"Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples," coos the Song of Solomon. Making and consuming cider is one of the noblest and oldest expressions of the human spirit, and Wes Mickel, proprietor of Central Texas' Argus Cidery, is continuing that song. From the great cider traditions of Europe to the American brand of cider that flourished from colonial days through Prohibition, Mickel honors the great tradition of the beverage he's sharing with the world.
Just as wine wouldn't exist without grapes, cider begins and ends with apples, which Mickel says "are born into their purpose." Some are perfect for eating or throwing into a pie. Others are harder, tarter, need more coaxing and manipulation to bring out their essential qualities. The best raw, unfermented ciders, Mickel says, combine several different kinds of apples into the perfect blend. From his ideally located perch in Austin, he has access to so many wonderful varieties.
Mickel grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and started experimenting with making cider at age 15. But he's no amateur chef. After attending the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Northern California, he moved to Austin, drawn by the variety and hardiness of Texas apples. "The apples here in Texas are amazing, and the juice they produce is really special," he told Austin's Tribeza magazine this summer. "To other people it might just be apple juice, but to me it's really, really incredible."
From the beginning, Mickel's cider has amazed critics. "It's much closer to a bottle of fine Champagne," the Austin Chronicle wrote in 2011. "In fact, the first time we tried it, it was immediately following a similarly priced $20 Cava. I have to admit, I had low expectations and was instead literally amazed that the Argus had all the bubbly mouthfeel, cleansing acidity and wonderful aromas we got from the Cava, and the Argus was even drier."
At the time, Mickel told the Chronicle, "We just want to learn more about growing apples so we can understand them better and make better sparkling cider. We're really thrilled about the future." Well, the future has arrived, and it's sweet. Last April, Mickel unveiled a 1,600-square-foot tasting room 20 miles from Austin, which one critic called "an unassuming kitsch warehouse filled to the brim with personality and alcoholic goodness." The tasting room only opens on Saturdays, also serving a spread of meats and cheese and, if visitors are lucky, Vietnamese banh mi.
It's a down-home expression of hipster hospitality, fueled by a passion for Texas apples and by a sophisticated global perspective on the drink Mickel loves. He says he draws inspiration from the Spanish region of Asturias, as geographically far from Texas as you can get.
"Since Spain doesn't have grape-friendly growing conditions, apples were planted instead. Kind of like Texas," he says. "Since then, Asturian and Basque ciders incorporated the usage of wild yeast, which gives these varieties a real kick. Which is also kind of like Texas. Spanish and Basque ciders are usually made without any carbonation and are more like a still apple wine."
Of course, he says, "We'll drink it either way."
This video from Dark Rye was produced by Clyde Burley and edited by Jason De La Rosa.