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Fermented apples find a niche in Northwest

TAGS: Crops
Emily Ritchie/Northwest Cider Association Cider apple harvest
Cider apples are harvested by hand.
Nearly 100 cideries in Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho are working to carve out an emerging movement.

With no tongue-in-cheek intended, at its (apple) core, cider is fermented juice.

Cider is rich in history, flavor, and antioxidants and depending on what part of the country you may have grown up in, the locally pressed beverage was frequently a libation of choice, drunk straight out of a cider crock.

In Colonial times, cider was America’s favorite drink, widely consumed because low-alcohol content made it a great way to stay hydrated while working farm fields. It exploded as a new industry in 2014 until the coronavirus pandemic slowed things down a bit. After a brief pause, that momentum has resumed.

“As people experience COVID fatigue, the delicious world of cider has provided a chance to safely explore new landscapes of flavor profiles while supporting farmers and cider makers in the Northwest,” says Emily Ritchie, Executive Director, Northwest Cider Association.

Her group, formed in 2010, represents nearly 100 cideries in Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho working to carve out an emerging craft cider movement.  NCA represents more than $700 million in economic impact to the Pacific Northwest, primarily through small, independent businesses.

Featuring abundant apple orchards, the Northwest has become a focal point in the movement with Washington state the biggest producer of apples. Over the last three years, regional sales of cider experienced double-digit growth before the pandemic hit, necessitating innovative marketing ploys.

NCA approached the Oregon Department of Agriculture and with $150,000 in marketing improvement grants funded the creation of the Northwest Cider Club to offer “carefully curated craft ciders from independent cidermakers.”

One of the contributors, Aaron Sarnoff-Wood of 2 Towns Ciderhouse, noted: “We’re stoked to collaborate with the Northwest Cider Association and the Oregon Department of Agriculture to celebrate craft cider. All you need is a good cheese and a loaf of bread to share the libations with.”

Like craft beers, wines

Like counterpart craft beers and specialty wines, ciders can range from the light, delicate, sparkly to the rich, dark, and full of complexity based on a wide variety of flavors, fragrant aromatics, and intense tannins -- building blocks for good cider.

In marketing worthy of top-notch public relations efforts, Yonder Cider Company in Washington’s Wenatchee Valley -- billed as “The Heart of America’s Apple country” --  advertises: “Cidermaking is a playground of the pretty and the ugly, the bitter and the sweet, and never a one-note song when done well. Our apples reflect the striking and complex terroir of soils seasoned by glaciers and orchards sheltered by rocky bluffs -- an otherworldly place that produces the best fruit. Apples contain contradictions and when you follow their wild and quiet possibilities and seek out juxtapositions of flavor, you find the most delicious end result.”

“Cider is much like wine, made from the juice of fermented apples with yeast added until it turns into alcohol. Cider has a lot more leeway to be turned into something with more diverse flavors than wine,” said Ritchie, noting that things like red currants, locally-grown kiwis, and even hops can be added. “Cider, at its core, is apple wine flavored with fruits and botanicals.”

Anticipations are that the increase in cider popularity will mean a new and expanding market for apple growers. She cites England where an entire industry has grown up around cider apples with beauty and bruising being of no consequence. 

“They’re going to be crunched up the same day they fall, so they can be seconds, a bit sunburned or misshapen, and don’t have to be grocery-shelf beautiful,” she said.

“Cideries are taking advantage of this secondary market and some orchards are being established to specifically grow fruit for the cider industry.  Farmers are planting with the expectation that the industry will keep growing in double digits and there will be a need for specific apple varieties.”

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