TIETON -- If there's one thing Marcus Robert wants people to know about his cider, it's that the brew is nothing like Mike's Hard Lemonade.
"People who've never tried cider think it's overly sweet," said Robert, 31, cider maker for Tieton Cider Works. "In reality, real cider is almost a champagne style. It's dry and crisp."
Tieton Cider Works formed in 2008 and began selling cider the following year. The company's products are available throughout Washington, Oregon and California, mirroring the industry's expansion throughout the Northwest.
Several years ago, Robert said there were only three or four cideries in the Northwest. Now he said there are at least a dozen.
"This is the fastest growing alcoholic beverage in the market," he said. "The biggest challenge for the industry is to change people's perception of what cider really is."
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Tieton Cider Works can be found by driving along the country back roads near Tieton, a community of about 1,200. Owned by Craig and Sharon Campbell, both 59, the cidery uses apples from Harmony Orchards, a 350-acre estate owned by the family for nine decades.
More than 30 apple varieties are grown on the orchard, including Golden Russet, Dabinett, Harry Master's Jersey and Kingston Black. They're grouped into categories of sweets, sharps, bittersweets and bittersharps, and when harvested and pressed in the fall, they're blended based on their sugar, acidity and tannin levels.
As a third-generation Yakima farmer with a degree in horticulture, her husband always has been on the lookout for something new, Sharon said. That's why joining the cidery bandwagon made sense.
"My husband and I are quite entrepreneurial in spirit," said Sharon, who has a background in interior design. "We wanted to find something to use what we were growing. Cider seemed like a natural fit."
In its first year of production, Tieton Cider Works produced about 200 cases. The number expanded to 1,500 last year and is expected to grow to 3,500 cases this year.
Available in such flavors as blossom nectar, cherry and harmony reserve, the cider costs an average of $15 for a 750 ml bottle and $8 for a 500 ml bottle. Kegs also are being sold.
"We're still experimenting," Sharon said. "We'll be known for growing marine apples in an arid climate and blending them with other fruit in the Yakima Valley."
Robert, the Campbells' cider maker, is a fourth-generation orchardist. He began making wine a decade ago and delved into cider making five years later. Although the processes are similar, he said cider making is trickier.
"There are only a few layers you can play with," he said. "If something happens with wine, it just gets more interesting. If something happens with cider, the whole thing can go bad."
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Before Prohibition, cider was the drink of choice in the United States, Robert said. Since then, its popularity has ebbed and flowed. Now, with the help of the newly formed Northwest Cider Association, he and others are helping cider make a comeback.
"This is such a niche product. Not a lot of people have been introduced to it yet," Robert said. "But we are finding beer drinkers are much more apt to drink cider than staunch wine drinkers."
One cider fan is Dave White of Olympia, who writes a blog called Old Time Cider, a website that gets 100 to 500 hits a day. The 38-year-old began drinking cider while a college student and now judges them at national competitions. Having tried ciders made by Tieton Cider Works, he said they have a distinct yet approachable quality that novices can appreciate.
"They're nicely balanced, not too acidic, not overly sweet," said White, also an association member. "I do like them. With their current crew, I expect good things from them over the next few years."
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The Northwest Cider Association formed last year and has grown to a dozen members. Headed by Campbell, who serves as president, the group's purpose is to spread awareness of their products. This is being done in large part by attending a variety of regional tasting events -- from the Cider Summit in Seattle and Portland to Summer Cider in Port Townsend.
"One of the biggest things we're doing is cultivating a larger market for cider," Sharon said. "We do all kinds of events. We're getting out there."
But for her own cidery, Sharon said she wants to produce 5,000 -- even 10,000 -- cases of cider a year and stock more of her product on retailers' shelves. Locally, her cider is available at such places as Gilbert Cellars and Stems in Yakima and Harvest Foods in Cowiche.
"You'll go out, drop off samples and ask when you should call back," she said. "You keep calling, and eventually they'll call you and say they tried the samples and want the product right away. (When that happens) it's rewarding to see how people respond to it."
Robert, too, hopes more people will set aside their preconceptions and try cider for themselves. Once they do, he suspects they won't be disappointed.
"We haven't found an end to the demand," he said. "We've found people are more apt to buy local, hand-made, craft-style products. That's what we are gearing toward."