As a new semester approaches and Iowa City begins to fill with students again, leaving town can recoup and extend the blithe feelings of summer that seem to fade in Iowa City around Aug. 1.
Not far from the gravitational pull of the University—about a 25-minute drive—the Sutliff Cider tasting room offers an escape back to summer. When I shut my eyes and imagine the most beautiful of Iowa landscapes, I see the fields around the Sutliff tasting room: Set among rolling farmland that expands to all horizons—a highway seam runs through lush fields of soybeans and corn—a beautiful, brown wooden barn is the only structure in sight. From a distance, this scene is bucolic, tranquil Iowa at its finest. But on Sunday afternoons, an outdoor party happens for three hours, and as the barn comes closer into focus during the drive down Sutliff Road, the sun’s reflection beams off rows of cars, conveying the sheer energy emanating from this place.
Outside the tasting room, which is located on the ground level of the 120-year-old barn, there is always a huge gathering of people piling into communal picnic tables to socialize, listen to music, take in the beautiful scenery and enjoy an afternoon snack. While Sutliff’s tasting room is open on the weekends beginning at 11 a.m., the live music only plays and the kitchen only opens on Sundays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Each week, a rotating lineup of honky-tonk bands provide the background music for chattering friends sipping the nectar that is Sutliff Cider.
The small staff that handles the large Sunday afternoon crowds never seems to change: A few Iowa-nice women—possibly sisters—deal with the stress of a dense group of patrons and the awkwardness of a slow credit card machine (hint: bring cash) by occasionally making a witty remark. There is also usually a teenage boy or two walking around with an endearing air of care, determined to quickly pick up every empty cider glass.
For a kitchen that only opens to the public for three hours once a week, the food is surprisingly delicious: five different types of sliders, a few snacks, local beers and their own signature cider. The tortilla chips are tissue paper thin with little pockets of air that make eating them kind of like popping delicate bubble wrap. The accompanying mango salsa is sweet with a noticeable viscosity imparted by the slimy nature of the fruit. The spicy peanuts—free with drink purchase—are just mild enough to not leave any lingering mouth pain, and they provide the perfect pop-in-your-mouth snack for those moments of spacing out, reveling in the late summer landscape.
The beef sliders seem to vary in quality from week to week. On my first visit, the patty—which in my opinion is the most important part of the sandwich—on the Jalapeño Popper Stuffed Slider was surprisingly delicious. The beef was well-seasoned, juicy and slightly charred, and the heat of the jalapeño was balanced by earthy cheddar cheese. On another Sunday visit, the Steak and Swiss Stuffed Slider made me question my memory of the little burger that I had enjoyed previously. A bland, dry patty was served with a cake of indiscernible, barely melted swiss.
But the food is really secondary to the cider, which is some of the best that I have ever tasted and rivals many international ciders, as well as some of the new, boutique cider projects like Virtue out of Chicago. Dry, somewhat grassy and slightly yeasty, the makers clearly are yielding to the inherent qualities imparted by the apples. The pale, amber-gold colored cider is light-bodied and slightly tart, perfect both for savoring and for quaffing down on a summer Sunday.