Bob Purman bought his first camera with savings from his paper route. Years later, he built a career directing commercials, and he especially loved telling the stories of farmers and food producers.
During a trip to Brittany, France, some years back to visit his wife’s family, he tried hard ciders. Different from the sweet American counterparts he’d tried, these less-sweet versions inspired him to make his own. He started out making small batches in his basement.
About a decade ago, Purman started getting serious about the cider. In 2011 he took the leap from hobbyist to selling his hard cider and opening a tasting room in Ellison Bay. The award-winning cider is distributed exclusively in Wisconsin, with production at 20,000 gallons this year.
Purman runs Island Orchard Cider (islandorchardcider.com) with his wife of 35 years, Yannique. They split their time between their home in Fox Point and Door County, where they run a tasting room in Ellison Bay along with the orchard on Washington Island.
The commercial path
I’ve been a director for 25 years. My niche is documentary/human profiles. I do a lot of interviews and visual storytelling. I’ve shot in a million food factories and plants. I did some work with farmers.
I can trace my interest and my idealized interest in agriculture back to working on Canadian egg farmer commercials. I maybe over-idealized the agricultural life.
I’m the son of an engineer. I’ve always had this tinkerer background. I love the idea of making something. My whole other life has been documenting other people making things.
This is sort of a return to that by making the cider…. We established this orchard, and it took 10 years to get it bearing. It is a big, longtime agricultural commitment. It is not like a row crop, where you sow seeds in the spring, then harvest. It’s three to five years before apples are fully bearing, and pear trees are even longer. We have 2,000 trees.
Evolution of a cidery
We started as a hobby. Yannique’s father was from Brittany. We got interested in hard ciders when we’d take our sons and go visit him. We’d spend a week in Brittany and bicycle in Normandy. It makes sense to make cider here (in Wisconsin); we have the perfect environment, the great soil for apples and cherries.
Basement to business
Like all hobbyists, I’ve been doing basement fermenting for a long time. In 2011, we had enough production in the apple orchard to have a commercial crop. We jumped from five-gallon carboys to thousand-gallon fermenters. That was a terrifying step.
I did my first accidental ferment when I was 11. I was trying to make root beer in my basement. That was my first bottle-fermented product. I couldn’t afford a capping machine. I bought 24 corks from the dime store…. I obviously over-sugared or over-yeasted.
I’d be up in bed at night, I’d hear the cap and a geyser hitting the ceiling. So I put tape on the bottles to hold the cork in. That would make the explosion more violent the next night.
I figured out the bottles fit perfectly in my father’s desk drawer. It kept the cork in, but then you couldn’t get the drawers open. They actually moved out of the house a few years ago, and there was the desk with a few bottles of my root beer still in there.
I really started experimenting with ciders 15 years ago. I’d go to Weston’s Antique Apples (in New Berlin) and buy some older apples that have more punch than most of the dessert fruit you find today. I’d experiment with small batches. Then I gradually bought presses and carboys. I’d run it in my small Milwaukee basement.
A lot of orcharding is about getting that perfect apple that has eye appeal on the shelf in the grocery store or market. Our cultivars are kind of misshapen, gnarly and small. We’re grinding them up and making cider, so there’s no need for that kind of eye appeal. It is all about the flavors they’ll impart.
Of the Old World cultivars, my favorite is a russet called St. Edmund’s Russet. They make a delicious cider, but the flavor is almost bordering on a pear flavor. I have a couple hundred trees (of this variety). We have 30 different cultivars.
Pursuing his passions
The photography thing started when I bought my first camera with my money from my paper route. I was really interested in photography, switched to film, started working as a commercial director, then transitioned to producing cider.
I got to a point in my life where I was traveling 250 days a year. I really was sort of overworking myself…. Cider is all about living by the seasons.
The first time Yannique and I sailed to Rock Island we were stranded there for three days. We sailed from Milwaukee in a 19-foot open sailboat. We were young and foolish.
I’ve always wanted to make things. Not that making little films isn’t making things. There is something ephemeral about that.
Now I get to make something that people drink. We’re employing people and ourselves. It is gratifying. It is a different kind of thing we’re producing. We started with bare ground and just built our knowledge. Fifteen years later, we have an orchard and a product. That’s the dream.
Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the everyday relationship that local notables (within the food community and without) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email email@example.com.