Peter Ringsrud used to grow picture-perfect Red and Golden Delicious apples at his East Wenatchee, Washington, orchard, but found little profit in it.
After a 25-year interval working as an engineer, Ringsrud returned to the orchard when he retired in 2004 and began growing some of the ugliest and unpalatable apples he could find. He and his family are now enjoying international acclaim with the hard ciders they make. For cider production, the appearance of the apples is irrelevant, says Peter’s son Lars, who is in charge of blending the ciders and also does the marketing for their Snowdrift Cider Company. Critical attributes are the flavor, sugar, acid, and tannins.
Cider apples fall into categories such as sharp, bittersharp, and bittersweet, and tend to be highly aromatic with complex flavors. Most are not the type of apples you would eat out of hand.
“They’re all edible, but not palatable by most people’s standards,” Lars said. “Dabinett tastes like you’re biting into an aspirin, but I love it because it has such raw intensity of flavor.”
Dessert apples—even as tart as Cripps Pink—just don’t have what it takes to make good cider. Once the juice is fermented into alcohol, there may be astringency and acidity, but there is no character left.
Peter, who grew up on a family orchard in Cashmere, said one of the impetuses behind his cider venture was a desire to produce a premium, value-added product.
He’d dabbled with making fruit wines in the past, but felt Washington had enough wineries already with more than 700 at the last count. Hard cider was a small niche, but a growing one that gave him the opportunity to be vertically integrated by growing the apples, producing the cider, and selling the final product.
To get started, he took classes at Washington State University in Mount Vernon with English cider maker and consultant Peter Mitchell.
As his son Lars relates: “The most important thing he learned was you need cider fruit to make good cider, just as you can’t make good wine out of table grapes.”
The family obtained cider apples, including Porter’s Perfection and Muscadet de Dieppe, from other growers to make a few carboys of cider, and the following spring, they were blown away by what they had, Lars said.
Meanwhile, fruit grower Dean Neff at Lake Chelan had been thinking of making hard cider and had planted a couple of acres of cider varieties at Lake Chelan. But when his winery became successful, Neff changed his mind and decided to sell the apple property for development. Before the trees were pulled, the Ringsruds obtained budwood and grafted over an acre of Red Delicious apples. They also obtained wood from a cider maker in Oregon and from WSU. Peter converted his orchard shop and equipment shed into a cidery, and his son-in-law Tim Larsen, who also studied with Peter Mitchell, came aboard as cider maker.
After a couple of years of promising results, Lars and his wife, Beth, decided to make a pilgrimage to England, where hard cider has been popular since the Norman Conquest almost a thousand years ago. The United Kingdom is the world’s largest producer and consumer of hard cider.
“I just wanted to taste cider because we knew we could make decent cider, but we didn’t know what cider was supposed to taste like,” Lars explained.
The cider he tasted in Herefordshire was drier than he expected and didn’t strike him as being “appley,” which he notes is not surprising because wines are rarely described as “grapey.” Some had interesting earthy flavors that he’s learned to appreciate. He also tasted some French ciders, which tend to be lighter and sweeter.
The family released their first 190 cases of cider in 2009. Most of their cider is carbonated, like beer, but two years ago, Peter and his wife, Mary Ann, went to Herefordshire, where they visited award-winning cider maker Tom Oliver and learned how to make perry (the pear equivalent of cider) and cider fermented in the bottle (champagne-style).
Just as it takes special apples to make cider, perry making requires pear varieties with tannins and plenty of acid. When he got home, Peter obtained several perry varieties—including Thorn, Gin, Butt, Barland, and Vermont Beauty—from a couple of growers in the Wenatchee Valley.
In 2011, Peter and his family released their first perry. Most of it had a light, delicate flavor, but they made two cases of bottle-fermented perry reserve, a drier blend with more complex flavors. They also made a small volume of bottle-fermented cider.
Wondering what the Brits might think of their latest efforts, the Ringruds entered two of their ciders and their reserve perry in the Three Counties Cider and Perry Competition—the three counties being Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, and Worcestershire, which form the heart of England’s perry-making industry. Their objective was to receive some helpful feedback from the judges.
Their bottle-fermented reserve perry and reserve cider each won first place in their categories while their Cliffbreaks cider, their most intense and sweet blend, placed second.
“What we were looking for was to be educated,” Peter said. “We had no idea we would win.”
American ciders taking the honors caused quite a stir at the contest, they learned. The Ringsruds were surprised, too. “We figured that our ciders were too sweet for the English palate,” Peter said. “But one of the comments was it was good to have some sweetness.”
Peter, the manager and grower of the operation, has continued to graft trees to cider varieties and has had Van Well Nursery produce trees on Budagovski 9 rootstocks for the more recent plantings. He now has about 40 cider and perry varieties on four acres, but thinks he needs about 20 acres to meet future demand. Perry varieties are scarce in this country, and he is considering importing five varieties from England that are the best for making perry because of their high tannins, acidity, and flavors.
Snowdrift Cider’s limited production, totaling around 1,500 cases this year, is sold in north central Washington and the Seattle area. The ciders have an alcohol level of between 7 and 9 percent, a similar level to craft beers, but sell at between $13 and $20 a bottle, a similar price range to wine. The cidery is licensed as a winery rather than a brewery.
In just the few years they’ve been in the business, they’ve seen the popularity of hard cider increase to the point where people are clamoring for it. It’s the fastest-growing segment of the alcoholic beverage market. Peter’s original goal was to produce 3,000 cases annually, but he feels the market could easily take 6,000 to 7,000 cases and is planning to triple the size of the cidery. •