By Tanya O’Connor
Convergence CiderWorks is a great spot for “a date night in tennis shoes,” says co-founder Natalie Naber.
But there’s more.
Naber’s quick to add that Decorah’s growing cider house also serves as a stop while biking, a family getaway, somewhere for “noshing on good eats” or looking for live music. It is, she says, about “just enjoying each other’s company.” It’s about community.
It’s that passion for community-building, alongside a love of apples and a background in the beverage industry, that led Naber and business partner and co-founder, Chris Naber, to restore the historic Decorah Building Supply (the community’s long-standing lumberyard) in downtown Decorah, and partner with local producers to create craft ciders reflective of the region. “Our cider,” note the Nabers in their company bio, “is a convergence of apple and pear trees, land, water and growers; of history, heritage, modern sensibility and sustainability.”
Cider and settlers
The North American cider industry may seem like something new. Craft breweries, at least currently, are more common to many – particularly in the Midwest. But the truth is that there’s nothing new about cider globally (it’s referenced by Julius Caesar) or in this country’s history. While indigenous populations fermenting berries, or corn, for ceremonial use is documented, it is not believed to be common. Cider specifically – and as everyday use – came with colonization. Colonists were crafting cider within years of arrival. Cider was the preferred beverage of Colonial America – even used as currency.
Then came the Industrial Revolution, moving populations into developing urban areas – as in off their own farms and orchards. Midwestern grain was cheap, and emigrants from Germany and Ireland knew how to make beer. These factors, along with the temperance movement, largely removed cider from American homes and pubs. And here at home, the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1945 destroyed the majority of Midwestern apple trees.
Today, cider is back – particularly craft cider. A 2021 analysis from The Food Institute reports that “while cider continues to fly under the radar, it outperforms beer on key measures including taste and refreshment. Cider’s strong perception of being ‘natural’ is a benefit.” The North American cider industry, says Natalie Naber, “is both an ancient and newly emerging modern drink in America.” CiderWorks’ approach, she adds, is to “begin with apple juice to create great tasting, approachable modern style ciders. That is what makes cider unique and the process more like winemaking than brewing beer.”
Cider sourced close to home
Convergence ciders, are crafted with a focus on local and regional producers. “Our goal,” says Natalie, “is to source materials for our ciders as close to home as possible.” Current cider-producing partnerships include Blue Fruit Farm (Winona), Highlandville Honey (Highlandville), Hylde’s Garden (Postville), Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah), Peake Orchards (Waukon), Hoch Orchards (La Crescent), Sunrise Orchards (Gays Mills, Wis.), and others in the La Crescent and Gays Mills areas. “We are working with local producers,” she adds, “as they plan and plant cider orchards so we can support them in their growth potentials. When I seek to create ciders I think about what is available locally now and also about what resources could be grown later on.”
What winds up in the glass are ciders on the “drier” side of the spectrum, with a balanced flavor/sweetness profile. Flyaway Gold, for example, is a semi-dry elderflower-infused (from Hylde’s) cider utilizing Highlandville Honey. Wandering Harvest is a semi-dry cider crafted of apple juice from the Driftless. Moonglow Ginger Pear, adds Natalie, is another guest favorite.
Convergence’s Craft Kitchen keeps it local
Browsing the Convergence CiderWorks Craft Kitchen menu is a palette teaser: Smoked Trout Salad, Cuban Melt, House-made Hummus and a variety of crepes such as Spinach and Goat Cheese or Poached Apple and much more.
“The goal of our Craft Kitchen,” says Natalie, “is to work with foods that pair well with cider while also being inclusive of folks with dietary needs. Crepes and cider have a long history, so that was a natural fit when we were planning our menu. They also lend themselves to being allergy friendly.” The menu includes gluten-free items as well (such as all crepes and sandwich requests), creating an option for a guest enjoying cider (which is gluten free) to simultaneously dine. Weekly specials are offered; this past week’s included egg-topped chilaquiles, local pulled beef and smoked salmon chowder.
This dining goodness is largely local and regional. Producers include Driftless Fish (Rushford), Patchwork Green Farm (Decorah), River Root Farm (Decorah), Driftless Provisions (Viroqua, Wis.), Humble Hands Harvest (Decorah), Beeler’s Pure Pork (Le Mars, Iowa), Otts’ Pop Indie Pops (Decorah), Hart Country Meats (Rushford), Iowa Food Hub and more. In the spirit of collective small business growth, guests may also enjoy craft beers from Toppling Goliath (Decorah), Pulpit Rock Brewery (Decorah), Pivo Brewery (Calmar), Wisco Pop (Madison, Wis.) and the loved-by-generations Spring Grove Soda.
A sense of place – sustainably
What brought a couple of current Californians who grew up in Iowa and Alaska to Decorah, Iowa, is a story of careful selection of place and an intent to plant sustainable, community-building roots within the region’s growing local foods network. And, not surprisingly, it involved Google, where Chris and Natalie, looking for a change, read about this town called Decorah that felt like “a mountain town without the mountains.”
The couple knew that wherever they landed, it would have something to do with cider. “In my last role I fell in love with the cider industry as a whole,” says Natalie. “It is a unique and re-emerging category and it is exciting to be a part of it as it continues to grow and develop.”
So Natalie (with 10 years of beverage manufacturing experience between kombucha and hard cider) met remotely with Winneshiek County Development and Tourism Executive Director Stephanie Fromm. Fromm and team helped the Nabers build community connections, facilitate grower contacts and seek out a potential location.
They took a road trip, says Natalie, and “found that Decorah seemed just as it was portrayed online – a neat place with a great sense of community. Stephanie and her team were instrumental in helping us make local connections.”
Renovation on the lumberyard began in March 2021. The site was completely revitalized, with restoration and preservation of as many historical aspects as possible. A former exterior street mural from the 1920s by Chicago’s Thomas Cusak & Co. was refurbished, as well as original woodwork and the building’s safe. Convergence CiderWorks opened late July the same year. Look for Convergence Retreat on Airbnb; the couple built upper level visitor lodging as well.
Convergence guests can enjoy brunch on Saturdays, live music on Sundays and other scheduled events – such as Vinyl Night, Thursday Happy Hour and more. Full details are at www.convergencecider.com as well as Facebook and Instagram. Find them at 302 Washington St. in downtown Decorah, (563) 277-1029. The taproom is closed on Monday.
Convergence CiderWorks continues to commit to the region it’s come to call home. The Nabers are currently working with Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) to bring a mobile fruit press to the area. A portion of proceeds from each new flavor release is donated to area nonprofits. “We are in the area to be a contributing partner,” says Natalie. “We are here to grow our community – locally and regionally – in any way we can.”