“Orchard-based ciders, that’s what I’m calling them.” James Kohn was searching for a way to distinguish his Wandering Aengus Ciderworks ciders from those you’d find on supermarket shelves. I may have done a double take; what else would a cider be if not orchard based? As it turns out, supermarket ciders can have water, sugar, malic acid and aroma essence added in on top of apple juice concentrate. But when you crack open a bottle of Wandering Aengus cider, you get nothing but apples — about three to a bottle — harvested from orchards stretching from Hood River in the Columbia River Gorge and down to Southern Oregon. “It’s just straight fermented apple juice,” says Nick Gunn, Kohn’s business partner. “We have the largest collection — that we know of — of heirloom cider fruit in the country.”

When Wandering Aengus got its start a decade ago, cider was an old-timey drink lost in a sea of IPAs. It was, Gunn says, “the cider of the future back then.” He laughs and adds, “And it still is now.” Over the last few years, the future has been catching up. There are now at least 16 cideries operating in Oregon, including a trove of makers in the Willamette Valley such as 2 Towns Ciderhouse, Carlton Cyderworks and E.Z. Orchards — some of the best regarded in the country. As with so many artisanal products, the flavor of Oregon’s amazing natural bounty is what appeals to cider consumers. Like grapes, apples are subject to the conditions of climate, soil and weather. The fruit grown in Oregon bears its own signature flavor. “A Granny Smith grown in Virginia and a Granny Smith grown here are going to be different,” Kohn says.

Willamette Valley cideries make traditional products that are long on complexity and depth, exhibiting what’s known among cidermakers as a kind of holy trinity of acid, tannins and sweetness. You can’t get those qualities from eating apples, especially the bitterness that comes from tannins. Cider apples are not grown for eating; they’re bitter and tart (or “sharp,” as cidermakers call them). Instead of familiar varieties like Honeycrisp and Red Delicious, cidermakers use apples with more exotic names, like Kingston Black and Dabinett — two varieties Carlton uses in their Citizen blend. Down the road from Wandering Aengus, at E.Z. Orchards, cidermaker Kevin Zielinski uses French apples that sound like they came straight from the belle epoque: Marie Ménard and Frequin Rouge.

Of course, Oregon cidermakers can’t be expected to stick solely to the old ways. Like the craft breweries that preceded them, Oregon’s new cidermakers have a fanciful streak. This year 2 Towns introduced what might be called the state’s first “it” cider: the complex, electric Rhubarbarian, which gets its acid from an infusion of rhubarb. Because the state is only just beginning to get its cider-apple acreage going, cideries have been experimenting with other elements to add balance. Corvallis’ 2 Towns also makes a marionberry cider, and Carlton has a pear cider. Wandering Aengus, in their Anthem line, offers a cherry cider. All of these are made with a base of apples but use other fruit to inflect their flavor.

Perhaps the most clever indigenous touch is the use of local Willamette Valley hops. When used in beer, they offset sweetness; they have a similar, if more subtle, effect in cider. Added after fermentation, hops infuse ciders with an herbal, earthy note. Enough cideries in Oregon now use hops that hopped ciders have become a regional subtype. For the first time this year, Wandering Aengus used undried hops, rushed fresh from the hop fields a few miles away, in their hopped Anthem cider.

Whatever the blend, good cider always comes back to local fruit. E.Z. Orchards’ Zielinski echoes Gunn and offers what could be a mission statement for Oregon cideries: “If I’m making cider from fruit, let’s let the fruit be the factor that has the most influence.” This is a noticeable departure from supermarket ciders, which sometimes taste like they’ve been reverse-engineered to match the description of an apple by someone who has never sunk his teeth into orchard-fresh fruit.

People have begun to notice. Local ciders, once rarities, are now regularly available not only in stores but in pubs and restaurants. I’ve found ciders not just in foodie-friendly restaurants, but at pizza joints and corner Thai restaurants, too. Portland now plays host to Oregon Cider Week, an annual celebration of ciders, and a weekend festival in June called Cider Summit PDX. For decades Oregon has been known as a wine state and a beer state. Pretty soon we’ll be calling it one of the country’s premier cider states, too.

Visit Oregon’s Cideries:

EZ Orchards Cider
5504 Hazel Green Rd. NE, Salem

Wandering Aengus Ciderworks
4070 Fairview Industrial Drive SE, Salem

2 Towns Ciderhouse
33930 S.E. Eastgate Circle, Corvallis

Bushwhacker Cider
1212-D S.E. Powell Blvd., Portland

Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider
1813 N.E. 2nd Ave
., Portland

McMenamins Edgefield Winery
2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale

Red Tank Cider Company
840 S.E. Woodland St., #185, Bend

Blue Mountain Cider Company
235 E. Broadway Ave., Milton-Freewater

 

About the Author: Jeff Alworth

Jeff Alworth has been writing about Oregon beer for fifteen years, and his recent work has appeared in Draft and Sunset Magazine. He has been blogging at "Beervana" since 2006. In Spring 2012, Chronicle Books will release The Beer Tasting Toolkit, his beginner's guide to blind tasting. He is currently writing The Beer Bible for Workman Publishing.

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  1. LEE MASSE says…

    THANK YOU FOR SHOWING ME YOUR STATE. I PLAN ON COMING THERE THIS SUMMER 2014, TO GET OUT OF ARIZONA AND THE HEAT.

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