Western Cider Co. in Missoula, Montana, has only been open for a handful of months, but it’s been a long time coming. “We’re new, but I don’t feel new at all,” laughs Michael Billingsley, co-owner, orchardist and production manager at Western Cider Co.
Billingsley’s career started much like cider does: in the orchard. “I fell into orcharding by accident, and fell in love with it,” he says. “I love shaping and working with the trees year after year.” Leveraging his previous career in agriculture, Billingsley eventually started his own orchard consultancy, helping clients prune and maintain their fruit trees. In 2010, he took the plunge and started cultivating cider apple trees in a nursery; in 2012, he planted his own 2,500-tree cider orchard on 20 acres (10 acres of which are currently planted) in Stevensville, Montana, in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley.
The area has a long history with apples. Washington State has now eclipsed Montana in terms of apple production, but at one time, most of the nation’s apples — primarily McIntosh — came from Montana, shipped east in barrels on the railroads. In the 1890s, there were a million McIntosh apple trees in the Bitterroot Valley — and while most of those are gone, there are still remnants of those historic orchards dotting the farms and ranches of western Montana.
But Billingsley wasn’t satisfied with simply growing fruit. “Originally, I wanted to start a cidery,” he says. “One day, I had a client who wanted to start a cidery and was trying to get me to start it for her, and I was like, ‘Why am I going to start something for somebody else? Maybe I should get back to the original plan.’”
So he partnered with two friends, Matthew LaRubbio and John Clarenbach, hired former Oregon winemaker Erik Brasher to head cidermaking and started producing in November 2016. Their Missoula tasting room opened shortly thereafter, revitalizing an underutilized building in a part of town without many amenities.
Until recently, Missoulans in search of cider had precious few options. “People are just now starting to distribute here,” Billingsley says. That meant Western Cider was faced with the challenge — and the opportunity — of introducing many of its local customers to cider for the very first time. During build-out, Billingsley told one of their subcontractors that their company would be a cidery. He recalls them responding with: “A cidery, huh? Have you ever thought about doing anything with alcohol in it?”
Then, not halfway their first official year in business, Western Cider got a serious boost: winning Best in Show at the annual Portland International Cider Cup for their single varietal McIntosh cider, which was made with fruit from some of the last original Bitterroot Valley plantings from the early 1900s. “I was in awe,” Billingsley says. “I knew our cider was that good, but there are a lot of other talented cidermakers out there. I knew we had a good shot but I wasn’t expecting to win the cup.”
Western Cider’s products are currently distributed only in western Montana, and Billingsley doesn’t foresee a major expansion anytime soon. “We’re at max capacity right now, until we order more tanks,” he says. “Not to say, at some point, we won’t be in other states down the line. But not until Montana is full.”
For now, Missoulans are delighted to have this award-winning cidery right in their back yard, and Billingsley and team is plenty busy keeping up with demand for Western Cider Co.’s easygoing canned ciders and more traditional, orchard-driven tap-only expressions (although look for bottles soon).
“It took us almost two years to get the building remodeled and open and sell our first product,” says Billingsley. “We’ve been pouring scrappy for a while, and it feels real good to be seeing it come together.”