New Spring Garden cider house built on the back of Wigle Whiskey’s success and innovation
By: Neil Strebig
“Good News Fresh From Heaven” reads across the staircase near the entrance of Threadbare Cider House. While the novelty statement may provoke a chuckle from most patrons, for the Grelli family the brand new 10,556-square-foot brick building is every bit celestial.
“This all precipitated from – we need more space for barrels,” co-owner Meredith Grelli said.
With an overflow of 1,800 barrels at Wigle Whiskey’s nearby barrelhouse, the Grellis found themselves at a crossroads between production and space.
“Often real estate is the hardest part,” she said in regards to locating a property that could sustain both of business’ needs. “Finding a suitable spot in the city where you can do light industry, light manufacturing in a space that’s big enough or a space that can accommodate you [is difficult].”
Fortunately for the Grellis, they found their ideal location just a few hundred meters up the road from their current Wigle Barrelhouse on Spring Garden Ave.
The $2.5 million project is more than just the new home to Wigle’s sister company, Threadbare Cider and Mead; the 1-acre parcel appears to be the new headquarters for the local cider and spirits empire. The adjacent 6,128-square-foot warehouse, affectionately nicknamed “Big Blue” will be home to that 1,800 barrel burden and act as a second barrelhouse for Wigle.
Stepping past Big Blue’s ground floor guests can notice co-owner, Alex Grelli hand–loading 750ml bottles onto a conveyor belt, the harmonious clinging of bottles echoes throughout the ground floor as Threadbare’s newest bottling machine goes to work.
This floor is the base for Threadbare Cider House’s operation room; playing haven to a pasteurizer, three 30-barrel tanks (producing approximately 900 gallons of cider and mead), a bottling machine and even a yeast lab. It is here that the manufacturing part of Threadbare can be both seen and heard.
“We are using [it] to do testing on some products at Wigle, so we don’t have to send them out to labs anymore, we can do it all in-house now,” Meredith Grelli said about the new yeast and fermentation lab.
According to Alex Grelli, Threadbare will be using bottles of cider and mead rather than kegs for wholesale due to the difficulties of keeping cider sanitized and stable.
“Keeping a stable cider is more difficult than with a wine or a beer,” said Alex Grelli. According to him cider is lower in alcohol content but higher in PH value than wine – both are stabilizing factors – if the cider is packaged in a keg there’s a greater chance air or residual sugar will seep in disrupting the product. The Threadbare team will utilize each machine at their disposal to ensure that each batch is properly sanitized, filtered and if need be pasteurized to ensure the absence of residual sugar.
Moving up the second floor away from the puddles of residual sugar and fermented apple cores are the brand-new office space and private event room. The office space is home to Threadbare and Wigle’s managerial and marketing teams whereas the nearby 12-seat private room will be used to stage private events such as community meetings, holiday gatherings and bantam events.*
On the top floor, guests are welcomed to enjoy that glass of heavenly good news in the embrace of a naturally inviting dining room and bar area decorated with wood-carved table tops and railings, which according to Meredith Grelli were built by local Spring Garden wood smiths. The seating area’s wallpaper is finished with portraits of Johnny Chapman aka Johnny Appleseed – the inspiration behind Threadbare’s namesake.
According to Meredith Grelli, Johnny Appleseed lived in this region during the late 18th and early 19th century and would harvest seeds at nearby cider distilleries throughout the Mon Valley and plant them throughout the Greater Pittsburgh region cultivating the land with cider orchards in the process. Yet, the reason the Grellis decided to make a jump from whiskey to cider wasn’t just because of the historical ties and charming folklore.
She and her husband Alex were originally interested in winemaking but they felt the location wasn’t right. Since Wigle’s inception in 2011, the distillery has routinely experimented with various ingredients. Apple experimentation led to the creation of Wigle’s Walkabout Apple Whiskey, continued exploration has led to the creation of 13 varietals of apple brandy (due out in 2018), but more importantly, all this innovation made an inherent connection for the Grellis between apple cider and their original allure towards winemaking.
“We wanted to do something in wine, but felt like we never had the geographic justification to do anything in wine. But when we started doing these apple ferments we were kind of surprised and delighted at how complex and interesting they were,” said Grelli. “We felt like the pieces were starting to come together – we had the regional agriculture to support it, we had a heritage in cider within the region and we had flavors that were pretty compelling. So at that point, we had the notion we wanted to do something with cider.”
The current Threadbare menu will bare four cider offerings: a farmhouse, a dry, a hopped and a seasonal barrel-aged cider. Each varietal has its own unique body, tartness and complexity to it. And like their counterpart at Wigle Whiskey, Threadbare will be locally sourcing ingredients within a 200-mile radius of Pittsburgh.
“We’re happy to use the barrels from the distillery as well as our own tanks,” said head cider maker, Brian Bulzan. Bulzan acknowledges that during the research and development stages the team experimented with betas on 25 to 50 different yeast strains before narrowing it down to approximately three or four that they use on a “regular basis.”
In addition to traditional apple and hard ciders, Bulzan admits he and his team are planning to do “a lot of crazy, interesting alternatives.”
That creativity is vital to both the Wigle and Threadbare teams.
“At the distillery, we devote 7 to 9 percent of our production to innovation,” said Grelli. “We are very invested in innovation. I think that is something people have come to expect from Wigle and so [should] also expect that from Threadbare. The team we have it is just part of their beings – they don’t know how to not be explorative or creative, it just part of their DNA.”
In addition to the cider, Threadbare will also have its own kitchen run by executive chef, Jay Wess previously of Dinette. Wess will spearhead a 3-chef kitchen that will provide guests with a starchy combination of cider bites, food platters and fresh oven-baked pizzas.
Wess who is also a home brewer spoke with Bulzan about using leftover yeast from the brewery and in the process, he was able to make the current sourdough strain for the menu’s pizza offerings. Current pastry chef, Elise Miranda will also be using grain byproduct from the brewery for the kitchen’s homemade crackers. Wess will be incorporating a gluten-free polenta crust in the near future as well.
“I feel like I’ve been allowed to express myself [here],” said Wess who also plans on harvesting the property’s garden in the spring for fresh herbs, salad greens and root vegetables.
“The connection between upstairs and downstairs has been very fluent,” said Grelli, “It is a big part of our identity and what we do.”
Threadbare Cider House will hold a Grand Opening Celebration on Friday, October 20. For more information event visit their website.
Threadbare Cider House is located at 1291 Spring Garden Ave. Hours of operation are Wed. thru Fri. 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sun. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
*Bantam events are organized nonprofit events where Threadbare Cider & Meade will donate 12 percent of profits to the designated nonprofit.