It’s 90-some degrees out in Dundas on a Saturday afternoon when I meet Nate Watters at Woodskeep Orchard. The air is thick and buttery that day; the sunlight is crushing. I’m wearing jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, but it’s fine. My car’s air conditioning works. I had the roof open, too, just for funsies.
When Watters approaches me, he’s taking high steps through tall grass. He wipes his face off with his red Cobra T-shirt, and gives me a wave. He has been picking strawberries for most of the day. He’s got no sunglasses on, no hat, nothing.
I’ve been out of the car for barely a minute, and I can already feel my skin getting clammy under my sleeves. My first question to him: Are you crazy?
“The strawberries don’t stop growing,” he says. He’s got four 200-foot rows of them on the property. “We go through a lot of strawberries here.”
Watters lives on the farm with his wife and two children. It’s also where he operates Keepsake Cidery, though the farm and cidery are technically two separate businesses. The whole operation is tucked away at the end of a perfect back country drive, a bumpy gravel path where you can see healthy corn stalks and thick patches of forest – though you might be S.O.L. if a car comes at you from the other direction.
There’s a video in which Watters explains the inspiration behind the name Keepsake. There’s also an aerial view of the farm on the Keepsake website’s front page. It’s a big farm, big enough to hide 200-foot rows of strawberries. It began with 2,400 trees back in 2014. Now, all plants considered, Watters says over 6,000 roots are under his family’s watch.
He offers me a 25-cent tour of the farm as we mosey toward a gray pole barn, and of course I accept. In my experience, the 25-cent tour is the second-best kind of tour. Only the nickel tour is better.
The first stop is a little room in the barn filled with steel tanks, cardboard boxes stacked almost to the ceiling, a 40-ton juice press (made for him by one of his neighbors – it’s an impressive machine), and walkways through it all. An expansion is in process at the cidery; but, for now, this is where it all happens. The only sounds are footsteps and the hum of an air conditioner.
He reaches into one of the boxes and produces an unlabeled bottle. It’s Woodskeep, Watters’ best-selling cider. He sets two glasses onto a barrel top, and explains Woodskeep while he pours. He uses cider and white wine yeast. No sugar or sulfides are added. Honey from Homestead Apiary – a beekeeper based on site – heightens the sweetness, but not to the point of making it “sweet” per se. It’s refreshing, and finishes crisp. It drinks like a reward.
He says every batch is a little bit different, and he’s okay with that.
“We want to be consistently delicious,” he says. “We want to consistently reflect Minnesota and this place, and this time, but I don’t want to make a consistent product. It’s impossible. It’s the fruit, or it’s the time of year. I can’t make the same product.”
He explains the cider-making calendar: the harvest, which begins in August; pressing, which takes them through the end of the year; aging and fermentation, which on average lasts until the following April or May; and, finally, bottling. He doesn’t use any imported juice, so this is the schedule (hold this thought). Every bottle is hand-labeled for now, but semi-automatic labeling will begin with the expansion.
We talk there for a little while, then head out into the orchard. We’re met outside by the farm’s longest-tenured worker: Bert, the dog. He seems happy to see us. His steps are slow, but they’ve got some bounce yet.
“The guy who owned the farm said he was moving into the city,” says Watters. “I joked and said ‘Hey, will Bert come with the farm?’ and he said, ‘Well, actually, I’m moving into the city [and] he probably wouldn’t like that. Would you take him?’ I said ‘If he’s here when we drive up, we’ll take care of him.’
“We drive up here, and Bert runs down the road. We’ve had him ever since.”
Bert sticks around long enough for an introduction and some head-pats, but he stays behind in the shade as we head out.
It’s quiet on the farm. I can hear the gravel crunch under our steps and various bird sing-song, but that’s all. That sun, though. A glass of Woodskeep, though, and suddenly the sun isn’t so bad.
We reach the orchard entrance. Watters pulls a wire cage door back and says, “This is where my heart is.”
This is the third installment of a series featuring food, drinks, and people in the Northfield area. Be sure to check out the series introduction post featuring Northfield’s major event and best eats; and the story of Northfield’s Imminent Brewing.
Rows of apple trees stretch for a good city block each, at least. It’s not nearly harvest time, of course, but the fruit is coming along. He fires off the names of varietals growing here: Honeycrisp, Chestnut Crab, Haralson, Golden Russet, Kingston Black (a varietal often referred to as the best in the cider world) Northern Spy, and about 40 others. Not all of these varietals are native to Minnesota, but most of them are working out so far.
“These are the apples that can make world-class cider,” says Watters, “and we want to grow them in Minnesota.”
Watters estimates he’s 20 years away from really knowing what he’s doing as a cider-maker. That’s because he only gets one harvest per year (you held that thought, right?), and this one harvest is the one shot to get it right every year.
“I love my brewer friends, but I give ‘em a hard time,” he says. “I can’t just be like ‘Send me some more grain, send me some more hops, this beer sucks, gotta make a new one.’ I’ve gotta wait until next year.”
After he’s finished blending and pressing, Watters says he’s just a shepherd guiding cider along. Since he only gets one shot every year, he says he tastes as many apple varietals and cider blends throughout the year as possible.
When he talks about palates, he also talks about palettes.
“The more paints you have on your palette, the more complex picture you can paint,” he says. “The more flavors I can pick when I’m pressing cider, the better.”
Watters comes from a military family and spent most of his childhood in Colorado, but his passion for growing food has grown with him since early childhood – in fact, his bio on the Keepsake website includes a playful boast about the $3 he made selling produce one summer while staying in upstate New York.
The farming bug never left him as he grew up. He tried brewing at one point, but his turn to cider-making unified that passion for growing food and his love of making drink.
Watters and his now-wife, Tracy Jonkman, met while working at a ranch in Colorado in 2002. Jonkman’s family is from the Upper Peninsula, and she earned a degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003.
The two moved to Massachusetts for a few years in 2006. It was during this time, according to Watters’ bio, that his commitment to growing apple really solidified. It was one of the biggest reasons he and Jonkman moved to Minnesota in 2009.
“This is some of the most fertile soil in the world. The water is great. And I really like the people,” he says. “Dirt. Water. People. I thought that was a good combination.”
Within a month of moving to the Twin Cities, Watters had a parcel of field land rented and was growing food. He resisted the impulse to settle into a big lot of land quickly, for reasons obvious to a farmer but not quite to the everyday market-walker.
“Do not underestimate that spot where you’re going to be doing this,” he says. “That spot is either going to make your life a lot easier, or make your life a lot harder.”
In 2014, they made their choice: that spot at the end of the dirt road on 135th St. in Dundas. He says it was a rare find, an exceeding of expectations in an age when most people are just happy when expectations are hit.
“The people are awesome,” he says. “There are new people moving in all the time. Having the colleges here is great. There are a lot of people who work hard, and you have this breath of fresh air: these students who come from all over the world, and bring new views.”
But he also acknowledges the benefit of having “those two” thirty miles up the highway.
“That’s where your market is going to be,” he says of Minneapolis and St. Paul. “We realized quickly, you do not want to get far from that or you’re going to spend a lot of time in your car.”
We make our way back inside the pole barn and step into the new storage area-in-progress. At a guess, two of the current space (the one with the 40-ton press and all of the tanks and that barrel we stood around drinking) could fit in this new space, and this will only be used for storage. Even before the Sheetrock is put on the walls, he envisions the room stacked high with boxes.
Another room-in-progress has pipes poking up through the floor. This will be the taproom. His vision includes 12 tap lines and a make-your-own-picnic bar.
Nice as it will be, the main mission of this room will be to get people outside.
“We’re really going to try and get people out here to enjoy the cider,” he says, “enjoy the food, enjoy the music, but we really want people to enjoy being outside. That’s our heart. That’s where we started.”
The hope is to have the taproom open by the end of August. It’ll be open on weekends, though exact hours haven’t been ironed out. Keepsake’s apples are available for sale, as well as other other local goods like meat, crackers, garlic, and maple syrup. A cider club membership is also available, that includes a CSA-type quarterly pickup of ciders and merchandise.
More information on Keepsake, including online ordering and how to join the cider club, can be found on the Keepsake website.