Fall swept into town pretty suddenly. One moment we were wearing t-shirts and shorts on Walla Walla’s scorching patios, trying in vain to eat our way through the midseason Sun Gold glut, the next we were pulling forgotten sweaters out of wool-scented closets and trying to remember how to eat a spaghetti squash. Grape harvest pulled its signature “objects in mirror may be closer than they appear” trick, and a leisurely August rapidly shifted into a frantic September. We’ve had a lot of purple hands in the shop lately.
In our industry, “harvest” will always mean grapes, but the valley has many other harvests: the rush of springtime green during asparagus season, wheat harvest with its dusty sunsets, sweet onions by the smelly 40 pound sack, the Art Deco alien landscaping of Hayshaker’s radicchio. And apples! So many apples! Before grapes, this valley was filled with orchards; in fact, many of the best vineyards in Walla Walla, especially in the Rocks District, are planted on former orchard land.
Apples and wine grapes have a number of things in common. Current research suggests that they both originated near the Caspian Sea. They are both woody perennial plants that require years of growth before they begin fruiting, but once established they can last for decades or centuries. And, most importantly for us at the Thief, humans have been transforming their fruit into fermented beverages for thousands of years. Cider is to apples what wine is to grapes (freshly pressed, unfiltered, unfermented apple juice is often referred to as cider, but when I use the term, I mean the alcoholic product).
“Now, wait a minute. I’ve had cider before. It came in a can, it tasted like sweet apple soda, and it gave me a tremendous headache. Pretty sure there was a woodchuck or a mongoose or something on the label. That wasn’t anything like wine.” Here I have to differentiate between two fundamentally different products that unfortunately are both called “cider”. In the interest of pedagogical clarity, and at the risk of sounding like a complete snob, I’m going to refer to the previously mentioned sweet, six-packed product as “industrial cider”, and the more wine-like, artisanal, often 500-750ml packaged cider as “fine cider”.
Let’s look at the way most industrial cider is produced, starting with the raw materials. Industrial cider is typically produced with rejected culinary fruit, the Granny Smiths and Honey Crisps etc that don’t make the cut for our grocery store shelves. These apples are grown in densely planted, resource intensive orchards, heavily watered and fertilized to maximize the yield per acre, producing big, shiny, delicious apples. Unfortunately, delicious apples do not necessarily make delicious cider, in the same way that table grapes don’t make delicious wine. Wine grapes have thick skins filled with color, flavor, and texture, as well as gnarly seeds and much less juice (water) than table grapes.
Those big, juicy apples are kept in storage with closely controlled temperature and gases that prevent further ripening, which means we can eat a delicious Fuji apple well after the harvest window. This also allows the industrial cider maker to pick and choose their production dates, turning over their tanks many times throughout the year. This turns the cider making process into a year round activity more akin to brewing beer than making wine. The juice is often watered back, fermented quickly, back sweetened, filtered, stabilized, and brought to market quickly, typically in a month or two (again, like beer).
Fine cider, on the other hand, is typically a vintage product. It is the result of one season’s harvest, picked and pressed over the course of a couple months. It is usually made from 100% fresh pressed juice (no concentrate, no water added). The orchards are often much less densely planted, sometimes with animals grazing underneath. Orchard management is much less intensive, because the physical appearance of the apples doesn’t matter.
Cider apple varieties are just as diverse as wine grape varieties, with appetizing names like Ellis Bitter and Foxwhelp. While there are some multi-purpose varieties that are good for both cider and eating/baking, there is definitely a reason that the grocery store doesn’t sell many cider varieties - most of them taste disgusting! In the industry they call them “spitters”, because one bite is all you’ll manage before you spit them out. Many cider apples have high levels of tannin or acid (or both), lending structure and ageability to the fermented product.
The fine cider maker collects their cider apples by picking up the drops as they fall naturally, or by shaking the tree. After collection, the apples are often aged for a period of weeks or months in a process called “sweating”. This ripens the apples further, converting starch into sugar, and improves the texture of the fruit. When the apples are ready, they are milled (I believe the scientific term is “mooshed”) into a thick pomace. Some producers choose to macerate their millings for hours or days in order to oxidize the pomace, release pectin, and soften the tannins.
Now it’s time to press! From modern bladder presses to antique stone and beam behemoths, cider makers have dozens of different ways to squeeze juice from apples. Once the pomace has been pressed, the cider maker is left with fresh, unfermented juice. From this point on, the cider making process is very similar to wine making. The fresh juice is siphoned off into a fermenting vessel, be it an oak barrel or stainless steel tank, and here it is transformed through the magic of fermentation into a delicious alcoholic beverage. The cider maker may decide to inoculate the cider with wine yeast, or choose to ferment using the naturally occurring yeasts in the apples and facility. It is common for fermentation to last for months, often slowing in the winter only to restart as spring brings warmer cellar temperatures. If the cider maker wants to produce an off dry style, they may choose to arrest fermentation early. This can be done through successive cold racking, or through a process called ‘keeving’ whereby the cider is naturally fined with its own pectin. This removes most of the nutrients that the yeast would need to finish fermentation.
Keeving is particularly common in the fine french ciders from Normandy and Brittany. These ciders are sparkling and intensely apple-y, with sweetness that helps to soften the grip of their bitter tannins. Their soft sweetness makes them an excellent place to begin one’s cider journey. Across the channel from Normandy, the United Kingdom produces more cider than any other country. Traditionally the ciders are dry and robustly tannic, and can be still or sparkling. Further south, Asturian and Basque ciders in Spain are less tannic and more tart, the perfect foil for sheep cheese.
Subscribe to our newsletter to find out about our events, special offers, and new products.