InCider Edition with Matt Vodraska of Bent Ladder
Continuing on our Ohio cider journey, I'd love to introduce you all to Matt Vodraska and family. They own and operate Rittman Orchards & Farm Market and last year opened Bent Ladder Cider and Wine. Their taproom and grounds are probably the most beautiful I've seen. Matt's journey to cider master is as unconventional as it is awesome. He's young, self taught, and working in a state that doesn't quite hold cider as high as it should (yet!).
Fermenting Ohio: Tell us how you got to Bent Ladder.
Matt Vodraska: I was raised on a fruit farm in Conneaut, OH and spent a lot of time at Markko’s Vineyard (and their tasting room). We grew fruit there and I was raised around that culture. My family later moved out West to grow Washington Apples when I was in middle school. My dad studied horticulture at Ohio State and Michigan State. Washington Red Delicious is the epitome of what apples are marketed to be. We grew exceptionally beautiful apples, but they taste like wet cardboard, which is what that style is about; pretty to look at, not so great to eat. My father eventually started looking for a hobby farm for retirement back in Ohio and we ended up on this property. My brother was working on his doctoral degree at that time and decided to come help with the project and together they planted acres and acres of trees. I was in college at the time, transferred to Kent State to be closer to the farm to help, then came to work here full time. When looking into value added options to supplement the farming business, we were interested in grape growing and wine production. We started slowly planning to do a winery, planting grape vines 8 years ago. The plantings are French American hybrids that will yield the best possible fruit as they are hardier and can handle the inconsistent growing regions of the area. About four years ago I sat down to plan the taproom and production building. Two years ago, we actually started production and finally on Sept 10th 2016, we opened. This property has been around since the 1920s, but the previous owners stopped taking care of the property so we were basically starting from scratch. We also have the farm market (Rittman Orchards and Farm Market) on this property as well as the cidery/winery.
FO: How big is the orchard?
MV: We have 125 acres on which we grow peaches, plumbs, cherries, pears, all berry crop and some additional produce items. Four acres are dedicated to the grape vines and 30 or so for the apple trees. This changes year to year, one thing we can do here is experiment a lot with what we grow and how we grow it.
FO: How many varieties of grapes and apples do you grow?
MV: Grapes we have around 10, and close to 80 apple varieties. We offer varieties not available in grocery stores. Apples have trends too, what was popular five years ago isn’t in vogue now. We have ancient varieties here, some apples are from Roman times, one kind was eaten by Louis XIIII in the French Courts, and we have a lot of varieties propagated by Johnny Appleseed. Before refrigeration, apples were either processed/canned or made into cider, there was no way to preserve and enjoy them as we do today. Some heirloom varieties were bread specifically for their cidering ability. When we got to the cider making part of the business, we sought these varieties out. There aren’t many apples that are complex enough to be standalone varietals, unlike grapes. They are most often a blend of three to a dozen varieties to build complexity and flavor.
FO: How did you learn how to make cider and wine?
MV: My education came from the wonders of the internet and 10 years of study. Reading material for Cornell, UC Davis and similar schools is available online, you can get all texts through Amazon, and then there’s plenty of conferences, meetings and seminars to attend. So that’s what I did for 10 years, I studied text books, attended meetings and taught myself by talking to people.
FO: Where do you see your business going?
MV: This facility is the last major construction project, production will expand as we grow into our market. The bigger you get the harder it is to maintain quality, we’re not and never have been about making a quick buck. And it’s about integrity of place, too. Being an estate operation is restrictive to expansion, unless you use shortcuts like juice concentrates, using inferior apples, etc.
FO: How do you feel about Ohio apple production, cideries in general? Why isn’t Ohio cider as big as it is in other states?
MV: Ohio is the last major apple producing region that doesn’t have a strong cidery presence. Washington and Oregon have really led the way here, even their universities have done a lot of work on cider production. California has the third largest apple production in the states but that will never outgrow their grape industry. New York, Michigan, Virginia, even West Virginia, all have established cideries in the past 10 years and have been doing very well. Ohio just hasn’t gotten there yet. There’s not that many people doing this, it takes a lot of time to learn and a lot of investment to get the operation going. And the pubic is just not that aware of cider here, which is strange given the strong food culture Ohio has. We’ve embraced farm to table type restaurants, but the beverage area is lacking. They want to source everything on your plate from within a 50-mile radius, but then serve it with a French wine.
FO: What do you think needs to happen in Ohio to become a major cider producing state?
MV: In other states, they’ve accommodated the tax structure and laws regulating cider production. In Ohio, cider and wine aren’t differentiated in the eyes of the law. Some ciders are carbonated and that puts you into entirely different tax brackets when you make it that way, when you’re expecting to pay $6-7 for a glass of cider but it’s being taxed the same way as a $15 glass of champagne, how does that make sense as a producer to reconcile that? There are more progressive reforms in other states with apple industries, New York and Washington have great examples of legislations that empower cideries and all that benefits the local economy.
FO: What was the most challenging part about opening a cidery/winery?
MV: My family has put a tremendous amount of faith in my ability to pull this off….gathering the resources and information, at least enough of it to pull it off, was the hard part. There was no guidance. Everyone in the industry is very friendly, but it’s wine dominate. There’s no local cidermaker you can refer to or go ask questions. So, we’re blazing a trail here and hopefully that’ll work out for us.
FO: What else do you want people to know about Bent Ladder?
MV: We have musical acts and food trucks every weekend this summer, we’re really looking to give the best experience possible to our customers. We’ve sold out of one cider already, but I’ll be releasing more in the next few weeks with three to four additional ciders over the summer. There’s constant experimentation here that will hopefully lead to innovation. Our product is great for the gluten conscious as it’s naturally gluten free. Cider is more approachable than wine, it’s more gender neutral and you get it by the pint. You can get a hopped cider to compete with IPAs. For alcohol, it’s fairly healthy as the vitamins and nutrients are retained during the fermentation process. Actually, that’s how settlers and early Americans survived the winter and fed their kids, all thanks to cider.
The space is amazing, the ciders excellent and the backstory incredible. Do yourself a favor and make it out to Bent Ladder (also, really recommend the apple pies sold at Rittman Orchards...ridiculously good)!
13550 Mt. Eaton Rd
Doylestown, OH 44230