Hard cider is a burgeoning industry in the Pacific Northwest, with 32 cideries at last count. But most people who learn how to make cider don’t give a thought to where they’re going to obtain the apples, says Sharon Campbell, co-owner of Tieton Cider Works near Yakima, Washington. “They assume the fruit is out there, but there isn’t enough fruit.”
European-style ciders are made from traditional cider apples that are quite distinct from dessert apples, just as wine grapes differ from table grapes.
For Sharon and her husband, Craig, who are third-generation orchardists at Tieton, growing the apples is their number-one focus.
“We would not be interested in a cider business if we had not had the farm,” said Sharon, who is an interior designer and is involved in the creative side of the business. “We came at it the other way. We’re about growing things. For us, marketing the cider is continuing the story of our farm.”
The Campbells were growing several hundred acres of dessert apples in eastern Washington when they made their first foray into the cider business in 2008. They planted a test plot of 25 cider varieties in Yakima and bought fruit and cider-making equipment from the Ford Cider Company in Portland, Oregon, which was going out of business. They produced 200 cases from their first crush.
Their annual cider production has increased to 12,000 cases. So far, they’ve had to buy apples to supplement their own supplies, but this spring they went into partnership to plant more than 30 acres of cider varieties at their Tieton orchard. When the trees come into full production, they will have enough apples to produce 100,000 cases—far more than their cidery’s current capacity.
Should they expand their cidery?
Craig said cider production has some resemblances to both beer and wine. It’s like beer in that some is sold in kegs to bars, but the cider-making process is more like wine making.
Establishing a cidery is every bit as expensive as starting a winery, he said, and, in fact, it is licensed as a winery. Unlike small wineries that contract with mobile bottlers, Tieton Cider Works has its own bottling line. And, unlike wine, hard cider must be pasteurized because it’s less shelf stable and has a lower alcohol level.
“We’re at a crossroads of trying to decide what to do,” said Craig, who estimates it would require a $4-million investment to increase annual capacity to 150,000 cases. “The market’s there to make and sell more cider, but what should we be doing here?” he wondered.
Marcus Robert, Tieton Cider Works’ cider maker, who also is an experienced winemaker, says cider is the most challenging of the two to produce because apples have only moderate acid levels and are low in yeast nutrients. But he also finds cider more interesting.
“It’s a burgeoning industry, and people are looking for a new beverage and local product that’s made from something they can understand,” he said. “Brewing, for a lot of people, is difficult to understand. Wine grapes are difficult to understand. Cider is not as prohibitive a beverage to get into.”
The Campbells, who have traveled to cider regions in Europe, say they’re not trying to emulate the European style. What they are making is American cider, which has its own identity.
Northwest cider makers are focusing on making clean, pure, crisp, faultless ciders, unlike those of the East Coast or Europe, Robert said. “There’s not much room for funkiness or barnyardiness. Here, that’s not acceptable.”
Craig said the increasing popularity of hard cider is following the craft beer trend. People used to think cider was unfiltered, unfermented apple juice, but they are becoming more aware of what it really is. And there are more ciders to choose from. There’s more cider sold in Seattle than anywhere else in the United States, with supermarkets stocking 60 different cider items, up from only 15 three years ago.
“We’re bringing people over from the dark side,” Craig said. “We’re bringing them from beer over to cider.”
Major beer producers are branching into hard cider, too, recognizing the beverage has better growth potential than beer. Craig acknowledges that Americans will never drink as much cider as beer, but cider does have the advantage of being gluten free.
Tieton Cider Works’s best seller is an apricot cider made from an apple base with apricot concentrate added. Also popular is a cherry cider, made in a similar way. Another of their unusual flavored ciders is a dry hop cider, made with three varieties of local hops, which has the nose of beer but without the bitterness.
They also produce a couple of ciders that are more similar to wine. One is Tieton Frost, an ice cider made from Pinova, Winter Banana, and Jonagold apples, which has an alcohol level of 11 percent and won a gold medal at the Seattle Wine Awards this year. Tieton Wind is a port-style after-dinner drink fortified with alcohol distilled from their cider. The Campbells also make perry, the pear equivalent of cider.
The Campbells sell their ciders through a distributor, which means a 30 percent markup in the price.
“That’s the only way it works,” said Sharon, who initially tried to sell some of their cider direct to customers but soon realized that going from bar to bar was not a feasible strategy. Small wineries sell much of their production from their testing rooms, but the isolated location of Tieton Cider Works makes that impractical.
Their ciders are now sold in the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Illinois, Texas, and Alaska.
“We’ll see how this cider thing progresses,” Craig said, “but to me it’s here, it’s not going to go away. Ten to 20 years down the road, I think this will be an interesting part of the business. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be.” •