Story by HANNAH CARLSON
First came the breweries to Utah, then the distilleries and wineries; the brewpubs soon followed. In 2014 Utah’s latest taste sensation arrived in Salt Lake City: Mountain West Hard Cider.
East Coast natives Jennifer and Jeff Carlton began their careers in the hospitality industry. The couple then switched gears to the financial services industry, all before deciding to create something they could call their own.
During a work-related trip to Ireland in 2011, the Carltons found themselves in a small pub in the harbor city of Galway. That’s where Jennifer first fell in love with hard cider.
“I just loved it,” she recalled. “I thought, wow, I found a product that is comparable in alcohol percentage and price to beer. I can finally drink it toe to toe with my husband instead of me having a glass of wine and falling off the chair.”
After returning home, Carlton tried as much hard cider as possible while her husband researched the ins and outs of the hard cider industry. He ultimately discovered the market’s double-digit growth year after year.
“My husband read this article and he approached me and he said, ‘We’ve always wanted to get into business on our own and we’ve always talked about owning a restaurant, bar, or some type of hospitality and what do you think of hard cider?’” Carlton said. “I actually thought it was a great idea because there were no other dedicated hard cider distilleries here in Utah. There still isn’t.”
So, the Carltons got to work.
Jeff Carlton enrolled in a cider-making course and the couple attended CiderCon, a cider convention whose mission is to provide information, services, and resources to its members. There, the Carltons were able to speak to some of the industry’s leading experts and gather the knowledge they needed to get a foot in the industry’s door.
One thing the Carltons didn’t find at CiderCon, however, was a cider maker to join their team. Luckily, they found Joel Goodwillie in the nick of time.
When approached by the Carltons, Goodwillie — then living in Washington — looked at the opportunity as nothing more than a free weekend trip to Salt Lake City.
“Through my consulting business, I had met with dozens of couples who were bored with their lives and always thought it would be fun to open a winery,” Goodwillie said in an email interview. “It was usually people who just wanted to impress their friends by having a wine or cider with their name on the label.”
While in Salt Lake City for the weekend, Goodwillie fell in love with the city. However, after meeting with Jeff and Jennifer, he also fell in love with their knowledge of the industry and their clear vision of a successful hard cider business. “I could tell that they were committed to producing a quality product and building a presence within the Utah business community,” Goodwillie said.
So, he loaded his truck, a few pieces of winemaking equipment and made his way to Salt Lake City to start his new chapter with the Carltons.
Upon arrival in Salt Lake City, Goodwillie had come to the Carltons with an impressive resume and over 30 years of experience in winemaking.
“When you think of cider making, it is winemaking,” Jennifer Carlton said. “Just instead of grapes, it’s apples.”
Next up, the team needed a location and found theirs in central Salt Lake City at 425 N. 400 West. The couple’s urban warehouse serves as their cidery, office, and tasting room for visitors.
“So, we secured our cider maker, we found the location — now we needed apples,” Carlton said.
While Utah isn’t usually considered an apple-growing region, the new team eventually found a small orchard in Santaquin, roughly an hour south of Salt Lake City.
“They were a perfect partner for us,” Carlton said. “They had the resources and manpower to be able to pick the apples, but more importantly the commercial equipment to be able to juice the apples into apple juice for us.”
Mountain West Hard Cider was finally born.
Plenty to go around
Today, Mountain West Hard Cider offers four regularly stocked products including Ruby, 7-Mile, Cottonwood, and Desolation. All of Mountain West’s ciders are named to honor various canyons throughout Utah. Every three to four weeks the cidery also features what it calls its “little orchard series” cider, which is available on tap to customers who visit the warehouse.
The series is a chance for Goodwillie to experiment with flavors and try new recipes — 100 gallons at a time. Although, once the 100-gallon batch is gone, it’s gone for good.
“During my first visit, I sampled all the different products available and fell in love with Sweet Alice, one of their smaller batches available a few weeks ago,” said James Stephenson, a new Mountain West customer. “I’ve gone back multiple times since to refill my growler. I look forward to trying their new small batches in the future as well.”
However, Mountain West’s most popular cider, Ruby, is always available and ready to be poured. It is described on Mountain West’s website as “a crisp 6.8% alcohol by volume hard apple cider for year-round enjoyment and everyday get-togethers.”
When asked what his favorite cider is, Goodwillie compared it to a parent being asked which one of their children is their favorite.
“I’m proud of all of the Mountain West Ciders but what’s really great is that we’re having new children every month now with our small orchard series of small batches,” he said. “Unlike children though, if we don’t particularly care for one of these small-batch ciders we just get rid of it and produce something else.”
Jennifer Carlton identified the two leading determining factors of each product’s final and unique flavoring. First, Mountain West doesn’t receive a specific blend of apples in the apple juice that it receives from its distributors.
“We don’t have that luxury of choosing a specific blend of apples like some of the bigger names, but I also like that because it does make us craft,” Carlton explained. “The flavor might vary slightly every time. It all depends on the blend of apples in that specific batch of apple juice we receive.”
The second thing that makes Mountain West stand out is the cidery’s partnership with a local flavor lab. The team discusses its desired flavor outcome with a lab technician, who then recommends a specific strain of yeast for Goodwillie to use when fermenting the ciders.
“Take Cottonwood, for example,” Carlton said. “We reached out to the lab and we said, ‘We’re adding Centennial hops, which tend to be very floral. What would you recommend as a yeast strain that we can use to really highlight the juniper flavors or that little bit of citrusy that pulls forward?’”
Once the team decides on the right strain of yeast, it will continue to use that same strain in every batch throughout the product’s lifespan.
Anytime, anywhere, anybody kind of drink
Since Mountain West opened its doors in 2014, the team’s hard ciders have continued to grow in popularity around the state. However, the Carltons and their team still make an everyday effort to educate and inspire every consumer who wants to learn more about hard cider.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions when it comes to hard cider,” Jennifer Carlton said. “Men often think it’s a woman’s drink, or everybody thought it was going to be super sweet. So, we intentionally made our ciders dry, like what I originally had in Ireland.”
Carlton also wants to clear up the common misconception that hard ciders can only be enjoyed in the fall and winter months.
“Historically, the ciders are fermenting during the winter months, they don’t actually come to drinkable conditions until the spring or summer,” Carlton said.
As much as Mountain West seeks to inspire and educate the community, it has also created a space where it can be inspired and learn from others. Mountain West service employee Eric Montgomery’s favorite part of working at Mountain West is the exposure to others who are passionate and dedicated to their own crafts and talents.
“Whether it’s those of use behind the bar who are responsible for service, or the professionals we contract with for entertainment,” he said in an email interview. “Everyone in our little community has so much talent to bring to the table and I feel like I have the space to learn and grow in my own strengths.”
Mountain West offers free tours of its cidery and $6 cider tastings. Tours can be scheduled in person or over the phone.