Written by Patrick Clark
Original 13 Ciderworks has taken the long road to its place in Philadelphia’s brewing community. The cider-makers have faced the bureaucratic licensing process of City Hall and are now preparing to open their first official location at 1526 N American St, just outside Fishtown in Old Kensington.
“For us, this is a dream come true,” said John Kowchak, president and co-founder of Original 13. “We hit rock bottom so many times with licensing and the building and money. Everything came through at the very last minute.”
Original 13 had originally utilized contract brewing, but when the winery they contracted with went under, Kowchak and company were faced with the decision of cutting their losses or doubling down. “We needed a winery. We couldn’t find anyone else to contract with,” Kowchak said. “Either people were really far out into the state, or they didn’t have the tank space or they wanted to charge us wine costs to make cider. So we got into a position where we either had to do this on our own or fold. So we rolled the dice.”
Housed within a former train depot, Original 13 plans to bring a plethora of fruit ciders to Kensington and beyond. The space is enormous, boasting 7200 total sq. ft. with 2800 of them dedicated to the tasting room with the rest used for production. Customers can look forward to a tasting room with a 24-seat bar and a full kitchen serving soups, sandwiches, cheeses and more. The back end production space will feature 9,000 gallons of fermentation space and a full mill and press, which will allow Original 13 to fresh squeeze their own cider fruits.
Kowchak and vice president Travis Frehefer brought in head cider-maker Clint Holmes when they decided to open the location. Holmes, commonly referred to as “The Yeast Whisperer”, had been working with Kowchak and Frehefer previously as the producer of their batches from the contract winery that they had been previously partnered with. He had mostly worked with apple wines, but he knew Original 13’s product and was excited at the opportunity that cider-making with them presented. “I was drawn to cider-making because it’s a little more of a creative process,” Holmes said. “Cider is an excellent base for anything. You can merge almost any fruit or spice that you can imagine.”
Ciders are a market that has gone largely untapped in Philadelphia until now, and Original 13 is embracing the role of progenitor. Their vision for the tasting room involves it becoming a place to feature not only their own ciders, but any great-tasting ciders that they find across the state and elsewhere. “We want to help grow the market not only in Philadelphia but across the whole east coast,” Frehefer said. “We would love to make this place a sort of cider Mecca.”
The other side of the tasting room that intrigues Kowchak is the experimentation it will allow. “Because we have a tasting room and hopefully a good group of customers that we can build off of, if Clint wants to take a couple hundred gallons and do something crazy with it, we’ll fully support that,” he said. “Before, as a contract brewer, [Clint] had to produce something that would sell. Because they were renting tank space. Now with us, he can get a little crazy if he wants. With the tasting room, we’ll get direct feedback.”
Kowchak and Frehefer originally branded their ciders “Sir Charles Hard Cider,” a reference to Kowchak’s grandfather, who was known for making delicious apple ciders in his basement. But the branding is receiving a slight overhaul. Original 13’s Sir Charles Hard Cider will still be produced and will serve as their flagship American pub cider, but the more experimental ciders that are created for the tasting room only will be carrying the branding of Original 13.
The Sir Charles line — which will be shipping out to local bars — will feature four flavors: original, blueberry, strawberry and sour cherry. What we can expect from the Original 13 brand is still under wraps but Holmes has a lot of ideas in the works. “I’ve got about 50 recipes right now that I’m trying to figure out,” he said. “So we’ll come out with about 6 different ciders for Original 13 right off the bat.”
As far as what customers can expect flavor-wise, Holmes wants to provide a smooth drinking experience above all else. “We’re focusing on providing a more refreshing experience as opposed to an overly sweet or dry experience,” he explained. “I come from European training in the wine industry which is focused on delicate additions. We rarely sweeten our products with sugar but we instead sweeten with actual fruit. We’re going to be doing both dry and sweet ciders, but we’re going to stick to very delicate adjustments.”
The interior is still sparse, but Original 13 brought in Judy Robinson to design the interior. Robinson is known for her work on La Colombe’s Fishtown location. Kowchak and Frehefer are planning on an end of July or early August opening this year, but Holmes will begin production on their first batches in May. It’s been a long road for Original 13, but it seems that Philadelphia will finally see one of it’s first cider-hub come to fruition this year.