The story of hard cider in Nebraska is tangled in the vines of local wine production.
In the spring of 2003, Mike Murman planted his first grapes on recently acquired rural property on the outskirts of Palmyra, just southeast of Lincoln. As his vines slowly spread across the land, Murman’s winemaking hobby grew into the family-owned Glacial Till Vineyard & Winery. The vineyard’s name is derived from the rocky soil deposited by glaciers that occupied eastern Nebraska thousands of years ago. Within three years, Murman and his three sons were producing more wine than they could drink, and they opened their winery to the public in the summer of 2009.
After winning several awards for Glacial Till’s wine, the Murmans faced a harsh reality—Nebraska weather. The winter of 2014 took a major toll on grape yields and destroyed their chambourcin grape harvest. With a 1,000-gallon tank absent of fermenting wine, the youngest of Murman’s three sons, Craig, suggested venturing into the red-hot market for hard apple cider.
That fall, the Murmans contacted Kimmel Orchard in Nebraska City with Glacial Till’s first order. Murman’s eldest son, John, the winemaking aficionado of the family, began tinkering with recipes as soon as the raw, cold-pressed cider arrived. The result was their “Original” hard cider.
The Original offers a crisp balance of sweet and tart apples and a hint of citrus flavor. The recipe hasn’t changed since their first successful batch in 2014. Six-pack cans became available at local grocery stores in 2017.
“Any time you’re first to market everyone else is playing catch up” Murman says, an enviable position that he admits was possible due to capital from other entrepreneurial successes—including his Lincoln-based wiretap software company Pen-Link, which Murman sold to employees in 2007.
Glacial Till’s initial and ongoing relationship with Kimmel Orchard connects the hard cider producer to the historic heartland of Nebraska apple production.
Back in the days before Prohibition, hard cider was a common beverage made by farmers with apple trees, and the southeast corner of Nebraska was once one of the nation’s major apple-producing regions between 1860 and 1940, says Vaughn Hammond, orchard operations and education team leader at Kimmel Orchard.
In fact, during the early 20th century, more than 90 orchards were situated between Plattsmouth and the Kansas state border. The apple market continued to flourish in Nebraska until the devastating Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 that wiped out nearly every existing orchard. Kimmel Orchard was fortunate enough to avoid any detrimental damage and is now one of the few remaining orchards in the area.
“I’m sure hard cider was consumed during that time,” Hammond says. “I don’t know of any established industry [for processing and marketing hard cider from the region in the past], but with apple orchards comes hard cider.”
Currently, apple trees cover 40 of Kimmel Orchard’s 96 acres. Rows of fruit trees stretch across the seemingly endless horizon.
Orchard staffers harvest tree-ripened apples for cider production, but they must retain enough supply for visitors wanting to handpick fresh apples directly from the trees (one of the major tourist draws at the location). In spite of this limitation on their cider production, Hammond says Kimmel Orchard still produces 25,000-30,000 gallons every year.
Such a large production allows them to sell their raw cider to regional vineyards that want to experiment with apple wines or ciders. Glacial Till hard cider is on tap at the gift shop, and Whiskey Run Creek Vineyard & Winery (located in Brownville, Nebraska) bottles two flavors of apple wine for Kimmel Orchard. The orchard’s other Nebraskan vineyard clients include James Arthur, Mac’s Creek, and Cellar 426. But none of these customers have ventured into the scale of production displayed by the Murmans at Glacial Till.
In their first year of production, every drop of Glacial Till cider was sourced from Kimmel Orchard. But their production grew rapidly to meet demand (outpacing local supply and affordability). “The first year was about a 1,000 gallons, the next year was around 9,000 or 10,000, then 19,000, and this year is going to be 30-40,000 gallons,” Murman says.
Nebraska’s hard cider market is unique compared to other states. Under state law, hard cider is considered as a craft beer and is taxed and regulated accordingly. However, federal law classifies hard cider as a wine and requires a federal wine license to produce it. This excludes craft breweries from producing hard cider unless they apply for a federal wine license, which limits the accessibility to the market. The executive director of the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association, Lori Paulsen, estimates that six to eight Nebraska wineries (out of the 34 total) are experimenting with hard cider.
Industry standards distinguish between hard cider and apple wine. Paulsen says it is not unusual for regional vineyards to experiment with apple wine (which comes with a higher alcohol content than hard cider).
Keeping up with demand is the only problem that Glacial Till has encountered since that devastating winter of 2014. “It’s a great problem to have,” Murman says, surrounded by the family’s new brewing equipment and new canning line.
In 2017, Glacial Till nearly doubled the size of their Palmyra facility. The Murmans expected to grow into the space over the next three to four years, but they have already hit a wall. The decision to expand production into aluminum cans allowed for Glacial Till to rise, quite literally, to the ceiling of production capacity. Empty cans, awaiting cider, are stacked from floor to roof.
With Glacial Till cans now reaching grocery stores, bars, liquor stores, and events (on top of the kegs they had previously distributed to bars) the company is surpassing the 30,000-gallon volume limit that would bump them from farm to commercial winery. Fortunately, Nebraska’s unique liquor laws have allowed them to stay local and continue to self-distribute their wines.
“That’s why we got the craft brewery license in the state, because then they would allow us to have that volume fall underneath the brewery license,” Murman says.
After the first year of producing hard cider sourced from Kimmel Orchard apples, Glacial Till began seeking additional suppliers. Though the Nebraska orchard still contributes seasonally, the Murmans needed more. So they turned to established apple markets in New York.
At Glacial Till’s remote facility outside Palmyra, tanker trucks full of raw and unfiltered apple cider arrive year-round. Though he values the local relationship, Murman says “the cider we buy from New York is every bit as good of quality as Kimmel’s.” Meanwhile, his eldest son, John, uses the steady flow of cider to continue experimenting with new hard cider flavor varieties.
For curious drinkers in the Omaha area, the latest inventive flavors can be found on tap at Glacial Till’s taproom in the heart of downtown Ashland. The cozy space occupies the first floor of a renovated, historic brick building with an art gallery upstairs.
During a visit to the Ashland taproom in August, there were four ciders on tap. Along with the Original, there was Hibiscus Ginger, a subtle ginger spice paired with sweetness from the hibiscus flower; Hopito (an homage to the classic mojito cocktail), a blend of hard cider, hops, and fresh mint; and Passion Pineapple, a fusion of apple and tropical sweetness perfect for counteracting the scorching Nebraska summers.
Seasonal and experimental small-batch flavors rotate with John’s inspiration. Another of his popular concoctions was Cold Brew—a sweet apple cider balanced with hints of black coffee, chocolate, and caramel.
So far, only two flavors have transitioned into Glacial Till’s six-packs: the Original and Hibiscus Ginger. Other new varieties are in the works. Having tracked the success of new flavors in the tasting room, Murman says, “The next flavors in line for canning are Passion Pineapple and Hopito.”
Without a firm timetable for the release of new flavors, the family’s Ashland taproom remains a welcoming place to sample the latest innovative ciders to come out of Glacial Till.
Visit glacialtillvineyard.com for more information about Nebraska’s first commercial hard cider. Learn more about the historic Nebraska City apple orchard that got them going at kimmelorchard.org.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
From left: Craig, John, Mike, and Tim Murman at Glacial Till in Palmyra, Nebraska