Cideries blossom in Fort Wayne

September 14th, 2018

By Linda Lipp | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Johnny Appleseed would be proud.

Apples, the fruit that gave fabled planter John Chapman his more famous nickname, are coming into their own in a new way in Fort Wayne, the city where Chapman died and is buried.

Ambrosia Orchards, south of Fort Wayne on U.S. Route 27, will plant 450 apple trees on a 12-acre site, beginning this fall, and also open a cidery to make hard cider and mead. Ambrosia will be the second hard cider producer in Allen County. The first, Kekionga Cider Co., opened a little over a year ago on the northeast side of the city in an old mill on Maysville Road.

For Blanca and Edison Bender, the owners of Ambrosia, opening a cidery was a natural extension of the work they’d already been doing with Bender’s Orchard, near Wolf Lake, the family farm where he grew up. They’ve been selling Bender’s apples at farmers markets here for about five years, “and we wanted to branch out and bring an orchard to the southeast side of Fort Wayne,” Blanca said.

The Benders are seeking a zoning variance to put a tasting room in a barn on the property, which is zoned for agriculture. If everything goes as planned, it should be up and running in October.

The trees they are planting are a semi-dwarf variety that should begin producing fruit within about four years. In the meantime, they will make their hard cider and fresh cider with apples from the Bender family orchard.

Kekionga got its start with an offhand experiment about five years ago, said Logan Barger, one of the partners in the cidery. He and friend Tyler Butcher borrowed a cousin’s basket press and picked apples from a tree in a brother’s yard. “We decided one Saturday to press some apples and throw some yeast on it and see what happened,” Barger recalled.

They learned a lot from that first try — that picking the right variety of apples is important, and mostly notably, that this was a business that they wanted to attempt.

But they subsequently heard through the grapevine that the owners of Goeglein Catering were thinking of opening a cidery, and they weren’t sure the county was ready for two new cideries. So they met with the Goegleins, “and I think when they felt comfortable with us; they showed us the ropes and we teamed up,” Barger said.

The cidery is located in an old mill across Maysville Road from Goeglein’s Catering. The historic 1929 building, which the Goeglein family had sold and then repurchased, houses both the cider-making operation and a tasting room. Kekionga’s hard ciders also are sold at restaurants and liquor stores in bottles, and Barger said they hope to expand to cans in the near future.

The cidery is open evenings and weekends, Wednesday through Sunday. There is no operating kitchen there as yet, but one is being built and will be operated by the Goegleins. In the meantime, food trucks are stationed at the cidery almost every weekend, Barger said.

In addition to making fresh and hard ciders, Ambrosia also plans to capitalize on an old Bender family relationship with the owners of Sweet Life Honey Farm in Huntington County to produce mead. Cindy Sheets, who runs the operation with her daughter, Sadye Harris, worked with Edison Bender’s father. Their bees were used to pollinate the Bender family orchard.

Sweet Life has 300 hives it uses to produce honey, and also runs a shop on the farm.

“We honestly have been thinking about making honey wines for a long time here, but never really had the time to put into it,” Sheets said.

When the Benders proposed making mead as well as hard cider, Sheets and Harris welcomed the partnership.

“We’re super excited to continue this relationship with them,” Sheets said. “We used to work with the parents. Now we’re working with the kids, the next generation.”

Ciders and mead will offer an alternative for those who are just not beer drinkers.

“For couples and families, if they don’t like beer there’s not a lot else to drink,” Blanca Bender said. “We have a lot of breweries popping up, but not a lot for non beer drinkers. So hard cider is kind of a nice second choice.”

The Benders also hope to have a little farm market in the Ambrosia barn that will sell not just apples and ciders but other locally produced food items. Fresh produce can be hard to find in that part of the city, she noted, “so we’re hoping to do that for the southeast side of Fort Wayne.”

The apples grown at the Ambrosia farm won’t be organic, but Indiana’s climate doesn’t really lend itself to that. However, the Benders are choosing apple varieties that are hardy, resistant to pests and disease and can thrive with a minimum use of chemicals.

“We really want to make sure we’re doing the best we can for the environment,” Blanca Bender said.