John Knisley enjoys the sound of buzzing bees and the wind rustling grass. In the summer, his farmland abounds with bugs, supple apples, and meandering hogs. The co-owner of Tallgrass Cider and self-proclaimed apple nerd loves this most about farming: the amount of life swirling around him, and the permanence of well-kept land.
“I like the idea of something being there permanently,” Knisley said of his apple orchard. “You don’t have to till the soil all the time. And it’s a plant that relies entirely on nature. You need a good ecosystem with bees in it, good plant life underneath for disease and pests. It seems like trying to grow fruit, if you can do it the right way, it can really be a fulfilling experience. You’re surrounded by nature. I like that rather than a bare field.”
Knisley and his wife and co-owner Brooke run Tallgrass Cider by tending to 400 apple trees with many heirloom varieties on their property just north of Madelia and another orchard by Lake Crystal made up of 1,200 trees. Both orchards are certified organic (the cider is not currently).
“Our farm-crafted hard ciders use organic apples and simple ingredients,” he said. “With more than 50 home-grown apple varieties, our craft ciders are truly unique.”
Some of what defines Tallgrass’ cider is the local flora and fauna that exists around the orchards.
“It adds a lot to the fermentation,” Knisley said. “Of the two ciders released, one used commercial yeast, but the other one was wild fermented. And it turned out amazing. It went fully dry but some sweetness on the back of the throat. It wasn’t moved through fermentation too quickly.”
To fully ferment cider using commercial yeast takes about two months. Wild fermentation can take anywhere from two to four months depending on a number of factors.
Tallgrass Cider produced roughly 1,500 gallons of cider in 2020 and the Knisleys expect to produce more in 2021. It takes Tallgrass 72 bushels of apples to make 250 gallons of juice. A small tree may provide 1–1.5 bushels while a large tree can produce 3–5 bushels of apples. The Minnesota Nice semi-sweet cider and the wild-fermented Wild Orchard made it to liquor stores in Madelia, New Ulm, North Mankato, Mankato, and St. Peter (though they could make their way to the Twin Cities in the future) and sales have exceeded expectations thus far. Four new releases will be coming out in the next couple of months.
Photos via Tallgrass Cider
John is experimenting with bottle conditioning cider, working with Jace Marti of Schell’s Brewery to gain a better grasp on the process. Knisley wants to use other fruits he grows; plums, apricots, pears, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, and more will find their way into Tallgrass cider. He even hints at a strawberry-rhubarb cider in the spring.
“We are trying to use all of the resources that we are managing,” he said.
Cidermaking came naturally. The family operated a vegetable CSA from 2011–2018 while managing a 50-tree orchard of full-size trees near New Ulm. The Knisleys began focusing on growing more fruit in 2015 and still offer fruit CSA shares, sell fresh fruit at farmers markets and our farm store, make and sell apple sauce and apple butter, provide fresh apples for the Mankato after-school program run by the Wooden Spoon and even have their apples featured in the cold-pressed juices made by Wyiswig Juice Company in Mankato. Six years ago, Knisley began dabbling in hard cider.
“We would taste it with friends and family and people enjoyed it,” he said. “We kept taking these mini-steps.”
Knisley feeds his hogs and chickens the apple pomace after pressing, minimizing the waste stream of the new cider venture. “It’s all a full circle thing we pride ourselves on our farm,” Knisley said. “We believe there is not a single apple wasted on the farm.”
The next “full circle” step might be a taproom. “That might be in the future, but right now we are selling to a local market,” Knisley said. “So generally speaking, most people know us or meet us at the farmers market and talk about the cider.”
While the business talk is fascinating, Knisley always finds his way back to the stories of apples or growing them.
“The most fascinating part—I don’t know if everyone understands this about orchards, but basically the non-season in the field is November,” he began. “The season starts picking up in January, February, when we have to prune, and then the flowering in the early spring, and then we’re dealing with pests, and disease issues in the summer, and picking in the fall. November is when you get some breathing room. It seems like just a fall thing, but it really is the whole year.”
The perennial nature of the apple orchard is so fascinating to Knisley. He makes his way back to that point, shading it with thoughts on his own mortality, and the cycle of life and death present on a farm.
“It’s not just here for me,” he said of the apples and trees. “These orchards will be here long after I’m dead. Hopefully, someone else can enjoy them.”
Cidermaker: John Knisley
Ciders: MN Nice Semi-Sweet Cider, Wild Orchard Semi-Dry Cider, with four more varieties available in the coming months
Location: 11197 130th St, Madelia, MN 56062