MOUNT HOREB — Ken Ruppert and Karin Condon have a new appreciation for their apples.
For decades, the apple trees scattered across pastureland and wooded areas of their 208-acre beef cattle farm between Dodgeville and Mineral Point have largely been ignored.
The couple would pick a few each year but their wild trees, which number in the hundreds, were never pruned, treated or undergone a commercial harvest.
But this month, Ruppert’s and Condon’s crop has taken a fermented liquid form at what is being billed as the state’s first cider pub. Located two blocks south of Mount Horeb’s Main Street and next door to the looming new headquarters of Duluth Trading Co., Brix Cider showcases apples from 18 farms in southern Wisconsin.
The business, housed in a former cheese warehouse, is also highlighting other local food producers and giving those unfamiliar with farming a peek into the state’s changing agricultural industry where small, family dairy farms are rapidly vanishing.
“We welcomed it because we thought someone might as well use them,” Condon said of their overlooked apple crop, as she stood inside the pub on a recent Friday night.
“They asked us if they could pick the apples and we said ‘yeah, go ahead,’ because the only ones eating them were the cows,” added Ruppert, 61, who was born and raised on the Iowa County property that was established as a dairy operation by his grandparents. “I don’t think we ever thought there was any value to those apples. They were just wild trees.”
Brix Cider is the creation of Matt and Marie Raboin, who live south of Barneveld on six acres with their two young children, Teddy, 3, and Vera, 1. This is where, in 2014, the couple began planting scores of apple trees. Today, their orchard has over 1,000 trees that are starting to produce 110 varieties of apples.
The Raboins have squeezed about 250 gallons of juice from their own apples, but 85 to 90 percent of the juice for their 11 ciders is made with apples from other growers.
Some are commercial operations or pick-your-own orchards that have let the couple come in and pick the less attractive fruit at the end of the season, which in turn creates an additional revenue stream for the orchards. Others are like Ruppert and Condon, who have no qualms about giving away their wild apples since they were going to waste anyway.
The goal is to produce about 1,000 gallons of cider a year in a production facility next to the tasting room. But about 50 percent of sales at Brix Cider are designed to come from locally sourced food.
And that’s what separates Brix from other cider operations, like Door County’s Island Orchard Cider in Ellison Bay, Lost Valley Cider in Milwaukee and The Cider Farm south of Hollandale that is building a tasting room next to Brennan’s Cellar’s on Madison’s Southwest Side.
Just like the apples, the food at Brix is largely from area farms and other local food producers.
“I think that the local thing will resonate,” Matt Raboin said. “I hope it will. We’re banking on it.”
The $300,000 project by the Raboins, who took out a second mortgage on their home, includes a kitchen filled with carrots from Taproot Farm & Fruit in Ridgeway; honey from Gentle Breeze Honey in Mount Horeb, and onions from Cross Roads Community Farm just south of Pine Bluff. Flour is sourced from Meadowlark Organics near Ridgeway, Cress Spring Bakery north of Blue Mounds provides the bread and cookies, and some of the sausage is made at Hoesly Meats in New Glarus.
One product even comes full circle. Pressed apples that remain from the cider process are fed to pigs at Dorothy’s Range near Blanchardville. Pigs from the farm, which is owned by Brix employee April Prusia, are then used to make sausages at Brix and are served on buns made at Schubert’s Diner & Bakery Cafe in downtown Mount Horeb.
It’s one way that the Raboins, and scores of other farm-to-table restaurants, are trying to help the state’s farm economy transition from that of traditional dairy farming to a diverse network of agribusinesses. Low milk prices and, more recently, tariffs have stressed the state’s dairy industry that in 2018 lost 691 farms. About 8,100 dairy farms remain, down from about 15,900 in 2004.
But some shuttered operations are being repurposed. They can include organic beef, free-range chickens, mushrooms and garlic, small grain production, organic vegetables, sheep and goat’s milk used for the state’s award-winning artisan cheese industry, and aquaponic facilities that grow fish and leafy greens.
“We need to bring back regional food systems,” said Marie Raboin, who has a long career in agriculture and works for Dane County Land Conservation, where she helps farmers improve their grazing practices. “Everything has gotten too monopolized and too big and we’re shipping stuff way too far. The more diverse you are the more resilient you are.”
Marie, 35, grew up in Wauwatosa, studied soil sciences at UW-Stevens Point and spent nearly eight years working on wetlands with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Madison. Her experience includes a two-year stint in Malawi, a land-locked country in southeastern Africa, as director of agroecology for the Kusamala Institute of Agriculture & Ecology.
Matt, 39, is a Fond du Lac native, earned a fine arts degree at UW-La Crosse and worked in Madison restaurants, spent two summers in Alaska and worked for a time at Tipi Produce near Evansville. He spent two years in the Peace Corps as a natural resources extension officer in Tanzania and spent five years conducting research, outreach and grower education for the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.
The couple met while they were in grad school and both studying agroecology, an educational tract the couple describe as where sociology, agronomy and ecology meet. Their education is reflected in their 5,780-square-foot cider pub where customers bring their young children who can nosh on grilled cheese sandwiches and play with a wooden train set. The pub’s tables and the bar are made from walnut trees harvested from the Raboins’ property 10 miles southwest of Mount Horeb.
“I think our professors would be proud,” Matt said.
Some of the ciders contain just one type of apple from a specific orchard, such as Appleberry Farm west of Madison, Munchkey Apples between Daleyville and Blanchardville, and Karberg Orchard near Cambridge. Others are a mix of varieties from different orchards, while others are blended with ingredients like raspberries, strawberries and hops. A few are aged in bourbon and rye whiskey barrels, and another is blended to taste like an Old Fashioned.
The opening of the business came after an arduous journey with multiple letdowns over two years. The Raboins thought they had a building in Blue Mounds but it was sold to someone else. Then came a plan to be part of the Mount Horeb Food Emporium, a collection of food producers in the building they now call home.
However, the emporium plan, a project by Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action in Mineral Point, never materialized and fell apart in 2017 after the Raboins signed a lease and after Matt quit his job and began renting freezer storage for the 4,500 gallons of juice he had pressed for an anticipated spring 2018 opening.
The Raboins, livid and frustrated, began exploring other options, including other buildings, food trucks, warehouses, restaurants, old empty buildings and build-to-suit options. That led to approaching the owners of the Riley Tavern, a popular stop for bicyclists located in a rural area northwest of Verona. Even though the property wasn’t for sale, the owner agreed but in the end, the Raboins were unable to secure financing for the project, which would have been dubbed Riley Cider. But for a variety of reasons, six banks declined to provide financing.
“Our ship was sinking again,” the Raboins wrote on their blog.
Enter Steve Schlecht, executive chairman of Duluth Trading Co., who has invested in several projects in downtown Mount Horeb. Schlecht had purchased the building that had been eyed for the Food Emporium and called the Raboins to offer them the front half of the building for their cider pub. They were scheduled to open Jan. 30 but opened a day late because of the polar vortex, a blip that barely registers for the Raboins compared to their other challenges.
“It was a little bigger investment than we had originally planned on but we managed to cobble it together and here we are,” Matt said.
“With Mount Horeb, we knew it was growing and we knew it was going to boom,” said Marie. “And it’s a nice 10-mile commute for us, which is nothing.”