If your only experience with hard cider is that treacly beverage sold in the supermarket, it’s time to head north to Port Townsend to see why this cool beverage is suddenly very hot.
Fall might be spreading its quiet blanket over the Northwest, but apple juice is just beginning to flow at three craft cideries.
The Port Townsend area has suddenly become a nucleus for alcoholic cider production. And cider itself has become popular with the same crowds who populate craft breweries and distilleries.
It comes in a range of flavors, nuances and sweetness levels that leave Strongbow, Hornsby and other mass producers in the apple bin.
Olympia’s Dave White is a founding member of the Northwest Cider Association and runs the craft cider website, oldtimecider.com. White said Washington has gone from two licensed cideries to 11 in just a few years. He’s going to up that number by one when he opens his own cidery in the spring.
White attributes the increase in popularity to several factors: the state’s apple culture, better education on cider-making methods, increased visibility on store shelves, the desire for an alternative to beer and the nature of cider itself.
“It’s a long drink like a beer, but with more of the complexities of wine,” White said.
Though the popularity of cider waned in the 1900s, it once was arguably the most American of alcoholic beverages. All an 1800s farmer needed was a few apple trees and he could brew up a batch of the imbibable beverage. The process was no doubt imported by immigrants from Europe, where cider has been celebrated for centuries.
The hard ciders and other alcoholic fruit beverages I sampled on my visit to these three cideries varied tremendously in flavor, color, alcohol content and style.
From austerely dry to cloying sweet, there’s a product out there to meet just about anyone’s taste. All three cideries put high value on organic methods.
This season’s crop is just being pressed and its bounty won’t become available until June, but local cideries still have plenty of 2011’s product on hand.
The cideries, with a lunch or dinner stop in Port Townsend, make a perfect fall weekend trip.
All three have tasting rooms with abbreviated but regular fall hours. Even if you don’t imbibe, all three offer short respites from the urban hustle.
Steve “Bear” Bishop gave up a career as a firefighter to start this cidery with his wife, Nancy. The couple has a neat-as-a-pin facility in a forest setting.
The Bishops will produce 1,000 cases of cider this year, their fourth commercial year of production.
“It’s been a dream for 20 years,” Bear said. The Bishops are interested only in making traditional cider, Nancy said, and studied the process during an extensive research trip to France, Spain and England.
“The first thing we learned in Europe is that you have to grow your own apples,” Nancy said. They now have an orchard with 950 apple trees in 14 varieties.
During a tour of the orchard, I took a bite from one of the Bishops’ Muscadet de Dieppe apples. I must have had a stricken look on my face. “That’s why we call them spitting apples,” Nancy laughed.
That’s when I learned cider apples will never be confused with table apples.
“Even the birds won’t eat these apples,” Nancy said.
Cider apples such as Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill have the right malic acid, sugar and tannin levels for making hard cider but make lousy eating apples.
Like many cider makers, the Bishops urge folks to give dry ciders a try. “They don’t expect wine to be sweet, but grapes are sweet,” Nancy said.
There seems to be a generational difference in the explosion of cider interest, Nancy said. “Older people are more skeptical. People in their 20s are more receptive.”
Nancy said ciders naturally want to ferment to a dry state. Ciders with residual sweetness need to be pasteurized.
Almost all sweet ciders have sugar, juice or other sweeteners added back in.
Alpenfire offers three unfiltered apple ciders. Spark! is semi-sweet and redolent of fresh apple (8.9 percent alcohol, $13.50). Pirate’s Plank is a bone dry, bottle-conditioned cider made from bitter sharp apples (6.9 percent alcohol, $12.50). Ember is a bitter-sweet cider (7.25 percent alcohol, $15). Alpenfire also sells an apple cider vinegar. Available next fall will be a still cider and a champagne-style cider.
FINNRIVER FARM AND CIDERY
Finnriver is a cidery and much more. It’s on a ridge overlooking meadow-filled Center Valley. Spread across the 33-acre farm are vegetables, blueberries, pens holding chickens and an orchard with 700 heirloom cider apple trees. Don’t let the laidback atmosphere fool you. Sophisticated cidering is happening here – the handiwork of owners Crystie and Keith Kisler.
A smartly appointed tasting room (complete with punch cup chandelier) offers 10 products, including a semi-sweet dry hopped cider (6.5 percent alcohol, $5.59) with flowery-grassy notes and a black currant wine mixed with apple brandy (18.5 percent alcohol, $14).
They also sell a jelly made from their hard cider that just might win over jelly haters.
In 2008, the cidery produced 800 gallons of alcohol. This year, they will approach 5,000 gallons. The uptick mirrors cider’s increasing popularity in the state. Crystie Kisler said they are motivated by the goal of making cider a regional beverage.
“We make an effort to create a product to hit every point on the palate,” Crystie said.
Finnriver’s Artisan Sparking Cider (8 percent alcohol, $12.60) is made in the methode champenoise style. Inside Finn River’s bottling facility, riddling racks hold inverted bottles until a worker dons rain gear and pops the tops off, releasing the yeast sediment in an explosive spray. The bottle is then topped off with clear champagne.
Finnriver products can be found at Gravity Beer Market in Olympia and at Proctor Farmers Market in Tacoma on Saturday.
Driving into Eaglemount Winery is a little like finding the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon. A winding road through a cedar grove breaks into a misty valley filled with gnarled apple trees and a log cabin.
That’s what owner Jim Davis found 31 years ago when he bushwhacked through those trees to the abandoned 1883 homestead with its original Jonathan and Gravenstein apple trees. After years of work – and marrying his wife, Trudy – the couple now have a working 35-acre winery and cidery. He’s the engineer, she’s the winemaker.
The couple have been producing red wines for several years, adding cider a few years ago. They recently planted an English and French cider apple orchard.
“Cider is so hot right now, we’re going to focus a little bit more (on that),” Trudy said.
The couple produces about 350 cases of red wine and 2,500 gallons of cider a year. Three versions of their Homestead Cider range from dry to sweet (8 percent alcohol, $14-16). They also produce a ginger-flavored apple cider (8 percent alcohol, $15) and a much-heralded (and quickly sold out) quince cider (8 percent alcohol, $19). Other products include a perry (pear cider), a mead and a raspberry cider.
Trudy always is experimenting, Jim said. Ports and brandies are casking in the wine cellar, and she’s working on a dandelion wine.
“She insists we sit on the lawn and pick dandelions. I can’t mow the lawn for a month,” Jim said.
The couple have a strong connection to the old homestead with its 25 ancient apple trees. “We feel like we’re just keeping up the tradition,” Trudy said.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, email@example.com