What Bushwhacker Cider Meant to Beervana

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I completely missed the news that Bushwhacker Cider is closing tomorrow.

We made the tough decision to close Bushwhacker this coming Saturday, the 7th. With too many reasons to count or share, all I can say is how emotional it has been for myself, and the staff.... Join us this Saturday, from 12-8, as we serve you cider for the last day. Come to celebrate what we’ve accomplished, hang out with the best three bartenders in town, and help us empty the coolers and taps with everything marked down to sell. We will have great ciders on tap from some of our favorite producers, and we don’t want a drop left after we close the doors.

This is absolutely demoralizing news to me. Oregon has become one of the leading states--probably the frontrunner, but I haven't seen stats--for cider. In an incredibly competitive marketplace that includes one of the leading wine states, the biggest beer state, and probably the leading microdistilling state in terms of local consumption, cider seemed unlikely to make much of a dent. How much local alcohol could locals drink?

I remember distinctly the moment I first heard about Bushwhacker on Bill Night's blog. I thought at the time, "Oh, for Pete's sake, how many ultra-nichey products need their own pub? This is obviously doomed to fail." It was only eight years ago, but it seems much longer, given the incredible rise in cider's fortunes here. Very few people had ever tasted cider then, and if they had, it was almost certainly something made in a factory that tasted like apple Jolly Ranchers.

From the outset, founders Jeff and Erin Smith promoted the most exotic and interesting ciders, bringing in wildly phenolic English farmhouse ciders, funky Basque ciders, and French cidre, sparkling like champagne and wafting hints of blue cheese. The two sat down with me when I was hired to write Cider Made Simple and walked me through the full range of world ciders, but I was surprised, as we tucked into a Norman brut, to learn that Jeff had a very ecumenical approach. He was pro-cider, period. If people wanted Strongbow or Angry Orchard, they'd find it there, with no judgment from the house.

In his farewell statement on Facebook, Jeff also hinted at another role he played--nurturer of local talent. Fostering growth among cidermakers and providing them an outlet to sell their products was at least as important as training a new generation of drinkers to understand cider. He wrote:

Regulars have become world class cider makers or gone into sales, and past bartenders have gone on to work for Schilling, Finnriver, and Apple Outlaw, and every week we get guests in excited about getting into the cider industry in some way. It’s been a pretty special spot to see careers grow from.

The Smiths may have been ecumenical in their approach to customers, but they were also key to promoting interesting, unusual, and sophisticated ciders and encouraging people to make it. (Having a place to sell those ciders is always encouraging.) And here's were we come to why I think it's hard to overstate how Bushwhacker changed Beervana into a place where cider has become like a popular beer style. Any kind of culture--beer, coffee, food--is built on the most sophisticated expressions. Otherwise, the product in question just remains mainstream and disposable. When its moment has passed, something else replaces it. Out with the corner Dairy Queen, in with the Chipotle. But Bushwhacker taught us to respect cider, both in its sophistication and international diversity. We took cider seriously earlier than nearly any other pocket of the country (most of which still don't).

We may have gotten here eventually. But when I think of the work our signature cideries are doing--EZ Cider, Rack and Cloth, 2 Towns, Cider Riot, Reverend Nat's, Baird & Dewar, and others--I look directly at Bushwhacker for tilling the ground so they could blossom. I can't believe we will have to live in a city without Bushwhacker, but in some ways it's not surprising. Because of all the excitement they helped generate, ciderhouses are now scattered around Portland and cider is available about anywhere alcohol is served. I couldn't believe how niche-y a ciderhouse sounded when Bill Night first wrote about it, but thanks to Bushwhacker, the concept is completely mundane now.

Tomorrow's the last day to say goodbye, so don't miss the opportunity--