Pittsburgh entrepreneurs with alcohol on the brain make beer (East End Brewing Co.). They make booze (Boyd & Blair vodka). They make wine (Engine House No. 25, Carlo's Garage). But nobody had really gotten into cider, not until Bill and Michelle Larkin decided to gut the first floor of their Lawrenceville duplex and turn it into the Arsenal Cider House & Wine Cellar.
The project, more than two years in the making, is finally scheduled to debut on Saturday with a soft opening. After that, the cider house, at 300 39th St., will operate afternoons and evenings, Wednesday through Sunday, and by special appointment. For now, there's no shingle hanging outside to mark the place, so keep your eyes peeled.
Mr. Larkin has been making beer, cider and wine for about six years. He was tutored by Alexis Hartung, former owner of Country Wines in Ross, and University of Pittsburgh neurobiologist (and skydiving instructor) Peter W. Land, who taught him how to make hard cider. (Both have since died.)
"It started out as something smaller than it's going to be, [just] a couple tanks in the basement," said Mr. Larkin, an accountant. He and Mrs. Larkin, a preschool teacher, had hoped the hobby might provide them with some extra money to help raise their three children.
But "once we started researching what the government was going to make us do in order to bring the building to code and everything else," it made sense to open a retail and tasting space, as well. "It was a whole lot bigger investment than we intended," he said.
How big? About $20,000 worth of renovations and equipment, including several 132-gallon fermenting tanks in the basement. Most husbands -- including, it should be noted, the author of this column -- spend too much money on alcohol as it is; $20,000 is the type of investment at which a wife, no matter how supportive, might initially balk.
"She's come around big time," said Mr. Larkin.
Is this true, Mrs. Larkin?
"I guess you could say I was the cautious one," she said. "But I'm excited about it now."
The three-story, red brick home sits across the way from the 39th Street wall of the Civil War-era Allegheny Arsenal, an association upon which the Larkins hope to capitalize. Labels for their various ciders and wines will feature military images -- cannons, Civil War generals and so on. One product will be called "Daily Rations," a reference to the small amount of booze that soldiers were allowed to drink on a daily basis. The tasting room, which takes up the entire first floor of the home, has a farmhouse feel -- lots of old barrels framed by knotty pine, some of which has been singed to give it a weathered, antique look.
But will it sell? Cider, generally made of fermented apples, is more or less the bastard stepchild of the alcohol family -- not quite beer, not quite wine, definitely not a spirit. As such, even though cider is a staple in British and Irish pubs, it has a niche following in America.
That's why the Larkins, in addition to their growlers of hard apple cider, also plan to stock fruit wines and carbonated wine coolers, hoping to appeal to a broader range of customers and palates. They'll also be selling a cider sorbet, an apple cinnamon treat with alcohol in it. (Generally, ciders have an alcohol content that falls somewhere between beer and wine, 3 to 9 percent.)
Today, at least, most people know what "hard" cider is, which wasn't the case 20 years ago. In 1990, there were about 145,000 cases of hard cider sold in the U.S. Later that decade, the Woodchuck brand of hard cider came along, and today, Americans drink the equivalent of 4 million cases of hard cider annually. Strongbow, Woodchuck, Magners and Ace brand ciders can now be found in bars around the city.
When the cider house opens on Saturday, it will have two items on draft and available for tasting and purchase -- one cherry wine and one hard apple cider. After that, the Larkins intend to add a new product every month or so, depending on demand (fermenting and aging take three months or longer). Some of the ciders will be sweeter; some, as Mr. Larkin put it, will be "bone dry."
The Larkins hope to buy most of their produce and juice locally. The apple cider, for example, comes from Soergel Orchards. Grapes and cherries come from the Lake Erie region.
Though cider can be chilled and pulled through a tap like beer, it's regulated like a wine, through the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture as well as the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
A new vodka will be hitting local state store shelves this month. Clique Vodka, imported from Latvia, is being marketed by Pittsburgh-based Premier Innovations Group. Learn more at cliquevodka.com.
Also this month, Philadelphia-based Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction -- the same outfit that is marketing Root, the root-tea-inspired booze -- is unveiling its newest product, Snap. The 80-proof spirit claims "molasses, ginger, and North American spices" in its flavor profile.
Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625. For bar- and booze-related Twitter updates: @btoland_pg. First Published June 17, 2010 4:00 AM