Wednesday, 24 October 2012

New ideas: Cider in Cascadia

"A mind is like a parachute. It does not work if it is not open"
Frank Zappa.

Like many who have visited before me or those who choose live there now, I'd like to state that I'm quite in love the pacific northwest of USA; its feels big and wide and green and lovely. And alternative enough to hold my attention.

It's habitats vary from the lush never-ending evergreen treescapes right through to the arid, lunar buff coloured basalt mountains of the Yakima Valley. The US National Park Service website describes one area we drove through thus: 'Subalpine wildflower meadows ring the icy volcano while ancient forest cloaks Mount Rainers lower slopes. Wildlife abounds in the parks ecosystems, a lifetime of discovery awaits' - a fairly accurate description of how it leaves you feeling: wanting more.
Sunrise at the head of the Yakima Valley

This region that influenced the world of hop growing and usage in big American beers has now turned its gaze to cider. The Yakima Valley, an agricultural growing area to the east of Washington State, grows and supplies about 75% of the hops and 50% of the apples in USA. If you take a minute to think about how much that might actually be.....thats alot of chuffing hops and apples. By the time I actually left the valley, I was struggling with the shame of admitting to myself that, for the first time in my life, I was a bit bored of seeing apples. A grower back here in Somerset explained that it offers 'a 1000 square miles of perfect apple growing environment'. The landscape provides a potent blend of free draining soil, temperature, sunlight, length of season, air movement, irrigation opportunities... etc. The cider fruit is bigger there than anywhere else I've ever seen it, their apples are more similar in size to grapefruits..

We'd been invited over to talk about our adventures in cider so far and have a nose around how they make it here. Our hosts were the North West Cider Association who are currently (and wisely) presided over by cidervangelist Dave White (aka Switchboard) who runs Old Time Cider, a blog dedicated to cider in USA and probably the best resource for anyone outside UK who wants to know more about whats happening in cider stateside. Its only now sitting here at my desk that I realise the terrible truth - that I failed wretchedly in taking a single portrait of the man responsible for our visit to whom we owe so much.  Something I promise to rectify when he visits Blighty for a much anticipated return match one day.

You hear alot of people talking about Heirloom fruit - much older American varieties that bring out peoples passion when discussing apples and cider. As do hops -and yes, not only have they started hopping the cider but they're starting to get away with it too. On more than one occasion we sampled hopped ciders where you could taste both the apple and the hop separately (who'd have thought?) And so for me, hopped ciders have come to represent a positive point of difference about the American/Pacific NW/Cascadian mind set, they're happy to at least try something new, something we seem to struggle with here. Like it or not (it won't be for everyone) hopped cider isn't my main point - they are embracing their heritage with innovation. They champion the new and will work at it scientifically and creatively, until they either get it right or abandon it. How many cidermakers in Europe would even consider putting hops in cider? It may seem unnecessary to us, but because it is, that makes it a more powerful idea. It makes me ask - what else aren't we doing? What else are we missing? I suspect European distributors will turn their noses up at the idea of them too, until one day someone is brave enough (or naive enough?) to place the right one in the right outlet and introduce something unique to out shores and watch the punters lap up with perplexed enjoyment. When will we start seeing US ciders here?

I won't go into much detail of our visit because I want to leave you feeling how I left - wanting more. I definitely want to list and link to our hosts so you can find out more- please explore, all of these guys are lovely and they are all worth visiting. I'll let the photos explain the terroir.

We started near Salem, Oregon at the very friendly and sustainably minded Wandering Aengus who have a shiny new tasting room, followed by a soaked visit to Kevin Zielinski of E.Z. Orchards -who shared with us his fantastic French style cidre. That evening we drove to Portland and met a bushel of regional cidermakers at Bushwhacker Cider ('Americas only urban cider pub') where we discovered the coldest fridge bursting various global ciders seemingly unavailable anywhere else in one place at the same time (it was a first for me anyway.)

I want one of these in my office.

To get some idea of America's relationship with the apple, we were taken to Portland Nursery's annual apple tasting event -the unbelievably long yet patient queues telling me everything I needed to know.

Snowdrift Cider near Wenatchee offered an impressive selection of cider, as did Tieton Cider Works who had a really balanced and lovely hopped cider. I'm not sure how many apples the CPC International Apple Co processes but I know its more than I can imagine, which is a lot.

A pollinator called Snowdrift.

Sharon Cambell, Tieton Cider Works

Finn River Cidery is on the Olympic Peninsula, as is Eaglemount Winery and Alpenfire Cider all within about 20mins of each other. Its a stunningly beautiful, quiet are perfect for exploring and enjoying as much cider as you can hold.

Bear, Alpenfire Cider

Trudy & Jim, Eaglemount Wine & Cider

Both Pete Brown and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the NW Cider Association for getting us over and for putting such a great visit together, and also to the proud cidermakers who make up the association with their time, efforts and expense. Thanks for giving us a glimpse of your fantastic corner of the cider world and for sharing with us your thoughts, heritage and ambitions. I can't wait to go back.