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Portland doesn’t mess around when it comes to beer. While huge swaths of the nation are still content to gulp down watery, mass-produced swill, microbreweries dot our metropolitan map to the point that Portland has become the brewing capital of the world. Not even Munich, long famed for its beer, can boast as many breweries per capita. As of July 2015, we’ve got 61 microbreweries in the city limits and over 90 in the area, when you factor in the suburbs. Over half the draft beer consumed in Oregon was brewed within our state borders. We’re so supportive of specialty suds that the local minor league baseball team is even known as the Hillsboro Hops.
The craft beer boom has opened doors for more than just brews, however. In fact, its popularity has helped the Pacific Northwest become a leader in an underappreciated but burgeoning fermented beverage that has its roots deep in the heart of our nation’s history — cider. In the early days of our country, cider was the most popular and readily available drink around. Growing up, many of us heard romanticized tales about Johnny Appleseed traipsing barefoot around the frontier with a tin pot on his head, planting apple trees wherever he wandered. In actuality, John Chapman, after whom the caricaturized legend is based, planted orchards largely in anticipation of selling them to cider-craving pioneers. The apples he planted weren’t the type you’d find on supermarket shelves or in farmers’ market baskets today. After all, these apples weren’t particularly suited for eating, but rather were intended to be made into the most popular beverage of the time. That’s right, until the early 20th century, cider was literally more American than apple pie.
Prohibition Snuffed Out Cider
In addition to ultimately being a black eye on America’s history, Prohibition effectively killed cider in this country for most of the 20th century. While beer made a quick comeback following the repeal of Prohibition, cider did not enjoy the same resurgence. Why is that?
Well, the first rule of cider apples is: you don’t eat cider apples. The fruit responsible for the one-time widespread beverage isn’t especially palatable, and certainly isn’t the same kind of shiny, sweet “dessert” apples that, when eaten once a day, are rumored to keep the doctor away. In fact, as food guru Michael Pollan relays in his book “The Botany of Desire,” apples grown in America prior to Prohibition were “far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider.” And the farther one got from a city, the more likely that cider would be known as a catch-all beverage, replacing such things as coffee, juice or sometimes even drinking water.
Due to Prohibition, Americans had little reason to keep proliferating apples that didn’t hold much value outside of fermentation. Farmers didn’t have much left to do with them. Orchards were razed to make room for profitable crops. Much of the value in cider lay in the fact that it could be easily derived from fruit that was abundantly grown, so without the previously vast orchards to harvest, cider was largely forgotten. Unlike in England, cider was never as commercialized or industrialized here up to that point. As a result, when Prohibition was lifted, there wasn’t much framework to fall back on. Instead, beer rose up as the preferred drink of many. So why did beer survive, when cider largely bit the dust? Because hops, which aren’t nearly as perishable as apples, could successfully be exported during Prohibition, allowing the cultivation of that crucial beer-making ingredient to remain relatively intact.
Resurgence in the Pacific Northwest
Today, cider is making a fierce comeback, thanks in large part to the homebrewer’s movement that is now seeing more and more hobbyists turn pro. According to local cider maker Abram Goldman-Armstrong, cider has claimed almost 5% of the craft beer market here in Portland, which is more than five times the national average. Goldman-Armstrong is a veteran of Portland’s craft beer scene, and he’s long held a love of all things cider, originally making his first batch during college with smuggled dining-hall apples that he shredded with a cheese grater and pressed with two plates. He founded Cider Riot in 2013 when friends kept pestering him to sell them the scrumptious cider he’d previously been making simply for his own enjoyment. Like many other cideries in the Pacific Northwest in recent years, Cider Riot has seen great success in slaking a market thirsty for an age-old beverage. Now Cider Riot appears in 90 bars and bottleshops throughout Portland, with a number of accounts in Washington and stretching into British Columbia.
While the Northeast is also seeing a notable resurgence in cider (and the drink has long been a perennial pub staple in England, which produces and consumes roughly half of the world’s supply), the Pacific Northwest appears to be leading the charge within the United States. Elsewhere, many people associate the word “cider” either with apple juice or watered-down and ultra-sweetened varieties of “hard cider” that emphasize quantity over quality. While the Portland area may be leading the region in cider making, Seattle’s not far behind. And Hood River, known for being apple country, boasts nearly as many cideries as Portland (and supplies cold-storage juice to many local cideries to allow for year-round output).
Goldman-Armstrong cites the thriving craft beer scene here in Portland as having a major impact on cider’s rise in popularity of late, even if it’s still a new concept to many. “People often don’t have the vocabulary to talk about cider, but that’s changing,” he said. Furthermore, he said that the rise in breweries has helped prime the pump for cider in many ways because “people here have very educated palates.” He added that Portlanders don’t approach cider with the same preconceived notions or stereotypes that are attached to the beverage in other areas. In places like British Columbia, for instance, the watering down or sweetening up of cider has given it a bad rap. The most egregious of these so-called “supermarket ciders,” in his opinion, is a B.C. flavor nonsensically known as “glacier berry.” Good luck harvesting that.
One of the great advantages of cider, and one of the reasons for its widespread consumption in 18th and 19th century America, is that the beverage is easier to produce than beer. There’s no boiling in the cider-making process, and no need for equipment like a mash tun. While an apple press is necessary to obtain the juice — and can be an expensive purchase — such equipment can be affordably rented or even built.
After the fruit is pressed, the juice must be fermented, which can often take 7 to ten days. In England, most cider is naturally fermented, but nearly all American cideries use yeast (Cider Riot is partial to using ale yeast, which helps bring a full-bodied taste to their dry cider). From there, sediment is transferred off and the cider is aged in a secondary vessel. Then it’s on to a bright tank to be chilled and carbonated prior to packaging in kegs or bottles for labeling and distribution. Like brewing, cider making can be done at home given enough space. Cider Riot operates out of a detached garage at Goldman-Armstrong’s North Tabor home.
Variety is the Spice of Cider
Despite cider being nearly synonymous with apples to many, cider makers can be as innovative as brewers when it comes to flavor. Cider Riot predominantly features dry cider, and Goldman-Armstrong says that this is because “a cider should be a refreshing beverage, and that’s easier to achieve with a dry cider.” In fact, all cider would naturally ferment out to be dry, but many cider makers choose to “backsweeten” it. This is the process that can sometimes make the cider taste more like apple juice or even intensely syrupy.
Cider Riot features three year-round ciders: “Burnsider” (dry draught), “Everybody Pogo” (hoppy) and “Never Give an Inch” (Oregon blackberry). But there are always seasonals to look forward to, including the upcoming richly flavored “1763,” which commemorates the year of the company’s namesake English riot that rose up in opposition of a cider tax. There’s also the very limited and intense “Black Boc,” which uses traditional techniques and rare apple varieties. And Cider Riot will also be experimenting with upcoming lavender and lemon zest flavors.
Cider is back in a big way. In Portland’s growing “beervana,” branching out from brews is encouraged. In fact, breweries have been some of the strongest supporters of the local cideries. Not sure where to start? The Northwest Cider Fest is coming up on October 10th and 11th at Pioneer Courthouse Square and should be a great chance to get your feet wet. There are several other notable cider events throughout the year. While supermarket cider, with its corn syrup and artificial flavorings (some brands aren’t even made from real apples) may give the beverage a bad name, we’re lucky enough to live in the hub of the authentic, locally sourced cider movement. Johnny Appleseed would raise a glass to that.