There is something distinctly American about the ciders coming out of Tieton Cider Works. At their core, they are representations the Pacific Northwest landscape—they're simultaneously lush and adventurous. But upon further inspection, there is also a defined European heritage in these complex, yet refined, apple blends. The result of this lineage is a cider that works as well at a Michelin starred restaurant as it does at a backyard barbecue. This week we had a chance to catch up with Brooklyn transplant Cindy Richter, the original cider maker and a current partner at Tieton Cider Works in Tieton, Washington.
Unlike most of the west-coast cider makers we meet, your passion for cider started on the Eastern seaboard. How did you end up producing cider in Washington State?
I've been drinking/enjoying ciders for over 20 years as well as working in the organic apple biz. In 2007 I decided to get a bit more serious and attended an advanced cider making course at Cornell. I was hooked...out of my head excited. As I was driving back to Brooklyn I spoke to Craig Campbell, a Washington organic apple grower. I guess my enthusiasm was contagious. I gave him a few French, English and Northwest American ciders and perrys to try (he hadn't tasted much hard cider before) and the next thing I know, we were planning out a small cider apple orchard and cidery on Craig's ranch in Eastern Washington.
Starting a cider orchard and cidery simultaneously seems like an ambitious goal. What were the first few years like?
For the first few years I was the only cider maker, I took additional classes at WSU and UC Davis, and I was spending a lot of time sleeping in a trailer in the middle of the orchard during harvest and press. We hired a full time cider maker last year and our production went from 200 cases to 3,500 this season.
How has your focus changed with the additional staff and explosive growth of the cidery? Most recently my focus is to expand our distribution into Northern California and beyond. Watch out New York City, we are getting close! Up until a few months ago, we've only been distributing in Washington and Oregon.
Tell us a bit about your orchard, Harmony Orchards.
Craig Campbell is a third generation grower in the Yakima Valley. He can grow
apples like nobody's business! We spent a lot of time searching out cider
specific apple budwood and planted over thirty varieties of French, English and American heirloom cider-specific varietals. We really wanted to ensure we had the right blend of bittersweets, bittersharps and sharps...good tannins and acids are they key to a full bodied and balanced cider and we didn't know what would grow well in the arid climate of Eastern Washington.
Most cider producing regions are in more maritime climates (think west county UK, Normandy, etc.) Strangely enough—considering WA state produces 70% of the fresh apple crop—no one was really growing cider varietals in any kind of large way. One of the sources for cider apple wood was a cidery outside of Portland. These folks were giving up the biz and the next thing we knew, we were buying their press, fermentation equipment, and committing to their cider apple crop for the next three years while our trees were growing. Wham! We were fast-tracked into the cider business.
How would you describe your approach to cider?
We try to make our cider a really approachable, food friendly, expression of the region we are in. Eastern Washington is raw and beautiful in a wild west kind of way. We grow at close to two-thousand feet. The black basalt cliffs, sagebrush, fast moving rivers, and limited rainfall are all reflected in the brix, gravity, and flavor profile of the apples we grow and, ultimately, the cider we produce. We find that a lot of folks in the U.S. have primarily been exposed to mass produced ciders that sometimes use only apple juice concentrate. We want to elevate that standard and introduce current and potential cider drinkers to hand crafted, orchard grown ciders.
What's in your glass when you are not drinking Tieton cider?
Bourbon. I'm a huge fan and love some of the smaller craft distillers. There are a few Kentucky bourbon barrels at our cidery that I'm hoping to mature cider in at some point. The cider picks up those delicious caramel and smokey notes from the barrel...super yummy.
Can we expect anything new from Tieton this year?
We started bottling up our blends in 500ml bottles—the price point is a bit easier on the pocket than the 750 mls. We are also kegging apple, cherry, and a new cider finished with apricot. We also have some perry pears in the ground and produced a limited edition perry. There's even an ice cider is in the works...so stay tuned!
Tasting Tieton Cider Works' Ciders
Our favorite offering from Tieton Cider Works is their Wild Washington semi-dry cider. It's sharp, with a pronounced mineral quality that will satisfy the most refined cider palates, but it also carries enough green apple and preserved lemon flavors to appeal to a more universal audience.
For a more austere option, check out their Tieton Blend, a dry cider that trades those lemon and green apple notes for green grape skin, nectarine pith, and a lingering, pepper quality. Serve it with shrimp cocktail or other light seafood dishes.
As Cindy mentioned above, Tienton has also been producing a few fruit flavored ciders and their apricot cider is one of our favorites. This semi-sweet cider packs all of those tannic, acidic characteristics we look for in a quality cider but then ups the ante with a powerful punch of fresh apricot. There are no canned pie filling, artificial fruit flavors here...just the pure, tart, summer apricots with an incredible fresh-from-the-tree flavor. We can't wait for this cider to find its way into bottles!
Tieton also offers up a refreshing Cherry Cider made by blending their sweet cider with fresh cherry juice. There is enough acid here to round out the sugary notes and enough body to embrace the big flavors of summer cherries. Hints of clove make this cider a good partner for roast pork.
Ciders from Tieton Cider Works are available throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California. They can also be purchased online.
Disclosure: all ciders were provided as samples for review.