Cider in the Sound
September 30, 2013
Cider in the Sound
September 30, 2013
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By Megan Hill

Photo: David White

Colin Schilling had a strong urge to ferment something. The Idaho native started out making “horrendous wine” from grapes growing in his backyard. The final product wasn’t exactly drinkable, but he says he fell in love with the process.

Wine grapes aren’t too plentiful in Idaho, so Schilling turned to cider apples to fuel his interest. “Hard cider became my drink of choice,” he says. Schilling, who now lives in Seattle, has turned his cider hobby into a business. Schilling Cider opened last year with headquarters in Seattle and a production facility in Auburn.

Schilling is part of a rapidly expanding cider industry—a phenomenon happening across the country. In recent years, hard cider has made inroads in the beverage industry nationwide, with sales increasing dramatically. In 2004, only 4 million gallons of the stuff was sold in the United States; by 2012, that number broke 17 million. “Five or six years ago, you couldn’t buy cider anywhere,” says Schilling.

But cider isn’t a modern phenomenon. It’s long been a popular drink in Britain, and British colonists carried it with them when they settled in the United States. They soon began to produce it, too, and by 1700 the average American consumed 35 gallons of the stuff annually. New England alone produced more than 300,000 gallons each year. Hard cider was eventually replaced by beer as Americans’ drink of choice when German and Eastern European immigrants introduced it. Prohibition was the death knell for hard cider; it’s taken nearly a century for it to mount a comeback.

It’s no surprise that Washington, with its love of craft beverages and extensive apple production, is leading that comeback. The state as a whole produced nearly 200,000 gallons of cider in 2011.

While consumers are gradually seeing more craft cider in stores and at bars, cider industry experts can see the groundswell from behind the scenes.

“Every few weeks a new cidery is opening in the Northwest. There’s this exciting sense of momentum—you can just feel the energy. My inbox is filled every day with people inquiring about cider in some way or another,” says Sherrye Wyatt, Executive Director of the Northwest Cider Association (NWCA).

These experts have their own ideas as to what is causing this growth. Schilling thinks it’s a combination of Northwesterners’ love of local products and a by-product of the gluten-free trend. Cider is a naturally gluten-free drink.

“Up here in the Northwest, it’s just an absurdly local product,” says Schilling, who uses only Washington apples in his cider. “It’s very intimate, and you can know the owners, know the growers, and it’s incredibly local. It’s gluten-free, so that’s huge. We sell a lot of cider to people who used to drink beer, and we actually have certain types of cider that are targeted to those people.” Schilling makes a hopped cider, which he says piques the interest of IPA drinkers.

Down the road in Olympia, David White’s Whitewood Cider Company distributed its first bottles in summer 2013. White says craft beer drinkers are helping fuel the cider movement.

“This gluten-free thing doesn’t hurt, but a lot of it’s come from the beer drinkers and their willingness to explore. We always thought it would be the wine folks, because it’s the same process and the same characteristics, but it’s a lot harder to convert a wine drinker to a cider drinker than it is a beer drinker,” says White, who also helped found the NWCA and currently serves as its president.

The early stages of this revival have seen some growing pains, not the least of which is the lack of cider apple production in Washington.

Washington is known for its apples, but the vast majority of apple acreage is dedicated to culinary varieties—the kind you buy at the supermarket for snacking. Only a small percentage of this acreage is dedicated to cider apples, and it takes time to establish more.

“A lot of the cider makers up until this point have had to plant orchards,” says White. The NWCA has worked with its partners to recruit orchardists and connect them with cideries to help solve that problem.

Washington State University’s Mount Vernon extension has stepped in with research on which cider apple varieties grow best in Western Washington, and which produce the best cider. They’re also researching mechanical harvesting to determine which automated techniques are most effective; this process will help make cider apple production more efficient and more profitable.

“The idea that there’s someone out there like WSU working on all this is really incredible for us,” says Eric Jorgensen, co-owner of Finnriver Farm & Cidery in Chimacum.

On the hard cider production side, cideries are getting a boost from the All Things Cider courses, started by WSU but now taught by the Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC). These intensive, week-long courses focus on all aspects of the cider business, from cider appreciation to production and marketing. The classes are taught by some of the world’s leading experts.

“The first two days are learning how, as in wine tasting, to recognize the characteristics of the cider and faults in cider and what could cause those faults. Then there are three days of the technical aspects of making the cider and during that the students actually make their own cider. They leave with a gallon jug of cider at the end of the week,” says David Bauermeister, the NABC’s Executive Director.

“It was a huge resource for us both in terms of the technical information that we got at the class, and the connections we made with other cider makers in the class,” Jorgensen says.

In yet another sign of the industry’s growth, Bauermeister says the classes fill up months in advance. The NABC usually offers two courses a year, but this year they’ve added a third. It was booked some six months in advance. Since WSU began offering the course in 2006, the classes have had over 500 participants.

“Many, if not all, of the commercial cider makers in Washington have taken that class when they were getting going,” Jorgensen says. Washington’s cider industry, then, owes much to WSU and NABC.

And if that’s the case, so do Washington’s cider drinkers, who are reaping the bubbly benefits of these efforts.

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