Foodie Q&A: Wesley Engelbrecht of Sage Bird Ciderworks 

Foodie Q&A is a series showcasing the Harrisonburg food community. Food enthusiast and storyteller Sarah Golibart Gorman interviews food and drink makers behind the Friendly City food scene. You’ll hear about their origins, creative processes, aspirations, and go-to spots in town. New episodes drop the second Tuesday of each month from June 2024 to June 2025.

This month Gorman sat down with Wesley Engelbrecht, assistant cidermaker at Sage Bird Ciderworks in downtown Harrisonburg.

Gorman: Can you tell me where you grew up and about the food you grew up eating?

Engelbrecht: I grew up in Northern Virginia, specifically in the Chantilly-ish area. We ate a lot of home cooked meals from my mom. In early high school, I wanted to be a chef and own a restaurant. I ended up changing that career path and I went more into science and math for my undergraduate at James Madison University (JMU).

Gorman: What was your first experience with cider?

Engelbrecht: In college, I tried some of the commercial brands of cider, but never really liked it that much. It wasn’t really my thing. But then I saw that this really cool new business was hiring, and I wanted to give cider another shot. When I started working at Sage Bird Ciderworks, I realized that there was a lot more to the world of cider than just the big commercial brands that most people are aware of. 

Gorman: What’s the difference between commercial cider and Sage Bird cider? 

Engelbrecht: There are so many styles of cider out there. There’s a French style of wine and cider making called pét-nat, short for pétillant naturel (naturally sparkling). You bottle it in the middle of fermentation so it carbonates in the bottle. We also have a small batch co-ferment going right now with apple cider and hops. We added the hops during the fermentation process instead of the end. Usually we add hops when the cider is cold, steep them for a day or two before taking them out. There’s so much complexity in these ferments that you don’t usually see in commercial ciders. 

Gorman: What brought you to Harrisonburg and what’s kept you here?

Engelbrecht: I have felt super supported here. The Carlsons do a great job of taking care of us along whatever journey we’re on. I graduated college during lockdown. And so I definitely felt that lack of community. It was a very abrupt switch into being behind the bar where my job was to interact with people. But that change was one that I realized I really needed. It made me understand that I really need the support of these people around me, my friends, my co-workers. Having them be there for me was one of the things that made me just love this town. Also, when I started at Sage Bird, I was about a year into transitioning. That was something else I needed a lot of support through and I got that here. I always have and continue to be seen for who I am. I don’t get questioned on it. I’ve been encouraged and supported throughout every step in my transition. 

Gorman: Can you tell us about some of the places you worked before Sage Bird? What lessons have you learned that help you in your current position?

Engelbrecht: In high school, I worked as a server and that is where I got most of my food service industry experience. In college, I worked at the JMU planetarium. That was really fun and where I learned how to explain things to people. There’s an educational aspect to working behind the bar. Not a lot of people know much about cider and so when you’re bartending, it’s not just telling customers what we have, but sharing general cider knowledge.  

Gorman: What are your responsibilities as an assistant cider maker?

Engelbrecht: I am very hands on. I do tank transfers, moving ferments from one tank to another. I track the ferments, keeping an eye on their progress. Co-owner Zach Carlson and I communicate about each project’s next step, from bottling to kegging to labeling. We keep an eye on the taproom, if we’re low on a specific cider and when to start a new one. 

Gorman: Sage Bird has a staff scholarship FUNd to help staff invest in themselves by learning new things, doing things they’ve always wanted to do, and improving their lives. Can you share about your 2024 FUNd day?

Engelbrecht: I’m going to Italy with my childhood best friend! We’re going to Milan, Rome and Naples. This will be the longest trip I’ve taken in a while, especially considering that it’s hard to take large trips like this when you are working in food service.

Gorman: What have you used previous FUNd days for?

Engelbrecht: My first FUNd was to help fundraise for my top surgery. My second FUNd was to buy plane tickets for my upcoming trip to Italy. And this third one is to make sure I still get there! It’s been really cool to see what other people use their FUNds for. I know, one of my friends who worked here used it to help buy some cool set design things for his music project. 

Gorman: What aspirations do you have for the future? What’s next for you in your food journey?

Engelbrecht: I want to start doing some of my own home fermenting. I want to play around with my own recipes and different parts of the ferment that are a little harder to track on a larger scale. 

Gorman: What are some of your go-to spots in town to eat? To drink?

Engelbrecht: I love Beyond. I like their sushi, entrees and soups. And Indian American Cafe. It’s chicken saag level three for me. For drinks, Restless Moons is probably my favorite beer in town. I think they have a really comfy, cozy space and a beautiful outdoor area in the back.

Gorman: Who would you love to have at the bar at Sage Bird? 

Engelbrecht: I don’t remember how they came to my mind. But literally earlier today, I was thinking about Zendaya and Tom Holland. I love them both. I would love to serve them at the bar. 

You can find Wesley behind the scenes at Sage Bird Ciderworks in downtown Harrisonburg. Follow him at @_gayzerbeam for home brewing and Italy pics!

For more on Sage Bird, check out Instagram and the website.

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