Meet the Minnesotan making booze out of foraged fruits

An interview with Jeff Zeitler: owner of Urban Forage Winery and Cider House.
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An interview with Jeff Zeitler: owner of Urban Forage Winery and Cider House.

A Minnesota couple has opened the first winery in Minneapolis since Prohibition.

How is that possible? While microbreweries and distilleries are constantly popping up in the Twin Cities, wineries keep to the suburbs and farmlands. One obvious reason: vineyards require space. On top of that, farm wineries are given special status in Minnesota's liquor laws, which lures many winemakers to the country.

But Jeff Zeitler doesn't need grapes or a lot of space to make booze. He first learned to make wine and cider in his dorm room at the University of Minnesota, using pretty much whatever he could find for free or cheap. Some of his first experiments involved store-bought apple juice.

"It tasted terrible actually, it was horrible. But you know, me and my friends, we were 19. We didn't care – we drank it anyway," Zeitler told GoMN.

Zeitler's recipes have come a long way since then, and with the support of his wife Gita and a successful Kickstarter campaign, the 45-year-old former architect has turned his longtime hobby into a business: Urban Forage Winery and Cider House.

Zeitler is making booze on a much larger scale now, but one thing hasn't changed: he still works with whatever he can find. All of the wine, cider, and mead made by Urban Forage comes from foraged or crowdsourced fruit, juice, flowers, and honey.

"I just realized there's all this fruit everywhere, and nobody's using it," he said. "So I started asking people for permission to pick it, and pretty much everybody said yes."

How it works: Zeitler and crew, which often includes Gita, the couple's kids, or a few friends, head out in a minivan to pick fruits from local residents' trees (with permission, of course.) They throw a giant tarp on the ground, hook a pole to the top of a tree, and shake.

Jeff's wife Gita after a day of foraging apples.

Jeff's wife Gita after a day of foraging apples.

Zeitler says it's not hard to find people with unwanted fruit, because just one apple tree can drop a dozen bushels on the ground. If it's not picked up, the fruit can rot and attract bees. 

When GoMN met Zeitler, he was out shaking trees at a former orchard. A farmer recently bought the land but didn't have the time to maintain it.

"The trees haven't been sprayed all year, which some orchardists would say is terrible," Zeitler said, "but for me it means organic apples."

Besides apples, Zeitler forages for cherries, apricots, mulberries, and pears. In the warmer months, he harvests rhubarb, dandelions, hops, and other flowers in season, such as lilacs. He's even made wine out of carrots and kiwis. 

If an ingredient can't be foraged, it's sourced locally – like the honey used to make mead. And everything has to be chemical free.

When it comes to making the booze, Zeitler is still doing it by hand, in small batches fermented in stainless steel tanks. That part takes place in the basement of Urban Forage, a 100-year-old building at 3016 East Lake Street.

The Zeitlers have been selling bottles out of the building and at local liquor stores for some time now, while remodeling the upstairs. After years of renovations, the long-awaited taproom held a soft-opening on Thursday.

What's on tap: for now, dry and semisweet apple cider. Zeitler plans to expand the tap offerings in the coming weeks, and rotate them seasonally. Several wines and meads are also available by the glass.

The taproom is open Thursdays and Fridays from 4-10 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 10. Grand opening celebrations will take place on November 17 and 18.

You can also find Urban Forage products at 40 liquor stores in the Twin Cities metro area, including Surdyk's and Total Wine.

Q & A

You're really the first winery in Minneapolis since Prohibition? To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a winery in Minneapolis since Prohibition, maybe even before Prohibition.

We thought we'd have to lobby for a new law for urban wineries. As it turns out, the old law was still on the books and perfectly good. So we're just operating under the old 1934 law that allows commercial wineries to function. It's a law that was made before the farm winery laws were passed.

Why is being organic and sustainable important to you? I have kids. I want to leave a better place for them. I like being green, it feels right to me. And this is something that's almost a no-brainer. There's fruit not being used – why don't we find a way to use it?

What's your vision for the taproom? I want it to be cozy. A lot of the beer taprooms are very industrial – I don't want that aesthetic. I want a cozy, warm place that you wanna stay and hang out for awhile. Something that feels more like a coffee shop than a warehouse.

Any advice for entrepreneurs or people looking to start a small business? Be patient and fearless.

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