On sunny fall mornings, Sam Fitz takes his mild-mannered, 100-pound pitbull named Lexi for a walk in downtown Washington, D.C. When he finds a crab apple tree, Fitz ties her leash to the tree’s trunk, and climbs up to shake the ruby-hued fruit off branches, where they hang like swollen, elongated cherries. He uses the foraged apples to make micro-batches of minimalist, bone-dry cider. Fitz, along with his sister, Rachel Fitz, and Cooper Sheehan are the partners behind Anxo (pronounced AHN-choh), D.C.’s first cider house. And they’re doing things differently than most cider makers.
These small batches made with city-grown apples are only a small part of the story; the vast majority of Anxo’s cider is made using fruit sourced from nearby, family-run farms. In fact, the cider’s only flavorful ingredient is apple—in 2019, they used 35 different apple varietals—with either native yeast or wine yeast, making each cider naturally dry, gluten-free, and sugar-free. (The fructose burns off in the fermentation process.)
Since launching Anxo in 2016, Fitz has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of apples, including varieties, harvest seasons, and growers. He has 16 apple trees in his own tiny backyard—a mix of Harrison and Campfield (in the Colonial era, these were known to make the best cider when combined), plus a Redfield and a Dolgo. Instead of using the fruit from the eight Harrison trees, he cuts 200 pieces of budwood off the trees each year, sending them to a farm in Virginia to be grafted onto old trees, which will bear fruit Anxo will eventually use for cider. (There are currently about 1,000 trees on the farm, and they should start fruiting next year.) Fitz buzzes when discussing his bounty of backyard apple trees. “Last year, my Redfield gave me three gigantic, red-fleshed apples, and this year it has about 200 bud sets,” he gushes. “The flowers were neon red, and it was possibly the prettiest blossoming tree I have ever seen.”
But Fitz wasn’t always so singularly focused on the fruit. The 36-year-old started his career in the craft beer industry, working at revered D.C. institutions like Meridian Pint and ChurchKey. A desire to build his own business, coupled with a fortuitously timed vacation with Sheehan through the Basque Country of Spain—touring wineries and cideries and falling in love with the food and drink culture, propelled them to focus on cider. They opened Anxo—named after a bigfoot-like creature from Basque mythology—four years ago, starting with a restaurant in D.C.’s Truxton Circle neighborhood, serving a lineup of artisanal ciders. Less than a year later, the team expanded with a cidery and tasting room in Brightwood Park, where they make ciders like the Cidre Blanc, with Goldrush apples from Virginia and Pennsylvania and Sauvignon Blanc yeast, or the Rosé, a blend of Washington red-fleshed and Virginia Goldrush apples with Rhône Valley rosé wine yeast.
Anxo’s business operates with the concept of “make wine, sell beer.” Cider maker Greg Johnson crafts each cider in a process similar to that of natural wine. (In fact, when Anxo first opened, it was the city’s first licensed winery since Prohibition, a classification that applies since the product is made by fermenting fruit.) The minimalist method involves taking the juice, fermenting dry, tasting it for quality, and packaging it. Also like wine, the ciders showcase the fruit from which they came—the nuanced flavors of apples, varying by size, taste, and flesh color.
But because beer has a bigger market share than wine, the product crafted like wine is merchandised like beer. Instead of packaging into wine’s typical 750-milliliter bottles, Anxo is packaged in cans and kegs. Marketing includes vibrant, beautifully designed labels, plus coasters, stickers, tap handles, and glassware—all common in beer culture. “We’re taking a product that was never meant for the beer world, and sneaking it in because the market is so much bigger,” Fitz says.
The concept isn’t totally new—mass-produced brands were tapping into the beer market 20 to 30 years ago. But most of the early brands—England’s Strongbow and Woodchuck, from Vermont—specialize in ciders that are sweet and highly carbonated, and often flavored with other ingredients like pear, grapefruit, or hops. While Fitz is quick to say that he’s a supporter of all ciders, he’s drawn on his background as a beverage director in craft beer bars to educate customers on what cider can be: “We want Anxo to be a place where people can explore and learn about the cider world.”
The cider they’re making is the antithesis of the mass-produced brands, pleasantly, but not overly, effervescent, minimalist, and bone-dry, with plenty of structure and nuance. Fitz says they start off angular, and after they age a little, become round, with shifting flavors, much like wine. “There’s also an austerity to it that I can’t quite explain, that I think comes from our methodology,” he adds. “It’s just really different from what most other people are doing.”
Also something most people probably aren’t doing: For the past two years, a now 100-year-old woman living in downtown D.C. has let the team come and gather apples from the 35-foot Dolgo crab apple tree in her backyard. She made jam from the apples for 30-some years before she was physically no longer able to harvest them, and now the team ground-harvests to make a small batch, called D.C. Estate, for their taproom.
“There’s this hint of Anxo character that people can pick up,” Fitz says. “It’s not just that they’re dry. It’s not just that they’re sugar-free. It’s not just that they’re apples only. We have this house character that comes from our fermentation ideology.” Arguably, part of that house character comes from how Anxo passionately taps into its home city to craft ciders bursting with character.
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