A Guide to Washington Cider
Five years ago, Tieton Cider Works’co-owner Sharon Campbell spent most of her time at festivals and fairs, explaining that her cider does, in fact, contain alcohol and is not meant for kids. To the north, Alpenfire Orchards cofounder Nancy Bishop fielded a frequent query: What flavors do you have? Her response is dry as a bottle of Alpenfire Cider’s own Pirate’s Plank. “It’s cider. We have apple flavor.”
In Europe, cider (or cidre, or sidre) is shorthand for an alcoholic beverage of fermented apples. In Britain it’s dry as the humor. France likes a dash of sweet, while Spanish versions run stringent and musty. In America, George Washington’s troops received rations of it. John Adams reportedly drank a tankard of it for breakfast each morning. Cider apples and their fermented juice were prevalent on American homesteads. Then Americans departed farms for cities, German immigrants introduced beer culture, and ultimately Prohibition took a collective axe to cider orchards across the country.
The term hard cider usually means alcohol—and, for many of us, youthful memories of beverages that tasted like a liquefied Jolly Rancher. But in the past few years, orchards and tiny handcrafted cider operations across Washington are quietly making us an epicenter of a drinking revolution.
In 2008 there were maybe four cideries in our bounds; now about 15 dot the state from San Juan Island to Pullman, and even wineries are getting in on the action. Scores of bars and restaurants give cider its own tap, grocery stores and bottle shops have specialized shelf space, and Seattle even has a new bar dedicated to labor-intensive, small-batch ciders. As Snowdrift’s Tim Larsen explains it, “The founding fathers drank it, but Washington’s cider industry is newer than the iPhone,” despite the apple’s status as our first fruit. Meet the cideries that make us a bulwark of America’s first signature beverage—and are banishing those Jolly Rancher stigmas in the process.
The (Not Very) Old Guard
220 Pocket Ln, Port Townsend, 360-379-8915; alpenfirecider.com
First release 2008
Nancy and Steve (aka Bear) Bishop would cross the border to Canada and drink something “sweet, sparkly, and nice” during their courtship days as 19-year-olds in the 1970s. Additional years of cider appreciation confirmed that making the type of cider they like—bone dry and slightly bitter—required apples uncommon in Washington state. So they started planting cider apples like Britain’s bittersweet Brown Snouts and Dabinetts alongside the heirloom apples in their Port Townsend orchard. The uber dry, brashly tannic Pirate’s Plank is one of the most delightfully challenging ciders in the state. And if you happen upon a bottle of its Burnt Branch Reserve Glow Rosé Hard Cider, made with a rare green-skinned apple with bright magenta flesh inside, snap it up immediately. The crazy-laborious bottle conditioning process is what gives the sparkle to all of Alpenfire’s ciders.
Taste it The tasting room tucked next to the cidery is the place to find rarities like the Dungeness Orchard Blend, a semidry still cider, blended from no fewer than 70 different apple styles.
Eaglemount Wine and Cider
2350 Eaglemount Rd, Port Townsend, 360-732-4084; eaglemountwineandcider.com
First release 2007
Cider apples are in short supply across the state, but when Jim and Trudy Davis bought an old 1883 homestead in Port Townsend, they ended up owning an abandoned orchard full of them. Today Trudy makes red wine and swingtop--stoppered bottles of cider. Her homestead series is made exclusively with apples from that long-forgotten orchard, colored with flavors of hops, ginger, raspberry, and even quince. The results are pleasantly complex.
Taste it Traverse the homestead’s winding driveway for a tasting split among eight ciders and five wines, separated by a palate-cleansing buffer of cheese. In the Seattle area, Full Throttle, 99 Bottles, and Metropolitan Markets carry Eaglemount.
Snowdrift Cider Co.
277 Ward Ave, East Wenatchee, 509-630-3507; snowdriftcider.com
First release 2009
The Ringsrud family has farmed apples in the Wenatchee Valley since the 1930s. In the early 2000s the Ringsruds made the prescient choice to graft over part of the orchard to sharp-flavored cider apples. Another smart move—taking cider from an expensive hobby to an actual business in 2008, precisely the time cider started catching on. Five years later Snowdrift is racing to keep up with demand for its seven-cider lineup, made almost entirely from heirloom and cider apples. The most popular cider, the semisweet Cliffbreaks, pairs complexity with just a bit of sparkle. The English-styled dry cider caught on slowly at first, but in recent years it’s gained momentum as customers wrap their brains around cider that speaks of crispness and caramel rather than apple juice.
Taste it Snowdrift has a decently broad presence in Seattle, at PCCs, Whole Foods, bottle shops, and bars like the Dray or the Noble Fir. The cidery does tastings and tours Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 5 and also by appointment.
Tieton Cider Works
321 Humphrey Rd, Tieton, 509-673-2880; tietonciderworks.com
First release 2008
Three generations of the Campbell family have grown apples on this land but cider trees appeared on the scene in 2008; impressively 55 of the orchard’s 400 acres are dedicated to cider apples. Though it boasts the state’s largest cider apple plantings, Tieton’s top seller is apricot cider. The disarming sweetness is a gateway drug to the more complex stuff, like its reserve line—smaller in production, higher in price tag, and focusing on traditional cider apples. This year Tieton released its Cidermaker’s Reserve—a blend of bittersharps and bittersweets—that spent two years in a bourbon barrel with appealingly boozy results.
Taste it The cidery takes visitors by appointment, but Tieton’s regular line is easy to find in local bars, restaurants, and bottle shops. Look for the seasonal Holiday Cheer spiced cider, tasting of maple, vanilla, and apple pie.
Westcott Bay Cider
12 Anderson Ln, Roche Harbor, 360-378-3880; westcottbaycider.com
First release 1999
The oldest cidery in the state is nestled on the north side of San Juan Island, where the climate resembles the famed apple orchards of Normandy. And at 14 years old, it’s practically ancient compared with its counterparts. In 2011, founder Rich Anderson took on two new partners who introduced apple brandy and some other distilled products and continued making a trio of crisply complex British-style ciders—traditional very dry, traditional dry, and traditional semidry—from bittersweet and bittersharp apples. Westcott Bay is another of Washington’s few estate cideries, harvesting, pressing, and bottling right there amidst the orchards.
Taste it Ciders make occasional appearances at Capitol Cider, Whole Foods, PCCs, and Central Co-op, but none of these are nearly as quaint as the small orchardside tasting room, open on Saturday afternoons during summer (otherwise, just call ahead). The distilled liquors attract more visitors, according to partner Suzy Pingree, but “almost everyone walks away with cider.”
Some fledgling cideries operate in orchards and embrace the same labor-intensive practices as their elders. But the urban cidery is catching on too.
Dragon’s Head Cider
18201 107 Ave SW, Vashon Island; dragonsheadcider.com
First release 2012
Three years ago, Wes and Laura Cherry moved to Vashon Island and planted 400 apple trees, mostly the bittersweet and bittersharp. Now the orchard boasts 1,500 heritage and cider apple trees, and this fall will be the first harvest from that original planting. Their ciders are just as old school as the production methods. One is wild fermented, another is made entirely with Newtown Pippins, one of America’s most storied cider apples. A third style celebrates the tiny but mighty Manchurian crab apple.
Taste it At a few local restaurants, like Bar Sajor and Matt’s in the Market, as well as Full Throttle, Bottleworks, and Capitol Cider
62 Barn Swallow Rd, Chimacum, 360-732-4337; finnriver.com
First release 2010
The joy of operating a cidery on a working farm is having an abundance of lavender, cranberries, and other fruits and herbs to inspire mind--bending cider blends. Capitol Cider ran through a keg of Finnriver’s habanero cider in less than six hours. When one of Washington’s earliest cidermakers, Drew Zimmerman, retired, Finnriver owners Keith and Crystie Kisler transplanted 1,000 of his trees from Mount Vernon to Chimacum, a heartwarming, if labor-intensive transition from old guard to new.
Taste it The cozy, cabinlike tasting room hidden away in the heart of the farm pours Finnriver’s full complement of ciders. Don’t miss the stately Artisan Sparkling Cider made in France’s labor-intensive méthode Champenoise tradition or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the smoky, sour Fire Barrel Cider—a British inspiration created by Zimmerman and now produced at Finnriver in his honor.
Methow Valley Ciderhouse
13B Walters Rd, Winthrop, 509-341-4354; methowvalleyciderhouse.com
First release 2010
Founder Richard Wasson does not scorn sweeter styles of cider. But his hypertraditional approach of growing his own apples, pressing, and bottle fermenting very small batches yields results that impress cider novices and nerds alike. This year’s best seller is the semisweet Howling Wolf, with a familiar sweet aroma that gives way to the largely unfamiliar flavor of tannins and hops. On the much drier side (and hands-down the best name) is the Eagle Screechin’ Scrumpy, a strong British style lacking in carbonation but heavy on the tannins.
Taste it The indoor-outdoor tasting room boasts a dazzling 360-degree view of the North Cascades, rolling hills, and apple trees.
Schilling Cider Co.
First release April 2013
Consider this a serviceable workingman’s cider at a most friendly price. It’s fast fermented with beer yeast rather than wine yeast (cofounder Colin Schilling likes the maltiness). Using a blend of table apples from the Yakima Valley keeps prices on par with a pint of IPA, probably one of the reasons business has boomed since the Auburn-produced cider was released earlier this year.
Taste it The lightly hopped Schilling Original and the popular version fermented with fresh ginger are popping up at bars, bottle shops, and stores around town, and Schilling is scouting locations for a tasting room.
Seattle Cider Co.
4700 Ohio Ave S, SoDo, 206-762-0490; seattlecidercompany.com
First release September 2013
Joel VandenBrink is the founder of microbrewery Two Beers Brewing and now the man behind the city’s first working cidery since Prohibition. Well, the first legally working cidery, anyway. His first forays into appledom—dry and semisweet versions—are sold in tallboy cans. The blends of common dessert apples have just the right acid and sugar.
Taste it The Two Beers Brewing Company has expanded its comfortable SoDo tasting room, the Woods, to pour cider.
First release July 2013
After a decade of experimenting with sulfite-free cidermaking using apples from their Methow Valley orchard and its environs, owners John and Beth Sinclair alighted upon the French cidre-making method of keeving. It retains natural sweetness and showcases flavors of the specific apple and orchard. Sixknot’s modified method uses tart and dessert apples, and the first commercially released kegs got a warm reception when they arrived in July.
Taste it The cidery is partnering with a few others to open a tasting room in Ballard in November.
Spire Mountain Draft Cider
515 Jefferson St SE, Olympia, 360-943-6480; fishbrewing.com
First release 1985
Olympia’s Fish Brewing Company ferments a trio of ciders—the Dark and Dry version is caramel flavored without being overly sweet and is a big crossover hit with beer drinkers. Spire is a common sight at bars; its prices are competitive with most local beers.
Taste it In six packs and 750ml bottles at local stores.
Whitewood Cider Co.
6227 Rich Rd SE, Olympia, 360-705-8202; whitewoodcider.com
First release 2013
David White admits some of his cider education came from squinting at spreadsheets of apple characteristics to create his ideal blend: “a sharp, tannic cider, the equivalent of a big red wine.” White’s a longtime fixture in the cider community, thanks to his blog, oldtimecider.com. His clear-bottled creations include the Northland, a pleasantly musty blend of traditional cider apples, and the South Sounder, an experiment in using only Olympia-area apples that yielded a more tannic touch.
Taste it You can sometimes find it at Full Throttle Bottles, Bottleworks, 99 Bottles, and Capitol Cider. Sadly there’s no tasting room…yet.
Beer or Wine?
Cider occupies a curious space in the drinking spectrum and appeals to both oenophiles and beer geeks. Here’s why.
|It’s kinda like beer||It’s kinda like wine|
How it’s made
|Cider can be bottle conditioned, like a fancy Belgian beer. Oh, and hopped ciders are totally a thing in Washington.||Sharper, tannic varieties of fruit get harvested in the fall. The juice is pressed, bottled, and aged. Cidermakers also use France’s methode Champenoise for sparkling ciders.|
How it’s served
|It comes in a keg, can, or often a 22-ounce bottle.||Craft cider is so labor intensive, that bottle can run a winelike $20 or more (and glass pours, $9 to $11).|
What the law says
|Cider must have a beerlike alcohol level of no more than 7 percent. Otherwise it’s considered apple wine and taxed differently.||And yet, Washington’s Liquor Control Board classifies cideries as wineries.|
Tieton Frost Cider
Technically it’s an ice cider. It has a warming effect even at room temperature. Use it in a cocktail.
Methow Valley Ciderhouse Howling Wolf
The nose is pure apple, the taste something else entirely. And some sparkles lighten up the tannic punch and bit of pleasant funk.
Snowdrift Orchard Select
Buttery like a chardonnay, but with more acidity. Drink it blindfolded and you might not realize these flavors come from apples.
Finnriver Red Barn Fire Barrel
Bittersweet apples and three to six months aging in bourbon barrels yield a smoky cider for whiskey lovers.