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Coming off a Best in Show award at an international blind-tasting competition, the owners of hard apple cider manufacturing plant and tasting room in Missoula plan to release their first line of bottled cider with a kick-off party Friday.

Western Cider, which opened earlier this year on California Street next to the Clark Fork River, has been bottling their McIntosh single variety, Sour Cherry and best-seller, the Whiskey Peach.

The McIntosh recently won the top award out of 168 entries at the Portland International Cider Cup, along with a gold medal in the Heritage Dry category.

“It’s all blind tasting by industry professionals, so it was a big deal for us to get that recognition,” said Western Cider co-owner Matthew LaRubbio. “It was the second year in a row a Montana cidery won. Last year Montana CiderWorks (in the Bitterroot Valley) won it. So we’re doing something right out here and we want to highlight what we’re doing for Montanans.”

The company already cans its Poor Farmer and Poor Farmer Hopped ciders, but LaRubbio said that a relatively less expensive bottling machine will help them get their fan favorites out to local stores. The bottles will be available in cases or sold as 17-ounce singles.

The McIntosh apples for the single-variety cider come from an orchard in the Bitterroot, and LaRubbio said the apples are too expensive to sell in cans. For the Sour Cherry, the company uses tart cherry juice. And the Whiskey Peach has been, surprisingly to LaRubbio, the best seller in the tasting room.

“We use apple juice and peach juice and co-ferment them, which means they are fermented together rather than just back-sweetening the apple cider,” he explained. “Then we age it in whiskey barrels to get that white oak, vanilla and caramelized notes. We used to use Montgomery Distillery barrels, but they couldn’t keep up with our demand, so now we use Wild Turkey barrels. This newest batch is phenomenal. It’s really good. It’s reminiscent of whiskey. It’s 11 percent alcohol by volume, so we’re not going to be canning that.”

The bottles will be $1 off Friday only, with cases 20 percent off, and music by the Timber Rattlers starts at 6 p.m. on the patio.

The cidery is also in the midst of what it calls the “Great Bear Apple Drive,” an effort to not only reduce the amount of conflict between wild bears and people but a way to put locally grown apples to good use. Western Cider is teaming up with the Great Bear Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes the Bears and Apples program to attempt to keep bears from scavenging apples in Missoula’s urban area.

“It’s a community apple harvest with a very simple concept,” LaRubbio explained. “Bring us your apples or pears and we will give you cider. Specifically, for every 40 pounds of apples, you get a $5 certificate in return. More important than the tradeoff, your contribution of apples is a collaboration to produce the most local of Missoula beverages besides water — hard cider. We will release this community cider, named The Great Bear, in early 2018.”

The company would like a minimum of 40 pounds of apples or pears to be delivered to the tasting room at 501 N. California St. between noon and 6 p.m., seven days a week. No rotten, bruised or open-fleshed apples, but worms are fine. There will be a free pressing available for people who want their own juice at the kickoff party for Montana Cider Week on Sunday, Oct. 1.

Montana Cider Week runs from Oct. 1-7, and starts with the Harvest Party at Western Cider on Oct. 1 with a brunch with cider cocktails, a food truck, live music and a special release. Many local cideries, including Montana CiderWorks, Backroad Cider and BetterRoot Cider (all located in the Bitterroot) will be participating. The week concludes on Oct. 7 with Liquid Apple Night in Hamilton, which supports the Ravalli County Museum. For more information visit facebook.com/MTCiderWeek.

“All of these events are a great way to support craft hard cider and Montana’s apple heritage,” said Emily Ritchie, executive director of the Northwest Cider Association. “We are excited to have Montana participating again this year, demonstrating the strong support for this vibrant and growing industry.”

The production of alcoholic beverages like craft beer and craft cider is strengthening Montana’s fast-growing manufacturing industry, according to Barbara Wagner, the chief economist for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

“Although Montana is developing a stronger knowledge-based economy, our traditional goods-producing industries also played an influential role in 2016,” she wrote in the annual Labor Day economic report last week. “Manufacturing had the fastest GDP growth of any industry for both the one-year and five-year timeframes, growing by over 10 percent in the last year. Montana has the fastest growing manufacturing sector among all states for both one and five-year timeframes."

Manufacturing contributed $3.2 billion to the state’s GDP in 2016, over $1.2 billion more than the industry’s 2011 contribution.

"Although the majority of the manufacturing GDP growth has occurred in petroleum refining (which grew by roughly a $500 million dollars from 2011 to 2015), the manufacturing sub-sectors of food and beverage, nonmetallic mineral products, fabricated metal, and wood products have all posted substantial gains in GDP since 2011," Wagner said.

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