenge,” accompanied with careful attention to keeping a clean environment and workspace. “It’s a brutal season,” he admitted, “the most fulfilling thing is to meet people and give tours. You never meet a person that is in a bad mood when they have a cider in their hand. It really helps. It makes the job pretty fantastic.”
That fantastic sentiment carried to Craige Whiteley and Kathleen Benoit’s annual apple pressing in Laurel. This year even, with blustery weather and frigid temperatures, about 40 people huddled in their garage to press apples. Others wander the orchard to collect apples to take home.
Thirty years ago, Whiteley planted 50 trees on a drip system on his property. He recalled McIntoshs, Centurions, Goldens, and Transparents, as well as several other varietals he planted. At some point over the years he misplaced the map of identifying the trees in his orchard. Now they are identified by size and shape “big red”, juicy yellow”, or whatever seems to fit. With care and attention, the trees have thrived and produced a bumper crop this year. Anchored by childhood friends Charlie and Carolyn Yegen, the event has become a tradition for bringing friends together. On this day, young and old gathered for kinship and laughter. The riotous sound of cheer blended with the grind of the presses.
Kathleen Benoit shared, “It started as a springboard we used to do a lot of branding in the area with the Yegens. It was not just a job but a celebration of people and the lifestyle we have. We had all these apples many years ago and thought, let’s have a party, we don’t want to pick all these apples by ourselves so we invited everybody we knew. Many people had never been to a pressing and it has grown and grown. People get together. It’s fun. It’s delicious. It’s all aspects of a really good party.”
Every year as summer fades into fall, I will lift my glass of cider in cheer for kinship and spirited celebration.