When it opens with a public party Friday, the Threadbare Cider House will be serving several varieties of its own hard cider, but there also will be plenty of non-alcoholic cider for teenagers and children.
“We are trying to make this very family-friendly,” says Meredith Grelli of her family’s latest drinks destination on the North Side. Threadbare Cider and Mead is on Spring Garden Avenue in the North Side neighborhood of Spring Garden, within walking distance of their Wigle Whiskey Barrelhouse and Whiskey Garden that opened there in 2014, two years after the main Wigle distillery opened in the Strip District.
Threadbare and Wigle offices now are consolidated in this newly renovated, 1,500-square-foot brick-and-beam building, which used to house the offices for a sprawling early 1900s tannery, one of the biggest in the country.
A very high-ceilinged adjacent modern warehouse, built for a moving and storage company, greatly expands the capacity for storing and aging barrels of spirits and ciders, a necessity since the Barrelhouse was full at about 1,800 barrels. The one-acre lot includes parking for about 50 cars, something else the Barrelhouse lacks. “It’s our biggest space yet,” says Ms. Grelli. “It’s the first time we’ve given ourselves space to expand.”
She notes that the new project was a $2.5-million investment. Wigle, which also has a tasting room at Downtown’s Omni William Penn Hotel, already gets 100,000 visitors a year, a stat the new location and experience looks to substantially grow. She’s already talking about doubling that. Last week, Threadbare already made USA Today’s photo gallery, “50 states: 50 cider destinations,” as the place to drink cider in Pennsylvania.
As Ms. Grelli points out, the distillery already was playing with apple juice and apple wood in several spirits offerings, such as Walkabout Apple Whiskey and a new array of more than a dozen brandies. Branching off into cider made sense.
Moreso because they’re dealing in not just liquids, but also stories. Whereas the business initially riffed on the regional history of the rye whiskey for which the region used to be famous, the 1790s Whiskey Rebellion and distillery rebel Phillip Wigle, this new arm is all about someone who was Mr. Wigle’s contemporary: Johnny Appleseed.
John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman was a real person, if a real eccentric, who lived in Pittsburgh in the 1790s as he made a name for himself, planting the seeds of cider apples throughout the frontier, wearing no shoes and tattered clothing.
Hence the name Threadbare, where parts of Mr. Chapman’s story will be told on regular Saturday tours — family ones ($7.50 for those younger than 21 and $15 for those 21 and older) and adult ones ($20). You’ll see his likeness on everything from some wallpaper to the big Lite-Brite-type play panels in the tasting room’s children’s area to the labels for the place’s core — hah! — offerings: A dry cider, an off-dry (sweeter) farmhouse cider and a hopped cider, all of which are about 8 percent alcohol by volume.
Like tours at the other two Wigle spaces, tours here focus about half on history and half on production, and so people will get to walk through the three ground-floor fermenters (they plan to add up to nine more). That’s where apple juice from orchards around the region, including Soergel and Trax, are injected with yeast and fermented under the direction of head cider maker Brian Bolzan, who previously worked at Jack’s Hard Cider near Gettysburg and, before that, Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md.
As he explained at those big (30-barrel) steel tanks during a recent tour for local journalists and bloggers, this region is a great one for growing apples, but they’re almost solely eating apples, not the much more tannic varieties that are great for cider. So he adds that pucker and depth with apple concentrate and other ways.
He’s also just beginning to make barrel-aged ciders, using some of the vast array of barrels from Wigle’s distillery side. At Threadbare, says Ms. Grelli, “A barrel program is a big part of what we’re looking to do.”
While hard cider’s boom of a few years ago has slowed, that’s mostly with the national, mostly super-sweet brands, she says. They see lots of potential for growth in craft ciders, especially the ways they’re planning to make them with interesting yeasts, bottle conditioning, barrel-aging and, eventually, with cider apples they’re encouraging local farmers to plant. “All those things could be game-changing in our little world of cider.”
Michelle McGrath, executive director of the United States Association of Cider Makers, says that last year, the craft cider segment — ciders not made by big beer companies — grew more than 40 percent. “Basically, cider consumers are seeking local cider.” And they’re getting it: On top of the 700 to 800 cideries in the country now, her group has several hundred cidery-in-planning members.
Mead, or honey wine, is another drinks category and something Threadbare can make in the spring and summer, when fresh local apples are less available.
Tour-goers get to peek into the new barrel warehouse and then they’ll circle back to the upstairs tasting room and retail space, which has seating for about 150. There’s also a private event/conference room that can seat 30 to 40.
The Threadbare kitchen serves a menu of ciders, cider cocktails, local beers and food, including meat, cheese and vegetable platters; soup and salad; pizzas and rotating desserts. Executive chef is Jay Wess, previously of Dinette in East Liberty, whose pizza yeast was started with some from the cider-making side; he also is offering a polenta — cornmeal — crust that is gluten-free. He’s joined by pastry chef Elise Miranda, who is also reusing some grains from the distilling process in crackers served in the tasting room. The graduate of Chatham University’s food studies program wrote her thesis about food waste and says, “I think this is a nice way to bring attention to these issues.”
Children on the family tours will get to use old-fashioned apple peelers to peel and core apples, which they can eat, along with cookies and snacks from the kitchen. They’ll get maps to follow Johnny Appleseed’s travels across the Northeast and materials to make wildflower “seed bombs” back in the tasting room, so they can do some seed dispersal of their own.
In terms of distributing the cider, Ms. Grelli says they’ll start sending it out to the 14 states where Wigle products already are sold in January. In the meantime, they’d mostly like customers to come to Threadbare for them. The three core ciders are retailing for $18 for 750-milliliter bottles. On draft with them for the opening will be Wild Sour Cider, fermented in rye barrels for two months. As more ciders are ready, they’ll gradually take over most of the 20 taps behind the bar, a dozen of which will be dispensing local beers for the opening. Menu prices include $15 for the 12-inch pizza or $10 for two pieces of the polenta pizza. Soup and salad are $10 and $12, respectively. Platters are $8 for “The Brine” and $12 for “The Curd” and “The Beast.”
The grand opening party is set for 7 to 9 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $30 and include two drinks, tasting platters, live music and mini tours. Regular family and adult tours will start on Saturday.
Regular hours will be 5 to 10 p.m. Weds. through Fri., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sat. and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sun. and the space will be available for private events.
Threadbare is located at 1291 Spring Garden Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For more information, visit https://threadbarecider.com.
Threadbare Cider & Mead is being added to Wigle's growing empire.
Bob Batz Jr.: email@example.com, 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.