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Gig Leadbetter and the search for new frontiers

Posted by Idaho Wine Commission on Sep 30, 2020

When we caught up to Gig Leadbetter, co-owner and lead cidermaker at Meriwether Cider Co, his entire clan had just returned from a week of camping, hiking, bicycling (you name it!) on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.

It was a vacation worthy of the firefighter-cum-college professor-cum-cidermaker, whose company motto “To adventures big and small” is printed on every bottle and can.

Gig, who's one part nomad, one part adrenaline junkie and one part Einstein, never imagined himself the face of the nation's most exciting cideries. For most of his life, fermentation was just something he did for fun.

But today...

"I love it. It's my passion. I love cidermaking," Gig says. "Every batch I make... tender loving care goes into it, that's for sure."

In search of adventure

Gig’s cidermaking ways can be traced all the way back to Vermont, where he grew up. “Big apple country,” he notes, which seems fitting since apples are the key ingredient in cider.

After graduating college in Maine, he set off in an old CJ-5 Jeep and $771 in search of adventure. "The day after graduation from college, I was never gonna go back to school again," he recalls. "I was headed to Alaska."

He worked all sorts of odd jobs (construction, a trail guide on Denali) before launching himself into firefighting as a smoker jumper — leaping out of airplanes to fight raging wildland fires below. It was there he met and married Ann, who worked as a dispatcher.

But after 13 years of jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, he knew it was time to move on. So, he did the one thing he swore he'd never do again: he went back to school.

First stop: Montana, where Gig earned a master's degree in exercise science. From there, it was on to Albuquerque, New Mexico to get his Ph.D., specializing in high-altitude physiology.

With his education behind him and his career as a professor just getting underway, he and Ann settled into a peaceful life in Grand Junction, Colorado for the next couple of decades. They started a family and were happy.

Chemical attraction

Gig loves adventure and being physically active. But he also has an active mind. "Throughout this whole time, I loved chemistry," he recalls, "And so, I always had my hand in brewing beer."

What started in college just for fun, became more serious in Alaska and continued through grad school. By the time he arrived at Grand Junction, which is well-known for good wine and apples, "I figured if I can ferment beer, I can ferment anything," he says.

And so he did. A lot of it.

"We'd have parties because I'd make too much," he remembers. "My wife would say, 'You can't make any more until we get rid of what we have.'"

People especially liked his cider. Gig liked it too. It was lighter than beer and also healthier. It challenged him creatively. And the more he made, the better it got.

He experimented with new flavors, developed unusual recipes, and even dug out a 12-foot-deep root cellar by hand. ("I should have rented a backhoe, but I was too stubborn.")

Even so, it never amounted to more than a hobby. Until...

The start of Meriwether Cider Co

By the time Gig made the decision to retire as a professor, late in 2015, the question was: what to do next. "My wife said, 'Gig, you need something else to do. You can't just retire. You're just gonna go nuts.'" he remembers.

Ann suggested moving to Boise to start a family business brewing beer, wine or cider. The Leadbetter daughters were already there, simultaneously going to school and working as firefighters themselves. But they too were looking for a change. The work just had gotten too dangerous.

As they tell it on the website, "It became an idea that caught fire. And fire is something they all understood."

Gig knew what to do. "I decided it had to be cider because there were already so many breweries in Boise," Gig says. He didn't feel he had anything new to bring to the craft-beer scene. But cider? That's another story. Plus, there was just one other cidery in the city.

Now, with the whole family together — including Luna, Maggie and Scout (the Leadbetter cider dogs) — with a shared purpose, Meriwether Cider Co opened its doors in 2016 as a true family affair. "Without them, this would not have worked out," Gig notes, adding, "All of us, really has practically touched our cider before it goes out to the public in one way or another."

The hard seltzer craze

Not long ago, the craft beer industry launched a phenomenon. All over the nation, people discovered the heavy, hoppy and higher ABV of IPAs. As their popularity skyrocketed, IPAs suddenly were everywhere.

Until almost just as quickly, they were replaced by hard seltzer — the polar opposite of an IPA in nearly every way. Unlike IPAs which are as subtle as a sledgehammer, hard seltzers are clear as a mountain stream and as fizzy as a garden party. Even the packaging is sleek and whimsical compared to the amber-colored dourness of IPAs.

So what changed?

"People are looking now for low carbs, low calorie, a light drink that they can potentially have three or four," Gig explains. "It's not a super flavorful drink, but it's lower in alcohol and it's something that throughout the day you can just keep taking sips of."

As the hard seltzer fad took off, it was once again Ann who quickly recognized a new opportunity for the family.

"I remember exactly," Gig relates. "It was two years ago... we have a business meeting every week with our family and my wife said, 'Man, I've been reading all about these seltzers and these spritzers. We need to do it.'"

At first, the rest of the family was skeptical. But Ann was persistent.

"And finally we all realized, oh my God, everyone is doing it. We've got to get on this bandwagon," Gig says. And just like that Merispritzers were born.

Seltzer, by definition, is just seltzer water that's been flavored by a spirit or a tincture (an extract of plant or animal) of some kind. Merispritzers, on the other hand, take seltzer water and flavor it with Gig's apple cider and other fruits, giving you a much fuller flavor experience without the added sugar or calories.

Currently, Meriwether offers two flavors (Raspberry and Lemon Ginger), which are available in 12-ounce cans. But new flavor possibilities are already in development.

"We decided to go with the spritzer because we wanted obviously to use our cider," Gig explains, "But I will say, the difference is our spritzers are quite a bit more flavorful, more robust. Very flavorful... definitely, something you need to take rafting, on a camping trip or something like that."

Which is exactly the advice you'd expect from a lifelong adventurer who's either climbed, hiked, rafted, skied and otherwise conquered all four corners of the planet.

To adventures big and small, indeed!

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