From an idyllic perch halfway between Hood River and The Dalles, Kristina Nance and Silas Bleakley are turning just-picked apples into some of the best cider in the Pacific Northwest. But the couple’s micro operation, Rack & Cloth, is known by few outside of Mosier, a hilly outpost of some 400 people overlooking the majestic Columbia River Gorge.
The cider is made in a meticulously tidy and oversized garage on the couple’s picturesque, 10-acre property. Their cider is not bottled, nor does it often make the 50-mile trek to Portland — at least not yet. Instead it’s patiently fermented, mindfully blended and sent straight to keg, to be served at Rack & Cloth’s tasting room and restaurant down the hill in what you might call downtown Mosier.
Oregon leads the country in what some have dubbed a “cider revolution” — better put, a revival of interest in cider among American drinkers. Unlike beer, U.S. cider production never quite rebounded at the end of Prohibition, and for years big brands have mostly bottled saccharine-sweet cider for a mass market. Today a legion of craft cideries are taking advantage of Oregon’s ripe abundance of apples and pears, and quickly gaining national notoriety as consumer taste evolves.
Riding this large and growing wave, Rack & Cloth is operating — much like the town it inhabits — on a significantly smaller scale. Unlike larger, more mechanized outfits, Rack & Cloth’s tools and techniques are borrowed from centuries ago. From the age-old, accordion-like press it’s named after to the farm-fresh produce, this operation is genuinely Old World, but with a very-Oregon DIY sensibility.
Many established cideries count on entire staffs — brewers, chemists, salespeople, marketers, designers — to deliver their product. Not so at Rack & Cloth, where Nance and Bleakley wear all of the above hats. Outside of some help from friends during harvest or a busy afternoon at the tasting room, the duo does it all. They are on par with the family-run, basement operations of Prohibition-era America or pre-industrialized Europe. They typify a certain kind of fastidious Oregon entrepreneur who focuses more on perfecting their craft and less on large-scale expansion.
Bleakley commands the cider-making reins, drawing from his background in wine making. In addition to a trove of trees on his farm, Bleakley sources fruit from orchards just east of Mt. Hood each autumn. Unlike some cider makers, who obsess over apple variety, he has a more diffuse definition of the perfect apple — citing tannin, acid, sugar and mouthfeel. He sounds awfully like a vintner when he talks apples.
“It’s a low-alcohol wine, essentially,” he says. “My goal is to steer the cider toward a good balance. ‘Brewing’ implies using heat, which I don’t. Just keep it cool and leave it alone.”
Rack & Cloth’s ciders are mostly dry, clean and accessible. Good ingredients are key, but so too is a certain familiarity, earned from walking his own estate orchard rows each day and incorporating other resident crops, like peaches. As a petite cidery, Rack & Cloth can choose experimentation over fulfillment, a boon to adventurous palates.
Nance runs their public house, Mercantile, and helps maintain the estate’s closed-loop agricultural philosophy. “We try to keep everything in the family on the property,” she says. The leftover pressed apples — known as pomace — feed livestock while the animal waste fertilizes fruit destined to become cider.
“We have the advantage of being small and picking when things are ready as opposed to when it’s convenient,” Nance adds.
The result is about 5,000 gallons per year of sustainably crafted cider that expresses both the nuance of each apple variety used and the couple’s attention to details. Much like Oregon wine, long lauded for its quality and relatively minuscule quantity, Rack & Cloth cider emphasizes patience and purity over profit.
“We’re working toward being an estate cidery,” Bleakley says. “But you can’t rush the trees.”
Experience Oregon cider: You can, of course, pop into Rack & Cloth’s outpost in Mosier to get a taste of the cideries this small-time operation turns out. But Bleakley and Nance join dozens of other Oregon cideries at a number of cider-focused events throughout the year, including the Hood River Hard-Pressed Cider Fest in April and Oregon Cider Week in June. Still thirsty? From the Gorge to the valley, you’ll also find a new wave of bars and tasting rooms dedicated exclusively to Oregon’s craft cider.
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