EAST WENATCHEE -- It only makes sense that an area known as the world's apple capital also would be home to one of the Northwest's premier producers of hard apple cider.
"People always ask us what took so long," said Grace Larsen, co-owner of Snowdrift Cider Co. with her parents, Peter and Mary Ann Ringsrud, and brothers Lars and Paul Ringsrud.
"It's so perfect for the Wenatchee Valley. This is the apple capital, after all. We need a cidery," said Larsen, 26, recalling family discussions as they pondered ways to add value to the East Wenatchee orchard they have owned since 1974. The Ringsrud family has been orcharding in the Valley since the 1940s.
What took so long?
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Well, first you have to grow the right kind of apples.
The Wenatchee Valley may be famous for its apples, but the apples that grow here aren't the best ones to make great apple cider, the family found out during years of research. They now grow about 4 acres of heirloom apples that are very specific to making cider.
The Ringsrud family, guided by Peter's long interest and experience in home cider and winemaking, released their first commercial production of four lightly carbonated cider varieties in 2009. With a new fermentation plant at Peter's Ward Street farm, they expect to increase production from 350 cases to 1,500 cases in the next four years. The products have been well received. Larsen said they already are having a hard time keeping up with demand.
Snowdrift Cider Co. is one of less than a dozen commercial hard cider makers in the state.
Orondo Cider Works in Orondo also offers limited production of its hard apple cider.
Two other producers are in Oregon. Most of the Washington producers are on the west side of the Cascades.
Like hand-crafted wines and micro-brewed beers and ales before them, artisan ciders now are starting to appear on store shelves and restaurant menus.
Snowdrift and many of the other Northwest ciders are promoted as alternatives to fine white wines or champagnes that pair well with food.
"We feel like the cider industry in Washington is where the wine industry was 10 years ago," Peter said. The trick is getting people to taste something new to them, added Larsen, who recently returned from a European tour with her husband, where she tasted many ciders and took cider-making classes in southern England.
Not that cider is new. It's one of the world's oldest and most popular alcoholic beverages. It was America's most produced liquor until Prohibition resulted in the removal of many East Coast cider orchards in the 1920s, according to historical accounts.
"Cider is huge in England, but there are lots of bad ciders. Cider-makers there are trying to raise it to a higher level. Here, we have a different problem. People think cider is apple juice, so we're trying to educate people that it's comparable to wine," she said.
Authentic cider requires Old World cider apple varieties.
Instead of the Red and Golden Delicious, Fuji, Granny Smith and other sweet dessert apples grown in sprawling orchards throughout Central Washington, good cider requires apples with specific and varied taste and aromatic components, said Peter Ringsrud, 64.
During fall harvest, he likes to offer visitors tastes of the gnarly looking heirloom fruit you never will see in grocery store displays, but which are essential to good cider.
Included are the French Calville Blanc d'Hiver to boost acid; the English-bred Yarlington Mill with its bittersweet note; Dabinet, also from England, which is high in tannin; and Wickson crab, an ultrasweet little gem with very high acid. Yet another small apple -- virtually inedible -- provides a bittersharp taste to the cider.
The Ringsruds blend several other old varieties with a base made with sweeter apples including Jonagold, Golden Russet, Elstar, Pippen and Pink Lady. The four cider varieties they make are all blends.
"We haven't made a single-variety cider yet because we haven't found the perfect apple," said Lars Ringsrud, 30, who determines how much of each variety goes into the blends.
"Lars has a really good palate. Mine is worn out," said Peter, with a laugh.
Lars said he tries to make ciders that will appeal to crossover drinkers used to beer or wine, while still maintaining the traditional taste of real cider apples.
Peter said the cider company already is offering a new, positive source of cash flow to the orchard, which has struggled for years. No one has yet drawn a salary, however, and all profits are put back into equipment.
"We all love the orchard but know how hard it is to make a living at it," Lars said. "We're trying to create something that will add value."
* On the net: snowdriftcider.com