In a nondescript rental unit in earshot of where Interstate 90 meets the Beltline, Paul Asper spends late nights developing hard cider he hopes will fill a niche in the craft-alcohol trend booming throughout the Madison area and across the nation.
The 37-year-old veteran started Restoration Cider Co. with his wife, Lissa Koop, in 2013 with a mission to ferment a dry, crisp hard cider more akin to a white wine to stand apart from the sweet, soda-like ciders that dominate the market, Koop said.
In quintessential “mom-and-pop” fashion, Asper and Koop run all aspects of the business from marketing to product development. At the same time, they balance professional careers, Asper as an emergency room nurse and Koop as a corporate attorney, while raising two young daughters.
Koop said her husband does the large majority of the duties for Restoration Cider and often works until 3 a.m. after his regular job and spending time with family. But as a member of the Minnesota Air National Guard, Asper is gone a few days a month, leaving some tasks in her hands, Koop said.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find another business owner who works harder than Paul, both in time-wise and coming up with creative solutions to keep this affordable,” Koop said.
To help manage it all, Koop’s mother and stepfather, Lynn Breunig and Dave Tremble from Prairie du Sac, regularly watch their granddaughters when the couple is occupied.
“I like Lissa to be able to enjoy some of the cider-related outings, to be able to go and participate in that, because she’s mainly focused on the kids and her office,” Breunig said.
Even Asper’s parents, Vergie and Al, make the trip from their home in Albert Lea, Minnesota, about once a month to visit and offer to watch the children.
Through all the effort, Restoration Cider last summer sold its first kegs to local bars and restaurants, but in 2016, Asper said he hopes to ferment about 10 times the volume after restoring 40-year-old dairy tanks to meet his needs.
Currently, the company makes two products, Starkweather and Sugar River. The former is a completely dry cider made from Wisconsin apples high in tannin, a compound that contributes a bitter flavor. The latter is the same base cider but with fresh-pressed juice added to “give it a hint of sweetness.”
“I never really saw myself as a cider drinker. I had tried other ciders but didn’t order it out,” said Lynn Breunig, Koop’s mother. “I love the Starkweather, the very dry cider. It’s delicious, so I’m a convert, actually.”
Both beverages are named after water sources in the Madison area, a trend Asper said he plans to continue when creating more products.
Inspiration from abroad
Paul Asper said he was always “just a beer guy,” not very interested in cider because of its sweet taste.
“It seemed kind of fake, like it was a wine cooler,” he said.
But his sentiments toward cider changed a few years ago after the couple visited northwest Spain.
While at a store, they purchased a “dirt cheap” bottle of a regional cider, Koop said. The “animated” clerk was enthusiastic about their purchase and instructed them how to properly pour the beverage into a glass from at least a meter high, Asper said.
“The first couple sips, we didn’t know what to think of it,” Asper said. “Then it just grew on us, and we fell in love with this stuff.”
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The Spanish cider, which Asper described as dry, tart and maybe vinegary, was impossible to find in the U.S., he said. But one day when Asper saw some derelict apple trees, he decided to use the fruit to reproduce the taste they fell in love with while in Europe.
“It turned out remarkably good and remarkably close to the Spanish cider,” he said.
From late 2011 into early 2012, Asper said he fermented 200 gallons of his cider and began to think it was something the newly engaged couple could make a living doing. After getting positive feedback from friends and family, Asper and Koop incorporated Restoration Cider in 2013.
Vergie Asper said her son was always interested in chemistry and hands-on projects, so she was not surprised when the couple decided to make a go at the business. The retired French teacher said she does not like hard cider but found her son’s creation tasty and drinkable.
“I knew if my mom said it was good, then we have a future,” Asper said.
While serving as a mechanic for the Wisconsin Air National Guard, Asper traveled to Iraq twice.
During his one day off a week, he said he visited the emergency room and witnessed the human cost of war.
“When I came back, I was fine, but I felt sort of this blackness, this sort of darkness that the hue of the world had changed a little bit. I got into fly fishing shortly after. It just helped me remember how beautiful the world is and put things back into perspective,” Asper said.
Asper and Koop said when Restoration Cider starts to see a profit, 5 percent of it will go to stream restoration programs and organizations throughout Wisconsin, especially those focused on the Driftless Area, to preserve a hobby that has been cathartic for the veteran.
“Paul was pretty adamant when he started the business that he wanted some sort of charitable component to it that would benefit those streams,” Koop said.
The couple said the company has raffled off guided fly fishing tours and participated in other charitable events.
Aspirations for the future
Although the cidery is just budding, the ambitious duo have plans to widen the company’s reach. They would like to open a tasting room and are optimistic about the chances of its success.
“It seems like this city is ready for something like that,” Koop said. “Given all the microbreweries this town supports, I think one cider tasting room could be supported.”
Asper said the tasting room would be filled with stream motifs and outdoor-related decorations, though he said they have no plan on when a tasting room could be open by.
“Hopefully, in the future, the business will kind of serve to educate people about that natural resource that’s so unique to this area,” Asper said.
Restoration Cider will bottle its products in the spring to be sold in the Madison area.
In the meantime, the company touts its beverages at festivals and events, including the Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest on Saturday at the Alliant Energy Center’s Exhibition Hall.