Western Cider Co. gears up for drink production

Matt LaRubbio, Michael Billingsley and Jon Clarenbach began planting apple trees in 2012. The trees are now bearing fruit. Western Cider Co. plans to produce a variety of hard cider products at its new Missoula facility. (Photo courtesy of Western Cider)

By Martin Kidston

Apple trees planted in a Bitterroot Valley orchard six years ago are now bearing thousands of pounds of fruit that will soon end up a variety of hard cider drinks blended in a Missoula production facility.

The founders of Western Cider Co., based in Missoula, have spent the past year searching for a place to establish their upstart company. They found it in a rundown warehouse on California Street, where pending renovations will transform the building into a production plant and tasting room.

“We’ll have a production facility, a canning line, a head cider maker, a tasting room and a sales staff,” Jon Clarenbach said Friday. “We’ll have nine different cider fermentation tanks ranging from 600 to 2,000 gallons. We’ll have a variety of product lines with six to 10 ciders on tap at any given time.”

Western Cider will be located in the old Bakke Building at 101 N. California Street.

Clarenbach, along with co-founders Michael Billingsley and Matt LaRubbio, presented their plans to the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Board of Directors on Thursday.

The board approved several funding requests to help Western Cider renovate the tired warehouse and make improvements to the right-of-way.

“It took us about 12 months to find a building in Missoula that would work for production and a tasting room,” said Billingsley. “We found this building and it’s extremely rough. The area around it is also pretty rough, but we see a lot of potential in the future for this building. It’s a forever location for us.”

The 1-acre property fronts the Riverfront Trail and, with a little work, it will offer scenic views of the Clark Fork River. The company plans to grow a demonstration orchard on site and offer outdoor seating that plays off the river corridor and pedestrian activity.

While achieving the vision may take time, Clarenbach said the Western Cider crew will tackle the work in phases. The Old Sawmill District is growing up across the river, and redevelopment of several nearby parcels will continue to transform the overlooked location.

“The Sawmill District keeps adding more and more development, and more like-businesses are moving our way,” Clarenbach said. “We feel like we can be a real anchor location at this spot, and having an acre of land right near the river, and being able to develop it and have commercial on it, is something that will really improve the river corridor.”

Plans call for a 2,000 square-foot tasting room and 5,000 square feet reserved for production. The site is large enough to accommodate future growth, leading the team to describe the location as a “forever home.”

Once production starts, Clarenbach said, Western Cider will produce a variety of products, including blended ciders and infused ciders – drinks flavored with cherries, peaches and other products.

“It’ll develop over time,” Clarenbach said. “Over the next year, we’ll introduce a bottle line. We plan to distribute around the state at first. After that, we’ll look to the Northwest. With our brand of Western cider, we can really connect with people in the Northwest.”

It was six years ago that Billingsley began planting his apple orchard near Stevensville. The trees are expected to produce roughly 10,000 pounds of cider fruit this year. Once fermented, the end product is similar to wine in the number of value-added products it can produce, Clarenbach said.

Western Cider’s apple orchard in Stevensville, Montana.

“We’re going to have a demonstration orchard on site, with the same kind of trees (Billingsley) has down in Stevensville,” said LaRubbio. “We’ll create an atmosphere outside that’s unique and different to most of the other establishments – the breweries and distilleries in town. We really see opportunity here for something different.”

MRA expects the project to help rejuvenate a languishing part of the city.

“It’ll be long lasting and not just impact the viability of what the business would do there, but the entire neighborhood,” said Chris Behan, executive director of MRA. “Fixing up the outside of the building and having activity there will enhance the viability for additional residential and commercial ventures in that area, which have been lacking in that West Broadway section.”

“You come across the California Street Bridge right now and it’s kind of sketchy,” added MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “This will certainly improve the experience of the people using the trails.”

The trio of founders expects to start with eight employees this year, possibly growing to 15 by the second year. A sales team will market the product for wider distribution.

Western Cider will be located in the old Bakke Building at 101 N. California Street.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com