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Hard Cider Rules in the West

Hard cider fans are creating wild tastes with unusual varieties of heirloom apples.

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  • Apples in hands, cider making in Ore., image
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    Heirloom fruit gives many Oregon ciders nuance.
  • Bull Run cider specialty orchard, Forest Grove, Ore., image
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    Bull Run and others have planted specialty orchards in Forest Grove, Ore.
  • Farmers sort apples by size for making cider, Ore., image
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    Farmers sort Jonathan apples by size—large for eating, small for cider.
  • Hoisin ribs and spiced cider at Broken Top Bottle Shop, Bend, Ore., image
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    Hoisin ribs and spiced cider beckon at Bend’s Broken Top Bottle Shop.
  • Nat West with cider, Reverent Nat's Hard Cider, Portland, Ore., image
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    Owner Nat West makes cider with wild flavors at Reverend Nat's Hard Cider in Portland.

Forest Grove may sit at the top of Willamette Valley wine country, but it’s an orchard, not a vineyard, that covers Bull Run Cider’s 12 acres. In fall, thousands of young trees hang heavy with red, yellow, and green fruit. “We have over 75 varieties of apples and 10 varieties of German, French, and English perry pears out here,” says co-owner Pete Mulligan with a sweep of his arm. “Welcome to Oregon, the land of opportunity—and cider.”

Hard cider has deep roots in United States history. In 1775, one in 10 New England farms had a mill. But under the pressures of urbanization and Prohibition, the industry withered. Until now. From 2011 to 2013, production tripled to 32 million gallons, making cider one of the country’s fastest-growing alcoholic beverages. And the Northwest has some of its most fruitful producers. “In two years, the membership of the Northwest Cider Association has gone from 17 to 45, and there are no signs of slowing,” says Executive Director Sherrye Wyatt.

While most Northwest orchards grow sweet, culinary apples destined for grocery store shelves, places such as Bull Run, which offers orchard tours by appointment, have planted unusual heirloom varieties. The ciders the outfit makes and serves in its new tasting room are far from cloying. They have complex characters thanks to bittersweet and “bittersharp” apples, many of which originated in England or colonial America hundreds of years ago. These varieties boast acidic qualities that are ideal for use in cider but make for a mouth-puckering snack: Insiders call them spitters. As one example, Bull Run co-owner Galen Williams points out a row of yellow, spotted Harrisons, an apple regarded as the cream of the crop in early 1800s New Jersey, then believed for decades to have gone extinct until the discovery of a surviving tree in 1976.

At Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider in Portland’s Rose Quarter, owner Nat West agrees that traditional apples add depth, but he insists they aren’t a requirement. West uses unorthodox ingredients such as hops and lime zest as well as beer yeasts to add character to ciders made from sweet, dessert fruit. “The history of cider is one of making alcohol out of your local crop,” says West. “And our local crop is Northwest-grown dessert fruit.”

A heap of bicycles rests outside his rustic taproom. Inside, throngs jockey for space, clinking glasses and working through flights that include the refreshing Revelation Newtown Pippin and the sweet yet acidic Sacrilege Sour Cherry. “Most people know us because we use whatever we feel like using, whatever flavor we want,” says West.

Despite the differences between Reverend Nat’s experimentalism and Bull Run’s old-world traditionalism, both create excellent drinks. And, like their peers, both have a common goal: reviving a classic beverage. “We’re going back to our roots and trying to put the industry back on its feet again,” says Mulligan. “Everybody’s getting into it.”

As it has flowered, the hard cider industry has grown from a few mass-market offerings into a multitude of small-batch choices with flavors that range from sweet and rich to tart and tannic. Much of that variety comes from the fruit. Apple trees have a wild diversity, turning out juicy, lipstick-red orbs, mealy little lumps covered in speckled russeting, and everything in between. But they all share one trait: They don’t come true from seed. That means each seed grows into a unique tree with no telling what its fruit will be like. For consistent results, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and other varieties are grown by taking a cutting from an existing tree and grafting it onto another’s roots.

Traditional cider apples such as the dark red Kingston Black and the golden Roxbury Russet were imported from Europe or discovered serendipitously. Most craft ciders blend multiple varieties to yield nuanced flavors. “It’s really easy to make alcoholic apple juice,” says Nat West of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider in Portland. “It’s a lot harder to make really delicious cider.”

The manufacturing process has much in common with winemaking. The cider house mills apples into a chunky mush called pomace and presses the pulp to wring out the juice. The producer then adds a commercial wine, champagne, or beer yeast—sometimes several at the same time—to get the particular flavors the yeast creates as it transforms the sugars into alcohol.

Unlike wineries, many craft cideries experiment with seasonal releases that incorporate ingredients and methods more common to craft beer, such as smoking their fruit or adding hops, juice, herbs, or the souring bacterium lactobacillus. Every fall, for example, Reverend Nat’s releases the Providence Traditional New England, a snifter-worthy cider fermented with raisins and dark brown sugar, then spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg.

And the tipple can really complement a meal. In France’s Normandy region, where apples are abundant, medium-dry sparkling ciders cut the fat of rich, creamy Camembert and other cheese, a combination also popular in the Pacific Northwest. Emily Shipp, former beverage director at Portland’s St. Honoré Boulangerie, recommends matching champagne-style ciders such as those from E.Z. Orchards in Salem, Ore., with savory dishes and pairing lighter ciders with fruit or salad. “And Reverend Nat’s Hopricot, made with Belgian and French ale yeasts—that would be good with a Reuben,” says Shipp, a smile spreading across her face. “Toasty, meaty, cheesy, good.”

Cider Houses in the West

  • Credited as the country’s first cider pub, Bushwhacker Cider in Portland offers everything from funky Spanish classics to tannic English styles. Patrons pack the tables under a colorful mural, savoring charcuterie and a cider called Alice, fermented in-house with Granny Smith apples. (503) 445-0577, bushwhackercider.com.
  • At Reverend Nat’s wood-paneled taproom in northeast Portland, a rotating roster of house brews flow from 12 taps. But don’t overlook owner Nat West’s curated cider cooler, which features rare bottles such as a sour example from the Asturias province of Spain. “My favorite ciders are other people’s ciders,” says West. (503) 567-2221, reverendnatshardcider.com.
  • Grab one of the marble-top café tables at the SE Division Street location of the Portland bakery St. Honoré Boulangerie, where you can savor tarte flambée with a hoppy Spur & Vine from Square Mile Cider Co., one out of a sizable selection of regional draft ciders. (971) 279-4433.
  • Known for its easy-drinking canned ciders, Seattle’s Schilling and Company recently opened Schilling Cider House, a 32-tap bar in the Fremont neighborhood that serves flights and more than 200 bottled offerings. (206) 420-7088, schillingcider.com.
  • At Bull Run Cider’s warehouse tasting room in Forest Grove, Ore., guests can sample the Dry Hop, a crisp cider with a floral aroma and citrusy finish, and the tart, ruby-colored Bramble Berry, made with apples, marionberries, blackberries, and boysenberries. (503) 992-8001, bullruncider.com.
  • There’s a buzz surrounding Hive Winery in Layton, Utah, and it’s not just because owners Jay and Lori Yahne craft wines from local honey. In its tasting room, the state’s first cidery also pours its apple-derived Stinger line, which includes dry and mint-flavored varieties. (801) 546-1997, thehivewinery.com.
  • Long a pilgrimage destination for beer lovers, Bier Stein Bottleshop & Pub in Eugene, Ore., also stocks a healthy assortment of Northwest ciders. The crisp BrightCider, made in nearby Corvallis by 2 Towns Ciderhouse, makes the perfect sidekick to the pub’s roasted pork loin sandwich with apricot mayonnaise. (541) 485-2437, thebierstein.com.
  • At the friendly and bustling Broken Top Bottle Shop and Ale Café in Bend, Ore., a pint of lightly effervescent cider is a good match for the applewood-smoked chicken wings or a tempeh BLT with house-made aioli. (541) 728-0703, btbsbend.com.
  • In Boise, Bier:Thirty Bottle & Bistro keeps a tap dedicated to regional ciders such as a cinnamon-spiced variety from nearby Edge Brewing Company. Don’t miss the bowl of mussels cooked in beer broth. (208) 342-1916, bierthirty.com.
  • Upcider, a second-story gastropub overlooking San Francisco’s Polk Street, boasts an impressive selection of more than 150 bottles from across North America and Europe. Combine a pulled pork slider smothered in apple cider barbecue sauce with the champagne-like Joker from Ace Cider in Sebastopol, Calif. (415) 931-1797, upcidersf.com.
  • At the brand-new, appointment-only Tilted Shed Ciderworks tasting room in Windsor, Calif., visitors savor adventurous sips such as the rich, full-bodied Barred Rock Bourbon Barrel-Aged Cider. Monthly events explore food pairing and other topics. (707) 483-5485, tiltedshed.com.

Photography by Shawn Linehan; Christian Heeb (ribs and cider)

This article was first published in November 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.