October 6, 2021

October Lexington Dinner Series Maker: Sweetland Orchard (Season 3 Episode 54)

Sweetland Orchard is owned by Mike & Gretchen Perbix and operated with the help of their families and friends. Located in Webster Minnesota Sweetland is a Wild Orchard with over 50 varieties of apples.  They are becoming sage experts at growing, pressing, and fermenting apples. And they do it well. They take pride in their transparent growing practices, their impressive varieties of apples, and their platform to share knowledge and information on the process of making cider.

Schedule an apple and cider flight by visiting the orchard or join us at the second Makers of Minnesota diner at the Lexington in St Paul on October 26th. Get tickets here

Each month we will feature three local vendors and include their goods and products in a special 3-course menu. Enjoy a special evening celebrating our local makers and their creative spirit.

Guests are invited to enjoy cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres in The Williamsburg Room from 6:00-6:30 pm followed by a 3-course dinner created by Chef Antonio utilizing products from three local makers.

Our October Dinner will feature products from:

– Stickney Hill Dairy’s The Humble Goat Cheese

 K-Mama Sauce

Sweetland Orchard

You will be our exclusive guest at The Lexington and get to talk to the makers, as well as pre-order your first-ever Makers Of Minnesota Holiday gift box that I have curated. Get your tickets now and join us on October 26 for a fun night celebrating the wonderful Makers of Minnesota.


Stephanie Hansen  00:00

Well maker’s friends. The September dinner at the Lexington was such a hit. We decided to keep it going for October. We’re hosting another makers and Minnesota dinner at the Lexington in St. Paul. Not only will you be front and center with some of the best makers in the Twin Cities, but you will be treated to a three course dinner compliments of chef Antonio from the Lexington who’ll be using the featured makers ingredients in the courses that he’s making for this special event. Our October dinner is Tuesday, October 26. And tickets are $98 our featured makers are sold fun, including sweetland orchard out of Webster, Minnesota, who’s making beautiful ciders, Apple ciders and hard ciders at their orchard with over 50 varieties of apples. And also on deck is the humble goat cheese made by the folks at the award winning Stickney Hill dairy company. And k mama sauce. The slightly spicy and slightly sweet came mama Korean hot sauce. I’m just crazy about this awesome my friend and maker case he calls it the Korean ketchup. He puts it on everything at his house. And I do too. And it’s featured in the first ever makers, a Minnesota holiday box filled with my favorite products from makers in the Twin Cities. So we’ll be taking orders for the boxes on site at the Lex two, which I’m excited about. I just can’t wait to see how chef Antonio will use all these ingredients in his multicourse menu. We’ll have a limited number of tickets for this special dinner and when they’re gone, they’re gone. So go to the lex mn.com and sign up via Eventbrite for the makers of Minnesota dinner for October. Get your tickets now at the lex mn.com for Tuesday, October 26 at the Lexington Hello everybody. And welcome to the makers in Minnesota podcast. I’m Stephanie Hansen. And I am your host and I love this podcast because I get to talk to cool people doing cool things. And occasionally I get to circle back and reconnect with those people. And today I’m talking with Gretchen Priebus from sweetland. orchard. And Gretchen The last time we talked was in 2018 It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?

Gretchen Perbix  02:07

I was wondering when that was exactly but 18. So much has changed since then.

Stephanie Hansen  02:12

Yeah. And I’m so glad to reconnect with you because I first found out about your delicious artisinal orchard and your beautiful ciders from my friend Melissa cirrhotic. And I remember going into surtex and her like leading me over to the Heil. And she was like all of these ciders are so good. You have to try them. She was like an early fan of yours ever since. And I think the first one I had was the rhubarb, Apple scrumpy, which is a delicious, delicious cider. And yeah, so I’m happy to reconnect with you. In a nutshell. What have you been doing since 2018?

Gretchen Perbix  02:49

This? Well, for the past year and a half. Life is life on the farm was almost the same during you know, COVID Yeah, this was drastically different. Of course, as with no restaurants, no bars, no state fair, that was a really, really big deal. But fall of last year, everybody had a ton of pent up demand, they hadn’t been able to do anything. And fall came around. And they thought, oh, going into an apple orchard sounds like a fun, safe activity. And we were so busy last fall, like probably four times busier than my busiest day ever. It’s about what I figure. And so it was like a reinvention every weekend trying to accommodate people trying to provide them the the good experience like something at all akin to what they’d had before. Because when folks came down here before it’d be like, Oh, you open I wasn’t sure there weren’t that many cars in the parking lot. And things like that. Yep. You know, and I get to talk to everybody that came through here. And then last year, I mean, the social distancing compounded the effect of like, looking like everybody was everywhere. But we really had to change the way we were doing things down here. But Necessity is the mother of invention, you know, and that works for it works like that. It works that way for a lot of us. And so, you know, adapted and came up with a really, really nice alternative to the communal tastings that we used to do and so we’re using that this fall and you know, the restaurant and bar business is ramping up the state for of course wasn’t 100%. But I wasn’t counting on that being the case. Anyway, it was just great to get out there. And so yeah, so it’s 2018 in terms of the ciders, probably a lot more like specialty offerings with the desert ciders. I ciders.

Stephanie Hansen  04:35

Yeah. And I just say there is something that is really popular in Canada in Montreal and sort of taking off here. I liken it maybe to like kind of the taste of like a more fortified wine. Tell me about your ice skaters in particular and why you’re excited about them and also about the desert ciders because I don’t think I know about those. Well,

Gretchen Perbix  04:54

I grouped the ice skaters into that group. So okay, we started making ice cider. Oh, it’s hard enough to say exactly what year it was maybe 2015 2016 year old, just teeny tiny batches and, and we started making more and more and then we started barrel aging. So I mean in isolators, like nice wine except made with apples instead of grapes. And so the way we make ours is we just let juice like the fresh pressed cider freeze outside in the winter. And then before spring comes around, we bring it into the cidery and just start to let it thaw a little bit and when you drain off a giant hunk of fresh cider, it’s all of the concentrated juice that thaws first so the stuff like just concentrated with flavor concentrated with sugar. So that’s what drains off first kind of leaving a more like a diluted satirize chunk behind and so we take that super concentrated non alcoholic bucket and then we ferment that and so that’s then what makes ice later so it’s not a distillation it’s still just a fermentation it’s just you’re fermenting is super concentrated liquid and so we worked with our regular isolator for a while and then we thought well Wouldn’t it be interesting to barrel aged some of this and so we ordered some barrels from Black Swan cooperage and we did a version that was just aged in a new oak barrel and then a long time ago I got a tip from a barrel broker about how rye whiskey was like the like the version of whiskey to use in conjunction with apples if you’ve ever had a johnnie jump up with rye whiskey and maybe a nice Apple a slightly sweet cider. You’re like oh, it works it works better than bourbon. And so I well and I make my Manhattan’s sometimes I substitute I cider for sweet vermouth, so it works, it just works fabulously. So I got a couple of rye whiskey barrels from far north spirits up and halleck sure, and I age some ice age are in that. And it was it was great. So we’ve done a couple of versions of that now I’m experimenting with some other barreled spirits. And so we’ve got those three variations. And then we made pommeau because we have a distillery license too. And so pommeau is on aged brandy combined with fresh pressed apple cider. And then you age that and an oak barrel for a good chunk of time, at least a year. And so that one whiskey drinkers do like it because it’s it’s very spirit spirit forward. And then the really neat thing about that is after it leaves your mouth, you just have like essence of fresh apple in your mouth for like five minutes afterwards. It’s amazing how that turns out. So it’s really nice to be able to offer that too. And then I made a cider. It’s not as much of a dessert cider. It’s more of like an aperitif cider, or maybe a digestive cider, you could say so kind of like a vermouth. Except Apple based,

Stephanie Hansen  07:42

you’re making me really sad that I didn’t drive down there today and that we’re doing this via zoom, because it would have been so fun. And I know if we did a tasting too, because when you get an opportunity to taste things side by side, you really can start to taste some of the subtleties of all of that.

Gretchen Perbix  07:58

Yes, yeah, it’s an education and tastings always been such a huge part of what we’ve done down here with the apples and with the cider. And yeah, you can you can learn something you about the product about yourself about your own tastes.

Stephanie Hansen  08:13

So let’s talk about if people were to come and visit you this fall, like what does a tasting look like? Or what do you do? And how much does it cost and give me like the brass tacks so that people know all right.

Gretchen Perbix  08:24

So some people come down here without reserving a tasting kit. But I most people come down here with reservation for the tasting kit. And I think that’s the way to go. Because I think it’s just really fun to taste all those different things. So folks hop online, and they make a reservation for an apple tasting kit, or a cider tasting kit, or both types of tasting kits. And then I have some add ons like you can then taste the heirloom apples we have available in a given week. Or you can then add on the dessert ciders. And people usually add doughnuts to their kids or beef jerky or firm bread, you know, things like that. And so this is what we’re doing instead of accommodating that big communal tasting experience. But people really liked it last year, because then they could take their prepared tasting kit and like have a private party and be as leisurely as they want. And I want to come down and just enjoy a day in the country. Just relax, take the time to taste all these things. So they they bring the tasting kit, we’ve got just all of the labeled samples, cutting board, little tasting glasses, and then I’ve got all a tasting note for every single thing that somebody is tasting. So they can just go through and usually somebody kind of plays host of no their own party and they read all about the certain apple or cider that they’re tasting. Yeah, it’s last let’s see. I think last weekend I had seven Apple varieties and then an heirloom tasting kit. I had five more Apple varieties which gets to be a lot of apples to taste. And then the regular cider tasting was six ciders and then the dessert cider tasting it was five more so some people came down then just kind of did the whole kit and caboodle. And then like have a great time, because they just get to sit and taste and do it on their own time.

Stephanie Hansen  10:05

Right? When you are at your orchard and you like, Are you always planting different strains of trees? Or are you using the apples that are on the farm? Tell me about, like how you’re getting all these different Apple varieties.

Gretchen Perbix  10:20

Okay, well, when when we bought the orchard back in 2010, there were already 50 Apple varieties here. So that was a fabulous start of Bob, please, the former owner was able to grow varieties that really weren’t supposed to be able to be grown in Minnesota, because most Apple growers maybe have a dozen different varieties planted all from the University of Minnesota, and I thought 50 was a really good start. And we started with 1000 trees. So now we have 5000 trees, wow, all in the same footprint. And the reason we’re able to do that is just planting the trees kind of on a new system, you know, just how like corn and bean growers are kind of maximizing the yield from their acreage, I’m trying to do the same thing. And so I’m planting my trees on a trellis. Because they’re they’re planted on a dwarfing rootstock, yep. And they can’t support the weight of the crop that they’ll ultimately bear. But it’s a really, it was a really good way for me to add 50 more varieties to the mix. And I just look, I look to see like what would theoretically be Hardy, I mean, they all sound good. There’s a lot more apples and pears that sound good, then what what I’m actually able to plant and so if if I have any experience with an apple, or if the ufm has any experience with an apple, because they haven’t got a lot of Apple varieties planted there that they haven’t developed themselves, but just, you know, like a bunch of Canadian varieties or North Dakota varieties, stuff like that. So if I know that that tree is going to make it through our winters, I’ll plant I’m fine putting in an order for 100 or 200, or something like that, if it’s completely unproven, here, I’ll order five, or 10 or 25, or something like that. And then I’ll just see how it goes for four or five years. And then if it works out, if the trees are alive and doing well and thriving, and I actually like the apple then then I can scale it up and plant a whole bunch more.

Stephanie Hansen  12:07

So Apple growing and being a cider maker is sort of a long haul game, right? Because you only have each season to get your haul and then you can experiment with it. And so you’re already thinking like five and 10 years into the future. And with COVID, that must just be like really upsetting the applecart as it were. But I did they’re

Gretchen Perbix  12:31

like, Well, you know, people, when we started selling at the farmers market back in 2009, I was just astounded by how easy it was to sell apples. So there’s always there’s always a market for food. And these days, thankfully, there’s always a market for locally grown food grown by people who are paying attention to all of the management techniques that they’re using to grow it, which is something that I’ve been interested in the whole time. So I’m not really worried about apples. Yeah, you know, like having a market for apples. And I always wanted to sell apples, in addition to doing the cider. So in that regard, I think that apples are a safe bet. And I think that we do things down here a little differently that people are, you know, they can come down here and have an experience and and i mean hope hopefully the pandemic scenario won’t get any worse than it was last fall.

Stephanie Hansen  13:25

Yeah. And people are really interested in that experience, and certainly with families and kids and just couples and people looking for unique things to do the farmers in Webster, so that’s about 40 minutes outside of the Twin Cities. And people can go online at sweetland. orchard calm, I’m assuming and get reservations. Yep. I want to talk a little bit about Tell me about you mentioned the state fair, why was the state fair important to you is that because of the cider guild activation there?

Gretchen Perbix  13:56

Know, the ballpark cafe has been a customer of ours since 2015. So they started selling two flavors of cider there in 2015. And the state pear is important to us because for a while they were buying about 20% of our entire production one out here. So that’s Yeah, that’s a really big deal. That’s it’s hard to make up in any other kind of way. And we still sell a lot of site or at the fair, people are very thirsty. And we’ve sold Jerry rhubarb and Minnesota. It’s usually high right and you got to wash down on your rings with something.

Stephanie Hansen  14:30

I know that you I knew you were on top there. I didn’t realize that it was such a big footprint for you.

Gretchen Perbix  14:36

Right? Yeah, I think people I think people have thought for a while that we’re a much bigger operation than we are. We’re not we’re not we’re using we’re using the apples we grow we’re using apples from white. From pine tree orchard and wiper lake. We’re using some apples from Pepin heights down in Lake City. But it’s it’s the production is just not that big. We’re just we’re waiting Really small operations. So yeah, I mean when the state fair buys or when the ballpark cafe buys you know, 15 now it’s about 15% while we brews annually Yeah, it’s a really big deal.

Stephanie Hansen  15:09

Yeah, a big deal. So were you able to hold it for the next year? Or what happened to all that cider?

Gretchen Perbix  15:15

Well that’s that’s an interesting question. I know you’re super like business minded about this. Like this was the challenge last year. It’s like Well, okay, I’ve got the State Fair is now not happening. I’m not selling to restaurants, I’m not selling to bars, you know, or a little bit the liquor store sales don’t make up for that, even though those were a little bit better. So my challenge then was to figure out how to keep all of that kind of bulk on blended seiter I had an inventory, how to keep that in really good condition, because the seller will kind of fade with age. Yep. And then it meant that I had to just try and sell more fresh, so more fresh apples more fresh, fresh cider. Okay, so last year, we did end up doing that just through all the people coming down, but at the beginning of the season, or even earlier this summer, I didn’t know that that was going to happen. And so last year, I put together a CSA, and we were doing weekly and every other weekly deliveries to about six different drop sites. And the CSA included apples fresh pressed cider, hard cider and cider doughnuts. And that was really fun and people liked it. I made little videos every week telling people what was in their cats. I just ended up selling a lot more fresh.

Stephanie Hansen  16:23

Do you think he’ll do the CSA this year?

Gretchen Perbix  16:25

I will I would have done the CSA this year because it was really fun to do it i mean i just like I kind of like feeding people you know like hey, here’s the best of the orchard for this week but there was a pretty bad freeze on May 11 this year may 11 2012 and a lot of my early varieties were in bloom and it got down to 2425 degrees and so that freeze just basically killed off the blossom so my harvest is just down this year because of that loss.

Stephanie Hansen  16:51

What does that feel like when you like go to bed and meteorologist Paul Douglas says you know we could get a freeze tonight and for you like it’s so much more than that it’s really an indicator then of what the year is going to look like do you just how do you deal with that emotionally?

Gretchen Perbix  17:11

Well I mean it’s out it’s so out of my control. So there’s I mean there’s nothing I can do about it and I think that’s one of the like that was one of the keys to like learning how to be an adult For me it was like understand what’s in your control and what’s not in your control and I am a really I am kind of a perfectionist type so it’s also really interesting for me having this complete such a nature based endeavor and you can’t control Mother Nature you just can’t so you have to you know let things go so you hear that stuff and you’re like you know, you know what it means and maybe you look it up and be like well what is this really you know if it gets down to 25 what what is that going to be as I can mean 90% loss is going to be 75% loss and it can’t keep you up at night because there’s nothing you can do about it and so then you go on the orchard and you take a look at some of those blooms and you’re like Yep,

Stephanie Hansen  18:01

and there’s no like covering them there’s no I mean you just have too many and you just have one

Gretchen Perbix  18:07

of my buddies up at Pine Tree in 2012 when we had that when it was 80 degrees on St Patrick’s Day ya know let’s use blossom about a month early they will giant bonfires and hire to helicopter to just try and save some of that crop

Stephanie Hansen  18:20

yeah cuz they had the air blowing down Did it work?

Gretchen Perbix  18:23

I think I don’t think it were too great I mean there there really isn’t Yeah, there’s just not much that you can do.

Stephanie Hansen  18:29

Does that when you think about climate change then and the warming and how the weather is becoming so unpredictable and more fear storms more wind shear more hail all those things that are hard on a farm. I guess again, you can’t do anything about it but are Apple growers doing anything in anticipation of changing climate

Gretchen Perbix  18:50

it’s very it’s difficult I mean the one thing that some growers have done is install some hail Nadine. So there’s people are very interested in that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for an operation like mine but for larger operations that are that are selling wholesale and packing apples to sell to grocery stores that kind of thing makes sense. It’s a good investment for those kinds of kinds of operations for smaller operations like mine there there is just so little to be done because it’s not it’s not about like a uniform warmth or a uniform change in precipitation it’s more like you know on average temperatures are going up and on average for a while it was getting just getting wetter and wetter and now we’ve had this drought summer so you just before you make more investments you definitely consider the impact of climate change, right? I mean, I still think we we need to grow food. So I still think that this is a good thing to get into but i don’t know i mean for myself like when I make a when I’m considering buying more land to plant more trees. That’s still a direction that I would go in. I mean, Brian Fredrickson outten at Ames farm. He’s He’s lost. So many crops? I don’t, I don’t know, where you get to the point where you say like, I just can’t do it anymore. You know, I got crops, you know, over half, you know, half the years I’ve been doing this or what have you? And I haven’t, although I’ve kind of assessed the risk in terms of does it make sense to buy more land and keep doing more of those keep planting more trees? And I’m comfortable with that. I haven’t even gotten to the point of like, well, well, what would it take? And I think catastrophic loss your year over year is probably what it would take. Because you mean, it’s it’s one thing to lose a crop, it’s another thing to lose trees, like entirely,

Stephanie Hansen  20:33

are so insured for a crop loss or tree loss.

Gretchen Perbix  20:38

Ah, no, I in 2012, I got a payout. And it was about 17 $100, from losing 90% of my crop. So the federal programs don’t work very well for specialty crop growers. Yeah, it just doesn’t make it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. They’ve made some improvements, but not quite yet.

Stephanie Hansen  21:00

Yeah, it’s when you really start to hear about the farm programs, and there’s a million of them. They’re so geared towards big farms and commodity farming and all the things that aren’t super sustainable in the long term. It’s it’s I’m hoping that COVID has taught us that our food system is it lacks stability. And by supplementing it with what the small producers are doing, that it could give it more stability in the long term. And so maybe there’ll be more programs, that smaller farmers or organic farmers or people that are closer to the point of origination to some of these cities can do more farming,

Gretchen Perbix  21:37

it is just change does happen really slowly. And we’ve seen some change in demographics and farmers. But of course, you know, the feds are behind that. And I’m not even really all that familiar. I wouldn’t be able to describe some of the commodity payments for you know, the row crops that exist. But I know it’s very, very different. I mean, I’ve heard you know, anecdotal, you hear you just hear things anecdotally about what a payment that a farmer gets from the government for not planting acreage. Yep. So we kind of just does the office or for us, but yeah, that’s, that’s our system. And I think I’ve see I mean, I see a lot of families, kind of opting out of that system. We’ve got so many alternatives these days that we didn’t have, like in the 1980s, you know, to just going to the town supermarket, because we’ve got farmers markets, we have cshs we’ve got farm stands and we are in a very good position for that right here. Because, you know, it doesn’t take long to to leave the metro area or I mean, I’m still in Scott County even right. So there there are a great small agricultural producers in the seven county metro area, but I know that that’s also that is not the way that a lot of people eat like that’s a really privileged way to eat. Right now. Yeah, I think Minneapolis school systems are doing some interesting things, too, with contracts with farmers. Yeah, I would say outside of that. It’s the You’re right. COVID has kind of laid bare some of the inequalities and weaknesses.

Stephanie Hansen  23:07

Yeah. On October 26, a Tuesday night you’re going to be part of our second makers dinner at the Lexington and I know we’re in September right now we’ve just I think almost sold out of the September dinner and you’re going to be our October lineup. We’re going to have you obviously sweetland orchard. We’re also going to be having the humble goat goat cheese from Stickney Hill dairy. And then we’re going to have k mama sauce which is from our friend Casey Chi. It’s like a Korean. They call it the Korean ketchup is what he called

Gretchen Perbix  23:39

Yeah. familiar with it. It’s delicious. It is so

Stephanie Hansen  23:43

delicious and it’s going to be a really fun night. Chef Antonio is going to take all these products and turn them into a multi course meal. three courses are guaranteed but I know they’ve always got a couple special things up their sleeve. And I don’t want to put you on the spot about what you’re going to have because I know you want to Antonia will work it out but I really am excited to bring your orchard to the Twin Cities group here that’s going to be joining us at the Lexington these dinners are pretty special. There are a small group I think we sold out at 70 tickets so you’ll really get a chance to meet the makers and to hear their stories and to eat their lovely product. And I just really appreciate you supporting a me and makers in Minnesota but also the Lexington and I know restaurant business has been important to you over the years do you like to do chef’s find you or do you find them? Well they mostly find

Gretchen Perbix  24:34

find us I would say and sometimes it’s just because they’re coming down here with their families you know for the weekend, you know just for a weekend or in the fall you know just as a family outing and I that’s how it comes to apples and cider when it comes to hard cider I’m definitely going out to find to find them right but you know we’re word of mouth is basically how my business has grown. Social media is a really nice means to win. It’s It’s nice to be social media, you know, puts your publicity in the hands of producers, which is really fun for me. But it has been a great thing for me too.

Stephanie Hansen  25:10

Yeah. And your social media game is pretty strong. And you get to see the orchard like it’s so visual. Right?

Gretchen Perbix  25:16

Right, right. Yeah. And there are definitely times in my life. Like, let’s say, the past two weeks, for example, when I’ve been too busy. You don’t want too much on social media. And I’m sorry if that will, is there any way somebody else could do that, but nobody has. Nobody is able to like tell the story of it exactly in the same way, because there’s just so much darn stuff going on here too. Yeah, so we can really like doing it. But

Stephanie Hansen  25:40

we’ll connect offline I can maybe give you some tools to think about that helps. With automation. You can’t really automate the story as it were, but you can sort of schedule some things in advance so that you’ve always got something even if you get into a crazy busy week, so I will give you those tips while I’m at the orchard having a tasting kit and the dad, thank you so much for joining us. It’s Gretchen sweetland orchard sweet literature.com to get your reservations for the tasting kits and please get tickets and join us at the Lexington dinner on Tuesday, October 26. We are very excited about it and it’s our second dinner. And it should be lovely. Thanks, Gretchen.

Gretchen Perbix  26:19

No thanks for your time.

Stephanie Hansen  26:21

soon. Okay, so now that you’ve heard from sweetland orchard, I bet you’re as excited as I am to taste their delicious apples, apple, hard ciders and Apple wines. So join me for the makers in Minnesota dinner at the Lexington in St. Paul on Grand Avenue. I can’t wait to meet you and introduce you to sweetland orchard and came on my sauce and the humble goat cheese from Stickney Hill dairy so get your tickets at the lex mn.com. But hurry this special event won’t be available long, will sell out the restaurant for this special evening with a limited number of tickets. So make sure that you get online and get those tickets now for the October dinner on Tuesday, October 26