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Local researchers focus on growth of cider industry

Oct 5th, 2012 | By | Category: Features

by Jessamyn Tuttle

Hard cider, once the most popular drink in the United States, is making a comeback. Essentially wine made out of apples, it’s a lower-carb and less-filling alternative to beer. Years ago, it was difficult to find hard cider, but now a resurgence in commercial cideries and a widening interest in home cider making is bringing the old-fashioned beverage back. Jumpstarting and supporting this movement is the hard cider program at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, led by Carol Miles of the Vegetable Research program.

Drew Zimmerman checks cider apples for ripeness. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

The apple program at the extension was started in 1963 by Dr. Bob Norton, who was looking for fruit that would be suitable for home gardeners in western Washington, and he decided to try planting some cider apple trees as well. Cider apples have a very different flavor profile from apples for fresh eating (called dessert apples), and it turns out that they do quite well here, as most of them are originally from France and England, places with a very similar climate to ours. The same is true for perry pears, used to make pear cider.

Originally 15 or so varieties were planted, but NWREC currently grows 59 different cider apple varieties. After being neglected for some time due to budget cuts, the orchard is being replanted, with five trees of each variety grafted to uniform rootstock. The new orchard will be established in the spring of 2014. Each year a small amount of fruit is picked for research trials, leaving the rest of the harvest available for purchase (however, for those looking for apples to press this autumn, be aware that cider apple trees tend to fruit well on alternate years. Since this is an off-year, there may be less fruit available than usual).

At first, fruit from the orchard was handed out to local cider makers in the hopes that they would report back on the qualities of the juice, but few followed through. Eventually Dr. Norton, orchardist Gary Moulton, and cider consultant Drew Zimmerman decided to make their own hard cider at the extension, completing their first batch in 2002. The next year, Zimmerman attended a 2-week cidermaking class at Pershore College in the United Kingdom. When he returned to start his own business, Red Barn Cider at Tulip Valley Vineyard and Orchard, he also helped kick off a new cider education program at the extension. “Cider education in the US started here,” Miles said.

Interest in the classes was sporadic at first, but after a few years “buzz started picking up,” added Zimmerman, and now the classes have a waiting list. People who sign up for the class have typically tried making cider themselves and are dissatisfied with their results. Two classes per year are offered: the summer course Principle and Practice (basically Cider 101),  Miles said, and the “let’s get serious about this” class, Advanced Cider and Perry Production, offered in the winter.

A mechanical raspberry picker is being repurposed for harvesting cider apples. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

The week-long introductory class is broken up into two parts; the first two days (which can be signed up for separately) are spent tasting and learning about cider styles. The rest of the week, limited to only 15-20 people per class, is spent in the lab learning to make cider. The classes also allow the opportunity to receive NACM Certification from the National Association of Cider Makers, similar to a sommelier certification for wine. Many attendees are from the Pacific Northwest, but they’ve had students from all over the U.S., as this is the only comprehensive cider program west of the Mississippi. “It doesn’t get any better than what we have in Mount Vernon,” Miles said.

The cider classes are co-sponsored by the Northwest Agriculture Business Center based in Mount Vernon, which also offers classes on the business of growing cider apples and the business of cidermaking, as well as orchard management, which can be a challenge for newcomers. “It’s easier for a grower to become a cider maker than a cider maker to start growing,” Zimmerman said.

In addition to their popular cider education program, NWREC does supporting research for apple growers and cider makers, focusing on evaluating existing varieties for their flavor qualities. The extension publication “Hard Cider Production & Orchard Management in the Pacific Northwest,” written by Miles, Moulton and fruit horticulture technician Jacky King, includes a table of cider apple varieties with their percentages of tannin, brix, pH and malic acid, plus full flavor descriptions of varietal ciders including ratings of acidity, bitterness, sweetness, astringency and body. Each cider is evaluated by a panel of trained tasters and described as precisely as possible. The publication also includes a great deal of information about growing specialty cider apples, as well as a full discussion of the cider making process.

The cider research team is testing the use of a mechanical raspberry picker for cider apples, which don’t need to be protected from bruising and are often smaller and costlier to pick by hand than dessert apples. The trees need to be trellised and hedged to fit through the picker, but the first year’s mechanical harvest was promising, and there does not appear to be any effect on the juice quality. Using the mechanical picker should cut down on cidermaking costs substantially, as well as providing a use for otherwise idle berry-picking equipment.

“Cider is the fastest growing sector of the beverage business,” said Zimmerman, “there’s a great opportunity here to grow apples for cider.”

There are almost 20 cider producers in Oregon and Washington now, resulting in increased demand, yet not many people are growing cider apples in Washington State. “Access to the fruit is a real problem,” Miles added.

While it may be true that “the best apples for cider are whatever apple you got,” as Zimmerman said, a fruit that’s suitable for fresh eating generally does not have the right flavor balance for fermentation, and it’s worth seeking out or growing appropriate varieties.

For anyone hoping to start their own cider orchard, cider apple and perry pear scionwood will be available for purchase at the Winter Field Day at the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation in March, as well as at Raintree Nursery in Morton and Cloud Mountain Farm in Everson, and possibly through grafting events held by chapters of the Western Cascade Fruit Society.

Resources

Support for cider makers or anyone interested in learning more about cider can be found through the Northwest Cider Association at www.nwcider.com.

Other online resources:

• NWREC (mtvernon.wsu.edu)

• Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation (nwfruit.org)

• Western Cascade Fruit Society (wcfs.org)

Published in the October 2012 issue of Grow Northwest

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