The Cider Press: Finnriver Farm & Cidery, Washington

"The vision is to gather and ferment the flavors of the land."

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[Photograph: Christopher Lehault]

Cider is about as close to the earth as one can get in a beverage. A few apples, some yeast, and the passage of time is all that it takes to make cider. But great cider comes from a mastery of those basic elements. No one understands this harmony more than the folks behind Chimacum, Washington's Finnriver Farm & Cidery; a family-owned farm dedicated to building "community around local agriculture and rural life." Lucky for us, their mission includes producing a few outstanding ciders that reflect the terroir of the Pacific Northwest. We caught up with Crystie and Keith Kisler, co-owners with of Finnriver (along with Eric Jorgensen), to talk about living close to the earth and their methods for making cider.

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Crystie and Keith Kisler [Photograph: Finnriver Farm & Cidery]

Can you tell us a bit about the farm and how you got started?

Finnriver is a 33-acre organic farm located along a restored salmon stream in a historically agricultural valley in Chimacum—south of Port Townsend on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. We are a working family farm and licensed winery specializing in both sparkling hard ciders and spirited fruit wines.

We both have a background as educators. We had a dream to farm but knew buying land and starting a small farm endeavor was costly and risky. In 2002, we purchased the farm with friends from Elijah and Lay Christian and all worked together to develop mixed organic fruit and vegetable production and to raise layers and meat birds. Our mission was to produce healthy organic food and develop a thriving farm that built community around local agriculture and rural life. When our partners left the farm a few years later, we re-evaluated our business model and began expanding our vision and diversifying our production. Lige, our neighbor who sold us the farm, mentioned that a patch of south-facing land would be great for growing apples and he passed along some ciders he'd been experimenting with. The cider intrigued Keith—fermentation was an exciting step and a fascinating technical challenge.

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What made you decide to start making cider and where did you learn the process?

Keith went to take one of English cider-making consultant's Peter Mitchell's "Principles and Practices of Cider-Making" classes in Mt. Vernon. He learned a tremendous amount and met a number of very experienced and skilled cider makers who have been generous in sharing knowledge. Keith partnered up with our friend Eric Jorgensen to start our cidery and the two of them toured the country visiting different cider-makers to watch, listen and learn. We were particularly intrigued by the old world traditions of cider-making, the potential of being part of a revival of cider-craft and by the possibilities for doing something wonderful with the Washington apple.

Is there a particular Finnriver cider style?

Our style emerges from who we are and what we believe about being farmers and fermenters—getting back to our roots but also growing wisely into the future. The vision is to gather and ferment the flavors of the land, sustain our small, family farm, pursue sustainable agriculture, support the local economy and revitalize rural culture.

You produce cider using both the méthode Champagnoise and méthode Ancestrale. Can you tell us a bit about these two methods and how they affect the finished cider?

The méthode Ancestrale is a traditional way of producing a sparkling cider, refined by the monks in France and fermenters in the old world long ago. The cider is mixed with unrefined, organic sugar and champagne yeast, bottled and capped, and begins a second fermentation in the bottle. Because the yeast sediment or 'lees' from the secondary fermentation are left in the bottle, our traditional Farmstead Cider has a hearty, tangy finish.

Méthode Champenoise is a refinement of the older, traditional method for removing sediments, leaving a clear, sparkling wine or cider. First, we take bottles of cider that have already undergone a secondary fermentation through the méthode Ancestrale and place them in a traditional, downward-angled rack for 'riddling.' The riddling rack is where the sediment from this second fermentation slowly settles against the cap in the neck of the bottle. Bottles are turned individually, lightly shaken, and repositioned every day for 4-6 weeks until the sediment forms a plug resting against the cap.

To disgorge the sediment, the bottles are chilled, caps are removed, and the sediment is forced out by bottle pressure. A dosage of clear sparkling cider is added to replace lost cider, and the bottles are corked and caged. The resulting product is a dry, clear, crisp carbonated cider.

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Where do your apples come from? Can you tell us a little about your orchard?

One goal of the cidery is to source organic fruit produced from local farms...both Finnriver and others. But local farms will never have the capacity to produce all the fruit that we need to produce our ciders and wines, so we do source some additional fruit regionally. We are committed to buying organically grown fruits from Washington and the Pacific Northwest, sourcing this fruit as close to Jefferson County as possible.

Our orchard of 500 heirloom cider apple and perry trees—including Brown Snout, Dabinette, Yarlington Mill, and Kingston Black varieties—is maturing and will begin to produce fruit for our ciders in the years ahead. We hope that within 1-2 years our orchard will be producing the majority of our cider apples. This spring we will be grafting 300 new cider trees.

How has the local response been to your ciders?

Our local community and the broader Puget Sound community seems to be getting more interested in how and where their food/drink is produced and people are developing food values related to local sourcing, organic production, traditional crafts and more. We see this as both hopeful in a larger sense and encouraging for our business model.

Tasting Finnriver Cider

20110413finnriverblue.jpgFinnriver's ciders are sold throughout the Pacific Northwest in bottle shops, farmer's markets, as well as at the tasting room at the farm. If you live in Washington or Oregon, you can also order bottles online at www.finnriver.com

Our favorite of Finnriver's core cider offerings is the Farmstead Sparkling Cider. It's an incredibly subtle cider with grapefruit and other citrus flavors along with notes of wild yeast. Strongly carbonated with a crisp finish, the Farmstead drinks like a sparkling white wine. The rustic yeast character lends itself well to vegetarian fare, mushrooms, and goat cheese.

The Artisan Sparkling Cider drinks like a more refined version of the Farmstead. The majority of the cider's yeast is removed through the méthode Champenoise, accentuating the citrus notes and minimizing the yeast character. While not bone-dry, the Artisan drinks like a champagne and should be paired similarly as a compliment to rich, soft cheese, or with simple fish preparations.

In addition to their pure ciders, Finnriver also offer sparkling Appleblueberry. Technically an apple wine due to governmental labeling restrictions, Appleblueberry is a bittersweet cider base blended with with concentrated, organic, blueberry nectar. The result is a cider slightly sweeter than Finnriver's pure ciders, with additional tart blueberry notes.

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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