In my mission to sample every conceivable culinary occupation—from growing food with aquaculture to preparing meals at a zoo—I recently went behind the scenes at Bull City Ciderworks.
The business began in 2013 in a building on Elizabeth Street. In 2015, owners Ryan Bogard and John Clowny were informed that they would have to move to make room for the new Durham police station. So they decided on a Kickstarter to raise the funds.
The crowdfunding campaign exceeded its original goal of $25,000 by almost $5,000. It also precipitated a happy quandary. With so much attention on the campaign, everyone suddenly wanted to get their hands on some Bull City cider. But the ciderists and ciderers (industry terms for cider makers and cider masters) were preparing to close down their operation to change locations. Bogard and Clowny decided to open a production facility and taproom in Lexington, a town west of the Triangle in Davidson County, where both of them grew up. Ironically, the county was still dry at the time. (The laws changed in 2016 after a county referendum.)
Although historians and researchers commonly point to beer and wine as the first intentionally produced and consumed alcohol, there's a theory among cider folk that the first alcohol made and drunk on purpose is cider.
Once a piece of fruit begins to rot, fermentation starts. Because of the ease of production and the wide availability of apples, cider was the most common alcoholic beverage in the country until prohibition took effect in 1920. By the time it was rescinded in 1933, government agents and private prohibitionists had burned and chopped down an unknowable number of trees and rendered many heirloom apple varieties extinct. The industry never recovered. The Bogards, Clowny, and many others have made it their mission to reintroduce cider and educate the public.
Bull City Ciderworks produces the bulk of its cider in Lexington, but its lab and a second taproom are located on the corner of Roxboro and Dillard Streets, two blocks from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Bogard and Clowny refer to the research space as the Exploratorium. It's equipped with smaller tanks that can make as little as five gallons at a time. Because of the cidery's growth and demand (they now buy their apple juice by the eighteen-hundred-gallon tanker load from Michigan), it's no longer possible to use only North Carolina products in the large batches.
On the Saturday morning when I visit, Bogard's wife and business partner, Courtney, is readying the taproom, stocking the bar with snacks and clean glasses, checking the taps, and making sure the large screen TV is turned to the State-Carolina game.
Bogard takes me into the connecting room, an open space with two large tanks and a slightly smaller one. The new tanks are being tested before the new location's first anniversary celebration at the end of February.
We talk about their hiring practices—after all, the industry is still very small, so not many people have vast experience as ciderists. Bogard is as enthusiastic about his team as he is about cider. His three non-negotiable requirements for every employee: they must like cider, they must want to learn, and they must be kind.
Courtney hails from Rhode Island, where those apples were the impetus for a budding business. Since she married Bogard, his parents have become devotees of Rhode Island apples. As a young couple, the Bogards lived in Massachusetts while he studied at Harvard. They procured a very large amount of the fruit with the idea of shipping it to his parents in North Carolina. But they never managed to send them before they began rotting. At that point, the couple made a decision that would change their lives forever: to take those apples and make "hard" cider.
They juiced them into a narrow-mouthed, five-gallon brewing jug called a carboy. They placed it into a dark closet with high hopes and went about their lives. After two weeks, they returned to the closet to see what time and fermentation had wrought. They were horrified to find the carboy filled with gallons of cloudy, funky apple jelly. The only solution was to repeatedly jam a long stick down into the jug to break up and shake out the gelled abomination.
As Bogard began to research what went wrong (in short, proper procedure calls for an added enzyme to help break down the apple's pectin), he became curious, then fascinated, then obsessed. The result? Bogard quit his doctoral studies in biochemistry to move back to North Carolina and start Bull City Ciderworks.
My brief sojourn terminates at the bar, where I sample six or seven of the twenty or so varieties on tap. I start with Off Main, the flagship cider, and end with something called Sasquash, flavored with butternut squash, maple syrup, and the spectacularly spicy Carolina Reaper peppers.
When that first bushel of Rhode Island apples began to rot, the Bogards never dreamed where this passion for cider would take their lives. But Ryan Bogard is not a trifling man of superficial interests. As his wife confides, "He can't just have a hobby."