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March 22, 2013

Grazing: Friday Nights at Citizen Cider

Citizen_cider_doorSnow was falling in big, fluffy tufts by the time I made my way to Citizen Cider last Friday, intent on finally hitting up their weekly shindig.

Finding this place inside the maze of Fort Ethan Allen isn't a snap, but it seems like half of Chittenden Country does just that every Friday night — at least judging from the parade of raucous photos on the Citizen Cider Facebook page. I'd been meaning to attend for months, but have an allergy to Route 15 during rush hour.

My loss. The traffic wasn't as bad as I imagined, and Citizen Cider's founders  — Kris Nelson, Justin Heilenbach and Bryan Holmes — tip off passerby with a roadside placard. Just beyond, the parking lot was already full with cars, and the Hindquarter, Cloud 9 caterers' red 'mobile canteen,' was parked outside and taking orders.

I opened the door and stepped into a room that smelled faintly of yeast and fruit, with pom-poms hanging from the ceiling. The place seemed to have a split personality: On the left, bright lights illuminated tanks filled with fermenting cider; on the other, people jockeyed for space around a long, wooden bar. Music (was it bluegrass?) blasted from somewhere, but was barely audible above the din. It had the feel of a cider-fueled speakeasy. 

OnthebarHeilenbach, Holmes and Nelson began making cider two years ago using a salvaged 1950s apple press and fruit from Middlebury’s Happy Valley Orchards. Their aim was to create a drink that fused the best qualities of Champagne with slightly effervescent Vinho Verde; the result was the inaugural batch of Unified Press, their signature cider, which launched last February.

Unified Press is now on tap all over the state, and its hints of sweetness make it versatile behind the bar; up in Hardwick, Positive Pie bartender Don Horrigan subs it for ginger ale for his take on a whiskey-and-ginger. The Unified Press still flows freely here in the tasting room, but so do a few other gems: the salmon-hued bRosé, which is tinged with blueberry juice (from Charlotte Berry Farm); Esther, an almost-still, floral cider pressed from heirloom apples; the AmeriCran, a slightly tart blend made with cranberries from East Fairfield's Vermont Cranberry Company; and a dry-hopped cider, a beguiling, genre-busting drink that fuses elements of cider and beer. Judging from the crowd — including a few regulars from Vermont Public Radio, who work nearby (Ric Cengeri was inaugurated as Citizen Cider's non-mayor on January 18), it's all happy juice.

The snow was falling so hard that anyone who came through the door was coated in icy sparkles; even though driving home was shaping up to be slippery, no one seemed to care, including me. I snagged a vinegary Muffaletta and some herb-dusted fries from the Hindquarter and washed them down with a glass of fruity bRosé, which is ridiculously versatile with food. 

Citizen Cider is growing so steadily that all of its owners have quit their day jobs. In a world where many of us confine our passions to nights and weekends, that's saying a lot. So is the fact that the tasting room is now open five nights a week, Tuesday to Saturday, from mid-afternoon into the evening. Hopefully that won't dilute the Friday night vibe — but just in case, get it while you can.

Citizen Cider, 6D Laurette Dr., Essex. 448-3278. Every Friday night, 3-10 p.m.


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