A couple of years ago Michelle da Silva and Dana Masterpolo started to notice an interesting phenomenon emerging around the libations served at friends’ gatherings. There was always particular attention paid to selection and as such, it was typical to find a beautiful bottle of wine, some craft beer, and a fancy, customized cocktail. Then more and more, they noticed hard cider pop up in the rotation. But to da Silva and Masterpolo, those offerings just didn’t seem to fit with the caliber of the other drinks.
“It was not as elegantly packaged, as interesting, and just didn’t appeal to our personal palate,” Masterpolo recalls. “We weren’t necessarily wowed by it. We just noted it.”
Noted it they did, and set out on a mission to challenge conventional notions of cider by crafting their own distinctive blend, using local as a guiding principle. Masterpolo and da Silva fittingly deemed their fledgling business Bantam Cider, as a nod to the idea of small but mighty; though the size of their enterprise pales in comparison to many competitors, it is also a considerable strength when it comes to building relationships with producers and distributors and farmers.
Channeling da Silva’s lifelong penchant for making food and wine—she fondly recalls crushing grapes in her grandparents’ yard to usher in the winemaking season, and more recently cites picking beach plums for plum-infused vodka and forays into cheese making—and a combined passion for creativity and the desire to connect more with their community, the two got to work. It was an ambitious undertaking that began with countless weekend hours and bushels of apples, and a $100 Jack LaLanne juicer in their Cambridge kitchen. (The two have since made this their full-time gig; while da Silva quickly gave up her day job in real estate, Masterpolo still moonlights in architectural services.)
“Making cider is really easy,” Masterpolo says. “Making good cider is very involved. It takes a lot of time and trial and error.” They systematically tested apple varieties against various yeast strains, in many different combinations.
“There are so many different yeast strains, so many different apple varieties,” says Masterpolo, who’s assumed the role of Bantam’s “head storyteller.” “There are many different combinations of apple varieties that when paired with different yeast strains, all yield a completely different flavor.”
The only rule was that there are no rules. “Our idea was to focus on making something that tastes great rather than focusing on the rules and what it should be,” she says.
“It was a leap of faith that this was all sort of going to work out,” says da Silva, Bantam’s head taster.
In January 2012, Bantam launched its first product: Wunderkind. German for prodigy, the name pays homage to a woman who was just that: aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.
“As women starting a business in a pretty male-dominated field, we thought it would be cool to have our products have a common thread—some underlying story about strong women in history,” Masterpolo says.
It took them about a year to get to what they refer to as the “95% point” and then another six months of tweaking and refining, and conducting small trials with family and friends to arrive at a formula for their premier batch. The result is a dry, slightly effervescent beverage made from a select blend of five local apple varieties with a soft hint of flower blossom honey—completely uprooting the idea of cider in the traditional sense. Frankly, it’s a whole new paradigm for hard cider, and if you ask da Silva and Masterpolo, even the vessel one chooses for imbibing should be anything but your typical pint glass. Instead, they recommend a 10-ounce pour in a highball, champagne or tulip glass.
Just prior to launch, they transitioned from their home test kitchen to a 700-square-foot lab just outside Union Square, where they were recently running final tests on their next products.
Bantam takes its commitment to local seriously, and it’s multilayered—from the farmers to the cider press to the distributors. “What’s really interesting is that we’re local in many parts of the state,” says Masterpolo.
The chain starts with the apples, which Bantam buys from orchards in Central and Western Massachusetts, deferring to what’s available.
“A lot of fruit doesn’t get used if it’s not grocery store-precious and unblemished. We started talking to farmers and identified as many as eight different varieties that were available,” says Masterpolo, noting that their goal for their first product was to make use of the New England fruit that is largely available.
While adhering to a recipe, by using local, seasonal apples, the fruit is naturally going to vary from year to year. “Our consumers know it’s an agricultural product so even if there are minor nuances, they’re going to be more forgiving of that,” says Masterpolo.
Despite this season’s crop challenges due to an unusually warm March followed by a cold snap, Bantam’s relationships with local farmers paid off with the understanding they’ll continue to procure their products in good years, too. “We locked in early with enough farmers,” says da Silva. “There will always be peaks and valleys.”
Next in the process, they press their apples at Carver Hill Orchard in Stow, Massachusetts and then ferment and make the cider at Wesport Rivers Winery. Bantam Cider is carried in stores and restaurants across the state and will soon be available on tap at select locations.
“Local is also about being part of the community,” says Masterpolo. “We know who we’re dealing with—from shop owners to bar owners to managers to chefs. We want to really be a part of what makes the city thrive. We want to feel connected.”
In the midst of the harvest season, da Silva and Masterpolo were busy with all aspects of the business: making the cider; tasting and marketing the product at events and festivals; and testing the next generations of products.
Due out in December, one is a red cider fermented with ale yeast and blended with pressed tart cherries, and the other a limited release of a slightly more tannic cider aged in bourbon barrels. The names haven’t been divulged yet, but there’s no question the next batches will follow Bantam’s take on “modern American cider”—distinguishable in their forward thinking and palate-pleasing complexity.
Lesley Mahoney is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in South Shore Living, Cape Cod Magazine, and various GateHouse Media publications, and her monthly column, Homegrown, can be found on JamaicaPlain.Patch.com. Lesley can be reached at LMahoney1@gmail.com