24 Jan Ambrosia Orchard, Cidery, & Meadery Links the Past to The Future
Johnny Appleseed spent a fair amount of time around the Fort Wayne area in the latter part of his life. He moved to the area around French Creek to tend his apple orchards in 1836, and died from pneumonia along the banks of the St. Joseph River in 1845. He wasn’t really a hobo who wore a pot on his head, and he didn’t travel around randomly planting apple seeds – he was a wealthy businessman.
He knew that apples were a durable foodstuff that would be important to travelers as they moved westward, so he went out in the early days and planted orchards from which he could sell to travelers, with Northwest Indiana being as far west as he ever reached. He looked like a hobo because he traveled light, but he was really just traveling from orchard to orchard tending to his business.
It was on one of these trips to tend his orchard west of Fort Wayne that he contracted pneumonia – his memorial in Johnny Appleseed Park is in the general vicinity of his actual grave, but no one knows where the actual grave is located. Nevertheless, his legacy in Fort Wayne is large, especially in the artisan cider business.
The northern part of the state is rife with cideries and other craft beverage producers that make hard ciders. While the southern and central parts of the state are kings when it comes to the number of wineries, the north is the apple of our eye when it comes to cider. There’s even a brewery named for Johnny Appleseed in Indiana – can you guess which one? It’s Chapman’s Brewing in Angola. They were named after Johnny because they started out making ciders, but later switched over to beer. They already had some brand recognition, so they decided to keep the name when they converted from a farm winery permit to a small brewer’s permit.
Because cider is fermented but not brewed, it’s made in Indiana by people that have a farmhouse winery permit (they can make mead too). This means that many wineries will make a cider or two, but not many make a significant number or have them for a good portion of the year. Northern Indiana wineries Indiana that do a cider or two include Two EE’s Winery in Huntington, Tippy Creek Winery in Leesburg, Schnabeltier in Rochester, Country Heritage Winery in LaOtto, Fruit Hills Winery & Orchard in Bristol.
There are even more places that do business as a cidery, cidery/meadery, or cidery/winery/meadery up north. There’s McClure’s Orchard in Peru, Aftermath Cidery & Winery in Valparaiso, Kekionga Cider Co. in Fort Wayne, Manic Meadery in Crown Point, Misbeehavin’ Meads in Valparaiso, and then there is the subject of today’s profile – Ambrosia Orchard, Cidery & Meadery in Hoagland, just outside Fort Wayne.
The story of Ambrosia links the past to the present, from a millennium before Johnny Appleseed straight through to the rebirth of craft in Fort Wayne. In ancient Greece, “ambrosia” was described as the food/drink of the gods. It was said to confer longevity or immortality to those who consumed it, so it was one of the reasons that the gods were god-like. The ability to extend life has been sought throughout time, and it enters into our story again just below.
Ambrosia was also depicted in Greek art as a nymph by that name that traveled around and distributed the famous nectar/food. In the US, who better to better exemplify that nymph than John Chapman. Johnny spread the apple throughout the expansion of the fledgling USA and extended the life of all those pioneers. How? Not by eating them; it was more important than that.
Chapman planted “spitters;” apples that you might spit out if you took a bite of – they were extremely tart. The US wouldn’t have expanded much at all and John would have died a poor man if he had expected people to buy those apples to eat. But those sour apples were great for making something else – cider and applejack. These were two staples of the late 1700s and 1800s.
The water along most of the trek west, and certainly in most places where there were human settlements, was full of microbes that would make people sick or kill them. To “extend their lives,” people filtered their water through a fermenter, using fruits and grains to produce alcohol, thereby giving them liquids that weren’t tainted. Ciders and beers literally brought longevity to those pioneers. So now we’ve connected Ambrosia from ancient Greece to 19th century Indiana.
Move forward to the late 1990s and the Ambrosia apple was cultivated in British Columbia, probably as a cross between Sparking Delicious and Golden Delicious apples. It is a sweet, dessert apple that doesn’t work as well for cider because of its high sugar content. But it can be used as a secondary apple for flavor and mouthfeel in a cider. A few cideries will use them for a cider, but not many, so this isn’t a strong link in our story. But just a few years later, we have Ambrosia Orchard and Cidery opening up right where the final range of Johnny Appleseed orchards were located – Fort Wayne.
Opened by the husband and wife team Edison Bender and Blanca Rosa in 2018, Ambrosia Orchard, Cidery & Meadery takes it name from Greece and its spirit from John Appleseed. They make meads and ciders, and will soon be home to a “u pick ’em” apple orchard of eating apples. Edison does the fermenting, and Blanca says, “he uses his background from growing up on an orchard to use local ingredients and work within the farming community to produce a tasty beverage.” Blanca handles sourcing apples and the business and marketing side of the venture, saying, “I wanted to continue the family business and bringing apples to the farmers’ market for years to come. It’s the perfect collaboration to create a fun family establishment.
Ambrosia’s reason or being is to use local ingredients to produce quality local products. Blanca told me, “As orchard owners we understand that small farmers livelihood depends on local sales. In building relationships at local farmers’ markets, we are able to use local ingredients in most of our ciders and meads. All cider is either pressed by us or sourced within Indiana. All of our honey comes from Sweet Life Honey Farm, the apiary that provided bees to the orchard Edison grew up on.”
Ambrosia’s local ciders and meads are made on premise in their Big Red Barn on 12 acres of land just 3 miles south of 469 on the south side of Fort Wayne. All 12 acres are part of their family friendly space; you can drink while you walk through the growing orchard (planted 2019), watch the chickens, sit on the patio, or relax in the tasting room with the wood-burning stove and board games. The beautiful locale is reason enough to visit, but if you want to try their beverages, you’ll have to visit. As of now, they serve only at their tasting room or the occasional festival, and sell at local farmers’ markets.
We’ve talked a lot about the past and how Ambrosia Orchard has used history to build something for the craft era, but they are working for the future as well. Blanca said, “As our Orchard develops (hoping to plant 1000 more trees this year) our goal is to offer agritourism for the whole family. In 2022 we are hoping to offer u-pick apples, and currently we offer meads, ciders and when in season fresh cider and apples. We also have a small store front that offers locally produced goods such as honey, canned items, jewelry and other items.”
Visit Ambrosia often to support local artisans using local ingredients to produce local craft beverages. Ambrosia uses the past and bounty of today’s Indiana to produce a vision of the future for Fort Wayne.
Walter’s trivia for the day: There was a guy in the late 1700s who used to sell meat to the US Army. He stamped US on the barrels. Someone asked him what the US stood for and he replied, “Uncle Sam,” and the nickname for our federal government stuck. His name was Sam Wilson and he was John Chapman’s cousin (by marriage).
banner image credit: Farmer’s Almanac