"This is a historic apple growing region," says Philbrick about Montezuma and La Plata counties in southwestern Colorado. Some 6,000 trees, consisting of around 600 different varietals, have their GPS locations and their DNA records cataloged. Many of those trees date back to the mining camp era of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, and were award-winning even then for the fruit they produced, according to EsoTerra Ciderworks' website.
"We buy from over 50 landowners," says Philbrick of the cidery she started with her husband, Jared Scott, who crafts the beverages. "We buy some of the most historic orchards' apples, with the most heritage varietals." She further calls the varietals they purchase, numbering about a hundred, "super-unique."
For that very reason, Dolores is a great location for EsoTerra Ciderworks to be making its own unique Colorado cider. "We make wine-like, traditional European-crafted styles of cider," says Philbrick. "Very crisp, very clean. No artificial flavors." No added sugar, as well. "We affectionately call most American cider 'soda pop cider' -- it comes in cans and it's heavily sweetened," she says. And while some of EsoTerra's ciders are carbonated, others are intentionally made to be still.
Of its approximately 20 different offerings, there's one called Crimson Gold, made solely using "Crimson Gold" applecrabs. "It tastes more like wine than most wine tastes like wine," Philbrick says, calling the results "bright and grassy, very clean and crisp." There's a blend called Ton of Brix, employing Wickson crab apples, which serves as an "example of what sweet cider, that is not actually sweetened, can taste like." And then there's The Last Stand, which won a Best in Class gold award in 2021 at the exacting Great Lakes International Cider and Perry competition. It's a "very aromatic champagne-like cider the judges went wild for," she says.
Such accolades have increased demand for the company's cider. And not just in Colorado -- where their cider makes its way to accounts as far north as Telluride and as far east as Durango (which is also the location of EsoTerra Ciderworks' second tasting room). But also to, say, Seattle, Houston, and Boston, since out-of-state customers can order online. Approximately 20 percent of the company's business comes via its website.
While EsoTerra Ciderworks has an outsized reputation, it's still small compared to other regional cideries. Last year, it produced 8,000 gallons. This year's target is 12,000. It also assists a handful of other businesses by making ciders for them before they officially open their own places -- a practice called "custom crush."
Scott, the cidermaker, seeks out apples that when either combined, or on their own, have the necessary flavor components. "He'll take a bite of this, take a bite of that, and he'll chew them together in his mouth," explains Philbrick. "'This one has the tannin, that one has the acid, now let's find one that one that has the sugar.'"
Philbrick and Scott lead the picking crews themselves. Next the apples are placed within insulated storage rooms, made chilly through the use of coolbots attached to air conditioners, thus allowing the sugars to condense.
They also use a proprietary system in their ciders' creation: "We're essentially creating a hybrid model, where current cider equipment meets winemaking equipment." It's caught the attention of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT), which has bestowed a grant upon the business to continue innovating.
Having worked with scores of different yeast strains, Jared will sometimes use more than one during the creation of a cider -- just like a winemaker. Some of the cider is barrel-aged, others aged in stainless steel -- none for less than six months.
They've also worked with the chemistry department at Fort Lewis College, leading to published journal articles. Through them, Elizabeth and Jared have learned, for instance, when to stop fermentation of some of the apple varieties they use for the best smell and taste. Philbrick notes how copious research has already been done on grapes used within wine-making, but few researchers have studied apples for similar types of data.
Scott and Philbrick met at Colorado State University. She studied landscape architecture, he majored in forestry. But after they moved to Southwest Colorado, the recently married couple came to the conclusion they didn't want to spend their days apart from each other. Luckily they were able to secure a building for their joint work: the former home of the Mountain Sun Natural and Organic Juices, which Philbrick notes was at one time "the largest organic juice factory in the world."
"My husband makes an amazing internationally award-winning product but neither one of us had ever started a business before," says Philbrick about their cider-making venture. Helpfully, they've received advice through the Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs.
"I love it for its uniqueness," Philbrick says about cider. "Cider is a new world. We are on the forefront of defining what cider is."
Challenges: "Our biggest hurdle is definitely consumer education," says Philbrick. She points out how many people know what wines like pinot grigio or pinot noir are supposed to taste like, but not necessarily one of EsoTerra's products: "If you drink a Crimson Gold you have no idea what that's supposed to taste like," she says. "That is a really unique space that we get to exist in."
Opportunities: The cider market "is massively growing," says Philbrick. "The best opportunity for us is the fact that we are smack dab in the middle of one of the most dense apple growing regions where there is [no other] industry for these apples."
Philbrick, who works with the local Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, adds, "One of our main goals is to help revive the existing orcharding community."
Needs: The company needs more workers to pick apples. "That's really difficult for us -- and without having the fresh fruit we don't really get to make the ciders we're hoping to," she says.