Cider is cool
Many of the 20 cidery owners in the Pacific Northwest learned their skills in classes at WSU, Mount Vernon.
Drew Zimmerman evaluates a single-variety cider he made from apples in WSU’s cider orchard. WSU scientists are compiling a database of cider characteristics. The data will help cider makers when selecting varieties for blending. Mettais, pictured above right, is a bittersharp variety with high tannins and acidity.
Grape growers have established a robust wine industry in the warmer areas of Washinton State. Now, apple growers are looking to create a cider industry in the cooler parts of the state.
Although hard cider is sometimes compared with beer, cider maker Drew Zimmerman of Mount Vernon, Washington, said it’s more like making wine from apples. However, very few cider apple varieties can be used alone to make a good cider.
All cider apples fall into one of four categories: Bittersweets, bittersharps, sweets, or sharps. Apples from those categories are blended, depending on the style of cider the maker wants. It usually takes a blend of several varieties with different characteristics, and a certain amount of juice from bittersweet apples, such as Dabinett and Chisel Jersey, or bittersharp varieties, such as Kingston Black and Foxwhelp, to add desirable flavors and mouthfeel.
When cider makers want to make something light and fruity, they use mainly sharps and sweets.
It’s like the difference between a big heavy wine with a lot of astringency and tannin versus a light Gewürtztraminer, Zimmerman said. “You have that same range in apples, basically.”
Zimmerman began making cider many years ago using apples from Washington State University’s cider apple orchard in Mount Vernon, which dates back to the 1970s. He was an early member of the Northwest Cider Society, which formalized in 2000. He’d previously tried brewing beer and making wine, with awful results, he said. His early attempts to make cider weren’t stellar, either.
“We made a lot of lousy cider—we didn’t know a lot of things,” said Zimmerman, who is a cider maker and cider consultant.
In 2002, he decided to go to England to take a course with Peter Mitchell, the world’s top cider specialist, to learn how to make cider professionally to a uniform standard. Mitchell was then based at the Pershore Group of Colleges in Worcestershire. Zimmerman was so impressed with the course that he encouraged WSU to invite Mitchell to give the same course in Mount Vernon.
The week-long course, which covers the basic principles and practice of cider and perry making, filled up immediately, and has been offered at Mount Vernon every year since 2003. Participants learn about the history of cider, about different styles of cider, and about the flavor attributes and flaws. Two days are devoted to making cider.
Mitchell also teaches an advanced class in cider production each year for those who have taken the introductory class and want to build their expertise. This year, he taught the introductory class twice in Mount Vernon because of the increasing interest in hard cider making. Students come from across the United States and as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
There are now 20 cideries in the Pacific Northwest, including eight in Washington. As a result, there’s a huge demand for cider apples and not enough product to satisfy every producer, said Zimmerman, who is a cooperator with WSU’s program. Bittersweet varieties are particularly sought after.
As in the wine industry, the person making the cider is typically not the person growing the fruit because it takes a different mindset, he said. “Not every cider maker is going to be a good cider apple producer.”
Zimmerman said growers supplying cideries with apples should have a contract, just as a grape grower would.
For the grower, an advantage of producing cider apples, rather than fresh varieties, is that cider apples are not subject to the whims of the commodity market or a packing house and should be sold at a fixed price per ton, he said. Another advantage is that almost 95 percent of the fruit on the tree can be utilized. There is practically no cullage because the color and shape of the fruit is not important. All that matters is the internal quality. Just like wine grapes, cider apples need to be fully ripe on the tree. •