Patrice J. Williams | Food & Wine
For the past several years, frosé has had a stronghold on boozy brunches, though many beverage professionals continue to have mixed feelings about it.
Will Correll, founder and CEO of Buskey Cider, has always found frosé to be lacking. He wanted to come up with something refreshing for fall that elevated the flavor of the base beverage, rather than masked it. "We thought about people wanting something frozen and cold, but a lot of times, frosé leaves me wanting something that's a little more craft and the beverage [itself], instead of just sweet, syrupy additives," he said.
Correll's was first inspired to create his super-popular, autumnal alternative to frosé, a soft-serve hard cider, when he read an article on the Below Zero machine, a $5,500 device that uses a binding agent to turn booze into "ice cream." But it's technically not ice cream, as there's no dairy.
Richmond, Virginia, where Buskey Cider is located, is a city known for its beer, so you might assume one of the 30-plus breweries would be the first to get their hands and hops on this device. Not so.
In late July, the cidery, which is surrounded by breweries in the Scott's Addition neighborhood, released its soft-serve cider. The response was overwhelming.
Just three weeks after purchasing the machine, Correll and his wife, Elle, who's co-owner and marketing director, cranked out more than 200 servings on launch day.
"Soft serve and cider are two known enjoyable items, and combining the two concepts would get people excited about trying a cone in general and subsequent flavors after that," Elle said.
Buskey's has always stood out from other breweries and cideries with its creative, high-concept flavors, which they release every other Friday. There's watermelon rosemary, Thai tom yum, pomegranate habanero, and about a dozen others, including a mezcal barrel-aged cider they released this summer. Their soft serve doesn't have any corn syrup or concentrate, just 100 percent VA apples; the cidery uses two million of them a year.
"We take the production side so seriously and the apple so seriously, but then can be very whimsical," said Will. (The company's logo is a Prohibition-era fellow with an apple hat.)
That same fun—but not syrupy or watered down—aspect of the hard cider translates to the soft serve. Though the addition of a binding agent is necessary to freeze the alcohol, there are no added flavors. It's just the cider, which maintains about a 6 percent ABV, served in a cup or cone for $8.
While Will acknowledges that the cup holds a bit more product, he prefers the cone. And not just because it's more Instagram-friendly.
"There's a caramel-ness to the cake cone that complements the cider well and even brings down the flavor of the sugar," he said.
Since launching the summer treat, they estimate to have sold more than 1400 servings. Will says the Below Zero machine paid for itself in just four weeks.
"I've had quite a few cider makers from around the country reach out, as well as some breweries in Richmond," said Will. "My advice to all of them has been, 'Don't underestimate how intense of a cleaning program you have to put together.' It is an awesome machine, awesome product. People love it. But it has added close to an hour of work per day."
He estimates the machine has more than two dozen parts that need to be disassembled and cleaned; he had to develop a training video for his staff. But the work is worth it. Will, who's always been fascinated by the country's hard cider history, loves that customers are truly getting to experience cider and not just a watered down, slushy sweet drink.
"The thing I was really pleased with was how customers were having a cider experience," he said. "They would have [the soft serve] and then also get a flight and then would comment, 'Wow, this really is the cider.'"
So far, Buskey has run some of its most popular flavors, watermelon rosemary and tart cherry, as well as a colorful dragon fruit açaí, through the soft-serve machine.
The Correll's are anticipating purchasing another Below Zero sometime next year for their Cape Charles location, two hours from Richmond.
As fall and winter approach, Will said, "We're still asking questions. Are we going to serve soft serve in the winter? Will people eat soft serve when it's snowing outside? My guess is actually, probably yes."