Hard cider may not have the huge fan base of Washington’s craft-beer-brewing movement or its rocking wine industry, but if recent appearances of the cult beverage on local menus is any indication, it’s only a matter of time.
Part of the appeal of hard ciders—most of which are between 6 percent and 8 percent alcohol—is that they’re tapping into a niche that fits nicely between beer and wine. “It’s refreshing and lower in alcohol than wine, so you can drink it at lunch and not have to take a nap in the afternoon,” says Nancy Bishop of Wildfire Cider (wildfirecider.com) in Port Townsend, which released its first ciders in 2009.
Richard Anderson, who has been making Westcott Bay Cider (westcottbaycider.com) on San Juan Island since 1999, said cider’s charm is that it complements a wide variety of food. “It’s straightforward,” he says. “An apple is an apple. The sweeter styles go well with spicy dishes, and the dry goes with just about everything else.”
There are now 10 cider producers in Washington—up from just two a decade ago—creating a refreshing beverage using a process similar to winemaking. Apples harvested and fermented in the fall are aged over the winter and released in the spring. Cider isn’t vintage dated, however, nor is the region in which the fruit was grown referenced.
Most handcrafted ciders on the shelves these days come in varying degrees of dry, including a supercrisp bone-dry style. “When most people think of cider, they imagine it’s going to be soda-pop sweet, like Martinelli’s, but it’s not,” says Drew Zimmerman of Red Barn Cider (redbarncider.com) in Mount Vernon. Instead, imagine a bright, spritzy drink in which the apple character is subtle. Or, in the case of Red Barn’s Fire Barrel, has a smoky quality.
Sophisticated sipping ciders comprise a blend of apples, often including English heirloom varieties grown specifically for cider and sounding as if they were plucked from a Shakespearean script: Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill, Dabinett, Foxwhelp and Sweet Coppin. Jonagold and Gravenstein apples are among the more recognizable varieties favored by Northwest cider producers. (The handcrafted-cider purists bristle when talking about famous hard ciders made with concentrated juice, not freshly pressed apples.)
Like vintners and brewers, cider makers look to Europe for guidance and inspiration. Finnriver (finnriver.com) in Chimacum produces a sparkling cider using traditional méthode champenoise techniques. (The cider goes through a secondary fermentation in the bottle to create a sparkler that tastes much like a traditional brut.) Wildfire Cider has a German-style Apfelwein—a light amber brew showcased in clear glass bottles.
Finding a wide selection of ciders can be challenging, especially in restaurants, but Northwest ciders are slowly beginning to pop up on menus. Red Barn cider is on tap at The Pike Brewing Company downtown, where it’s often ordered as a companion to the local cheese plate. The Noble Fir, a new watering hole in Ballard (see page 168), features a deep selection of hard ciders on its menu, including Red Barn’s Fire Barrel and the delicate dry cider from East Wenatchee’s Snowdrift Cider Co. (snowdriftcider.com), which introduced its first ciders last fall. In addition, Whole Foods stores, PCC stores, Full Throttle Bottles in Georgetown and Bottleworks in Wallingford carry a range of Washington-made ciders.
When it comes to exploring the fledgling industry, it’s best to go straight to the sources. Some cideries have tasting rooms with regular hours. A few host fall events. Finnriver encourages visitors to take along rubber boots and tour its 33-acre farm, which also grows organic blueberries. An overnight stay at Finnriver’s Huckleberry House includes an optional hands-on experience, which, come autumn, means harvesting and pressing cider apples.
Nancy Bishop at Wildfire agrees, saying fall is a fine time for visitors to witness the cider-making process: “We’ve got it all right here,” she says, “the orchards, the production facility and the tasting room.”
Leslie's Hard Cider Picks
Wildfire Cider Pirate’s
Plank Bone Dry ($13.50)
Made from small, slightly withered French and English apple varieties organically grown in Port Townsend, this cider, described on the label as “scrumpy style” (which means unfiltered) has a nice bite. Its bracing crispness makes it a fine aperitif.
Pairs with: a rich, ripe cheese, such as Quillisascut’s UFO
Snowdrift Cider Co.
Orchard Select ($13)
A semi-dry sipper with a pleasantly floral fragrance, this effervescent Wenatchee cider has a hint of honey that’s balanced by snappy acidity.
Pairs with: red Thai chicken curry
Sparkling Cider ($13)
Elegant and bright, this sparkler from Chimacum has a layer of richness that comes from the méthode ancestrale practice of leaving some lees (residual yeast) in each bottle.
Pairs with: a choucroute garnie with Isernio’s spicy Italian chicken sausage
Red Barn Cider
Fire Barrel ($11)
Made in Mount Vernon and aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels, this cider imparts a smoky, bitter note that should appeal to fans of dark beer and red wine. It’s bold, but not so big that it overshadows vibrantly seasoned food.
Pairs with: grilled pork chops massaged with Tom Douglas’ Rub with Love for pork