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The Cider Press: Snowdrift Cider in Wenatchee, Washington

"We're lucky to be in Washington; it's an incredible time to be involved with cider in this state." —Lars Ringsrud, Snowdrift Cider

Washington state is quickly becoming a hotbed for American craft cider. We recently caught up with Lars Ringsrud, the master blender and designer/marketer behind Snowdrift Cider Company in Wenatchee, Washington.

Your family has a long history with apples, dating back to the 1940s. How did they get started as farmers? My grandpa, Fred Ringsrud, grew up in North Dakota doing various farm work. During the Depression, he rode the rails out west to Washington state to try to find enough work to take care of his mother and sister back in North Dakota. He started working in the orchards out here, eventually running his own orchard just up the valley from us in Cashmere, Washington.

My dad, Peter, grew up on the orchard, growing cherries, grapes, apples, and pears. When he went off to college he swore he would never run an orchard again because he didn't want his life dictated by the frost and the hail. So he went into civil engineering, and got a job with the Department of Transportation in Seattle.

But when you grow up on an orchard, something about it gets in your blood, becomes part of your DNA. In the early 1970s he and my mom bought 40 acres in East Wenatchee and started growing Golden and Red Delicious apples. Maybe you've heard the joke, "how do make a small fortune farming? Start with a large fortune." Orchards are a tough industry to make money or even break even in, and it wasn't long before Peter had to lease the orchard out and go back to his engineer job.

When Peter retired, he went back to running the orchard, this time with his brother Erick. They added cider apples and cider production as a way to diversify the orchard and really showcase the spectrum of flavors that apples have to offer.

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Ripening cider apples in the Snowdrift orchards [Orchard photographs: Snowdrift Cider Co.]

How did they learn to make cider? My father has been a home winemaker for 30 years or so. He's made some really good wines, dabbled in elderberry, plum, and other fruit wines. Occasionally he would try to make cider or apple wine, because he knew it could be really good, and it would never turn out.

Finally when Washington State University offered a "Principles & Practices of Cidermaking" class, my dad saw it as a great opportunity to learn how to make cider the right way. Peter Mitchell, a cider expert from the UK, taught the course. The most important lesson was that all apples are not created equal. Peter had been using his Reds and Goldens for cider, and while they're great for fresh juice, they have all the wrong components for fermented cider.

We met a local winemaker (Dean Neff of Nefarious Cellars) who happened to have a small selection of cider apples on his orchard nearby. It was our first experience with varieties like Muscadet De Dieppe, Brown's, Dabinett and Yarlington Mill. Suddenly the cider was full of flavor, tannins, aromatics and all sorts of great character! That next year we grafted over a couple acres of our Red Delicious trees into about a dozen different varieties of bittersweet, bittersharp and aromatic cider apples.

What makes Snowdrift ciders unique? We have hot, sunny summers and cold, snowy winters—actually very similar to the region of Kazakhstan where apples grow wild in the hills. The trees are happy here and you can tell that in the fruit and ultimately in the cider. We also blend the varieties to highlight the range of flavors and aromas—cider apples can carry an amazing spectrum of flavors, like hints of apricot, pineapple, almond, and cherry.

We're lucky to be in Washington; it's an incredible time to be involved with cider in this state.

We've been met with great enthusiasm; Washington has incredible wines, amazing microbrews, top-notch coffees, and therefore a very beverage- and flavor-savvy audience. You'd think with so many great options to sip that we'd be saturated already, but I think it has just paved the way for people to look for yet another new flavor experience. There are about a dozen of us local craft cidermakers now and we're all pretty new. Westcott Bay and Red Barn have been at it the longest.

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[Bottle photographs: Christopher Lehault]

Can you tell us a little about your New England-style Semi Dry cider? New England-style cider is a throwback to when cider was a mainstream drink in the 17th through 18th centuries. It's full of apple character, with high acidity, full body, and a higher alcohol content.

In the past, cidermakers would occasionally add molasses, honey, or brown sugar to the juice before fermentation in order to boost the final alcohol content. The finished cider carries hints of these adjuncts. The result is a vibrant cider with bright sunny apple-y notes singing on the top end, balanced with honey smoothness and rich bass notes from the caramel and molasses. It's off-dry and has that clear top end so it goes great with light dishes, but its richness is enough to complement robust foods like roasted meats, peppers and aged cheeses.

Speaking of food, what are some of your favorite cider pairings? Cheese will always be at the top of my list for pairing with cider. Aged gruyere, farmhouse cheddars, double-creme brie. Hearty artisan breads and fresh butter are another favorite. I've also made some really delicious summer vegetable stews with our dry cider. And cider always pairs well with pork, whether it's a pork chop, ham or sausage. Personally, I really like what cider can do in desserts. I've tinkered with a few combinations such as slipping some cider into dark chocolate truffles or putting a splash into whipped cream to top cobblers or pumpkin pie.

Besides Snowdrift, are there any other ciders that excite you right now?
Sea Cider's Rumrunner immediately comes to mind. I had a chance to taste it at our Cider Summit NW in Seattle just a couple months ago. It's a rich cider that's spent some time in rum barrels—a real treat. From England, Burrow Hill's Kingston Black apple aperitif, Tom Oliver's bottle-conditioned perry and cider, and Once Upon a Tree's dessert ciders are real standouts. From France, Eric Bordelet's cider and perry are incredible as well—so clean and rich.

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Where do you see cider in America five years from now? It's definitely going to keep growing; we're seeing an incredible momentum around cider right now. It hits the spot for people looking for a new flavor experience. It's gluten-free. It's so Washington! But we have a looooong way to go before we're America's favorite drink again.

Both the craft brewing and wine industries went through a fantastic rebirth not too long ago and it feels like we're at the cusp of that right now. We'll see a similar pattern: the small craft ciders will get better at what they do and grow little by little. There will be some attempts at mass production. We'll see a lot of people try their hand at it, some will come and go.

The good cider is going to just march ahead at a slow and steady pace though. If someone were to plant an orchard of cider apples today, they would only barely be starting to produce fruit five years from now. That's one reason that cider has taken so long to recover ever since the Prohibition knocked it out in the 1920s. With grain, you can sow seed, reap a crop and make beer the next year. Apple trees are a different story though. You have to have good apples to make good cider, and try as you might, you can't make a tree grow any faster than it's made to grow.

Tasting Snowdrift Cider

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Snowdrift's Ciders are only available in Washington State, which is unfortunate for the rest of us. The Orchard Select is a delicate and floral cider that pairs well with citrus marinades or mild sheep cheese. Less tart than most ciders, the nose hits you like a field of flowers while the palate opens up with tropical fruit, over-ripened citrus and a hint of peanuts.

In contrast to the Orchard Select's floral notes, Snowdrift Semi-Dry Cider hits with a splash of lime juice on the palate and layers of honey and green grape skin. There are still hints of tropical fruit on the nose (think papayas) but those are mixed with a strong green apple presence. Both ciders pour a soft honey color with nice, subtle carbonation with mild, round tannins.

About the author: Christopher Lehault is a New Jersey-based cider journalist, craft beer documentarian, and home brewer. Follow his cider adventures on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

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