Image: Jim Lamb
Counter Culture Crystie Kisler in the Finnriver tasting room

When Keith and Crystie Kisler bought a 33-acre farm in Chimacum in 2004, the couple had no idea hard cider was undergoing a quiet revival in apple-heavy pockets of the country. They were simply searching for a value-added product to help generate a more viable income for their Finnriver Farm—a sustainable berry, vegetable, and egg producer. One day, a neighbor brought over a bottle of homemade hard cider and an idea was born.

Keith started experimenting with the heirloom apples in Finnriver’s orchards, and released his first cider in January 2010. It earned a double gold medal at the Seattle Wine Awards, an impressive feat considering the 60 apple varieties at Finnriver Farm weren’t technically cider apples—those are higher in tannins and, like wine grapes, unpleasant to the taste. The Kislers just liked the idea of making a drink favored by our founding fathers, all but eradicated during Prohibition. 

Even after Finnriver had racked up more awards and visitors started traveling there from around the state, Keith kept on experimenting. He turned to Drew Zimmerman, the founder of Red Barn Cider and a mentor to ciderheads around the state. The bespectacled former aerospace worker had transferred his technical, fastidious tendencies to apples and cidermaking in 2004. He studied cidermaking in England and eventually planted 850 trees—bittersweets, sharps, and heirlooms—on a tract of land in Mount Vernon. He only produced about 1,200 cases of cider a year, including the aptly named Sweetie Pie, made with dessert apples, and the Burro Loco, which packs more of an astringent kick. But his Fire Barrel Cider is a testament to how far this beverage can roam from the sparkly, sweet incarnation that often serves as training wheels for beer drinkers. It’s smoky, and slightly sour—a British-style cider, aged in bourbon barrels and calling out to whiskey drinkers or fans of sour Flemish ales.

But last year, this elder statesman of cider started thinking about retiring. There was just the small matter of those apple trees. 

He considered selling them off individually. Then he considered the Kislers. Right now there are only 10 cidermakers in Washington, but Finnriver’s founders have a knack for drawing visitors to its red-walled tasting room and spreading the word through myriad festivals and events.

And so, with its creator’s blessing, one of the state’s most distinctive ciders is being adopted. Finnriver brewed its first batch of Fire Barrel in mid-2012 using the same apple variety used by Zimmerman; Crystie insisted they add the words “Drew Zimmerman’s award-winning traditional cider” to the label. This way, she says, “he can let go and his work can carry on.” 

Zimmerman is also selling to the Kislers his entire apple orchard, filled with varieties that would take years to recreate from seedlings.

But first, Birnam Wood must come to Dunsinane—that is, Zimmerman’s trees must travel nearly 60 miles across Whidbey Island, across the Sound to Port Townsend, then to their new home in Chimacum. In preparation, Keith tilled a former dairy pasture until the soil was free of grasses and so soft that shoes sink into it like new snow. Between now and April, he and a crew will descend upon Zimmerman’s orchard with two long-handled shovels, stomping them into the ground to encircle the roots so that a tractor can unearth, one by one, each of the 850 trunks. The trees must be replanted in the order in which they bloom, essential for cross-pollination. 

Zimmerman has spent the better part of a decade trying to convert tasters who expect hard cider to be “sweet, fizzy, and taste like Martinelli’s with a kick.” And Crystie remembers too well the days when people told her Finnriver’s creations “tasted like horse piss.” But drinkers are coming around to the sort of tart, barnyardy cider flavors celebrated in England, France, and Spain (and eighteenth-century America). Now she prepares visitors for Fire Barrel’s complexity by telling them, “It’s like jazz music compared to classic rock; you’ve got to sit with it a while.”

 

Published: January 2013