Accomplice Brewery & Ciderworks Is a South Florida First

Question: What was America's first craft brew? Answer: hard cider.

Today, whether it's shelving at grocery stores or taps at the local bar, hard cider is steadily taking over real estate that once belonged exclusively to beer.

These days, it's becoming increasingly redundant to talk about the U.S. craft beer industry's growth in the past few years, which according to the Brewer's Association has risen from just over 11 million barrels brewed in 2011 to about 15 million in 2013.

Over that same time span, however, production of another craft spirit — specifically hard cider — has nearly tripled, making it the fastest-growing segment of the landscape of beer and flavored malt beverages. What's more, hard cider sales are expected to rise at an annual rate of 15.1 percent over the next 10 years, according to industry market research firm IBIS World.

In the past five years alone, the number of U.S. cider breweries has doubled. It's a popular choice for nonbeer drinkers and the gluten-free folks who still want to partake of something handcrafted.

Commercial ciderworks like Woodchuck and Angry Orchard aren't the only ones capitalizing. In increasing numbers, smaller independent operations have started experimenting with cider — whether alongside their beer-brewing operations or as stand-alone projects.

Luckily for us, this includes South Florida.

Stop by Saltwater Brewing in Delray Beach any day and you'll find a tap dedicated to Accomplice Brewery & Ciderworks strawberry cider in addition to its craft-beer lineup. More and more, a growing number of breweries from Key West to West Palm Beach are following suit.

Last November, the doors opened to Accomplice in West Palm Beach. Here, owner-brewer Matthew Stetson and his partner, Felonice Merriman, are making some of the area's best handcrafted hard ciders.

A sampling of ciders from Accomplice Brewery & Ciderworks.
A sampling of ciders from Accomplice Brewery & Ciderworks.

An avid homebrewer, Stetson says he originally began making gluten-free beer in response to Merriman's gluten intolerance. She couldn't sample his favorite beers, taste his homebrews, or explore new styles with him.

"It was very frustrating for both of us," says Stetson. "Basically, we were limited to buying wine or sorghum ales, which wasn't giving us that craft experience we were looking for. Eventually I started making ciders, too."

As time went on, the idea of making cider turned from hobby to feasible business venture. In 2013, with nothing more than a slim $1,200 budget and dozens of recipes brewing in his head, Stetson quit his job in technology and threw everything he had into making cider. His goal was to nurture the organic growth of a ciderworks by cornering the area's gluten-free market.

Over the past six months, Accomplice — the first of its kind in Palm Beach, Broward, or Miami-Dade counties — has seen steady growth. Today, its craft ciders are distributed statewide thanks to a new partnership with Beerstream Distributors, a boutique distributor focused on growing South Florida's local craft brands.

"We're catering to everyone here," says Stetson. "The squares and the people with allergies and the craft-beer lovers who enjoy the brewery experience and want to try something new every week. Not only are we making a great craft product; we're making a great craft product anyone can enjoy."

A spacious industrial-style tasting room offers guests a total of 15 taps, 11 devoted to cider and four to Florida craft beer. In addition to the ciderworks' four core ciders, Stetson is continually offering experimental and small-batch releases. That includes his popular Cidewinder, a double cider made with Ceylon cinnamon that rings in at 8 percent alcohol by volume and tastes like apple strudel in a cup; or seasonal releases, like his upcoming mango cider.

Dane Pierce (left), Felonice Merrimen, Matt Stetson, and Justin "Ginger" Hutton make some of the area's best handcrafted hard ciders.
Dane Pierce (left), Felonice Merrimen, Matt Stetson, and Justin "Ginger" Hutton make some of the area's best handcrafted hard ciders.

This, however, is not the treacly sweet cider of your college bar-hopping days. This is grown-up, highbrow craft cider. It's dry-hopped, barrel-aged, fruit-infused, or triple-fermented ciders, what Stetson considers "new age" ciders that push the boundaries of what many still assume to be syrupy-sweet, boozy apple juice.

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"I don't put any limitations on what flavors or ingredients I can use," says Stetson. "Several years ago, it might have been a hard sell, but we're catering to a drinking culture that is open to the idea of experimentation, and they're more willing to try new things — including ciders."

Stop by the 1,800-square-foot West Palm Beach tasting room and you'll be able to sample a rotating selection of up to a dozen ciders. A short bar offers a front-row seat and a chance to speak with Stetson in person. Or grab a seat at any of the reclaimed-wood tables and benches that dominate the industrial, garage-like space. An enclosed courtyard out back offers additional seating, games, and an alfresco dining area to nosh on selections from any of the evening's visiting food trucks.

Despite its remote location and niche market, Accomplice receives a diverse and steady crowd; that might be thanks to several weekly events, including a paint-and-sip night, yoga night, and trivia night. The biggest is the monthly Art & Artisan craft fair, where the couple invites local artists and vendors to sell their wares. An improv comedy night is also in the works.

In a nearby space 80 feet from the tasting room, cider production is at full throttle, the smell of apple juice lingering in the air. Stetson uses a traditional German cider-making process he learned from his grandfather when he was 9 years old. It begins with apple juice and concentrate sourced exclusively from orchards in Pennsylvania and Washington. A dual two-barrel stainless-steel fermenter allows Stetson to make his cider with a number of treatments and styles.

If you're curious, impromptu tours are often available when Stetson is onsite; a more immersive experience can be purchased on Groupon, where you can find a one-hour tasting tour and flight sample for $25 per person.

Matt Stetson and Felonice Merrimen
Matt Stetson and Felonice Merrimen

Sampling ciders can be a fun — and colorful — experience at Accomplice. Today, Stetson offers several flagship ciders daily in the taproom. There's the Golden (a honey-toned cider that avoids being too sweet while still maintaining a crisp, honeycomb note with just a hint of acidic funk); the Strawberry (a fruit-forward cider that pours a warm pinkish hue, offering a hint of berry flavor from the several pounds of fresh fruit Stetson uses during fermentation); and Big Berry (the strawberry cider twice fermented for a bolder boozier finish, ringing in at just over 7 percent ABV).

For those constantly chasing a new flavor, seasonal and rotating taps change weekly — if not every few days — with styles and profiles ranging from cold-brew coffee-infused to dry-hopped. There's also a growing mead program.

And there's more to come. Though Stetson began making cider due to its niche appeal, original plans were to create the area's first gluten-free brewery. With the ciderworks foundation in place, the couple are looking to expand operations to include gluten-free beer made using a variety of grains — everything from quinoa and amaranth to sunflower and buckwheat, says Stetson.

According to Stetson, Accomplice will begin serving its first gluten-free beer this summer.

Even with its growing popularity, cider can still be a hard sell to those who are either "camp beer" or "camp wine" — and gluten-free beer is even harder, admits Stetson. But it's a gamble both Stetson and Merriman are willing to take.

"My mission is to make a whole-grain brew that can also be consumed by the gluten-free crowd," says Stetson. "Imagine a millet or teff beer. It will be a new breed of craft brewing, with a vast array of flavors no one has ever seen — or tasted. I want to blow people's minds."

Accomplice Brewery & Ciderworks

1023 N. Florida Mango Road, West Palm Beach. Hours are 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, 4:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight Friday, 2 p.m. to midnight Saturday, and 2 to 8 p.m. Sunday. Call 561-568-7242, or visit accomplicebrewery.com.

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Accomplice Brewery & Ciderworks

1023 N Florida Mango Rd
West Palm Beach, Florida 33408

561-568-7242

accomplicebrewery.com


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