One Brewery Taking Cider Seriously
Last week I took a trip to see the orchards of a promising new cidery in the Hood River Valley. The unusual bit was this—those orchards belong to Matt Swihart of Double Mountain Brewery. Without a lot of fanfare, Double Mountain has quietly been building one of the most ambitious cider programs in the valley. It started with a tap of dry cider at the brewery, a brief seasonal offering that was curious but not overly surprising. By that time Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard was a national phenomenon, and breweries were dabbling in cider as a way to attract wine and gluten-free drinkers. Like Boston Beer, breweries typically treat cider as something that can be engineered into something resembling a flavored malt beverage to taste sweet and fizzy. But Double Mountain’s cider was clearly made with interesting apples and fermented dry for a complex palate. I made a note of it in my mind.
Since then, the project has expanded. An “estate” cider made from apples grown on Swihart’s land followed, along with a perry (fermented pear juice). When I got an announcement for a red-fleshed apple cider (called Rosé, of course), I figured it was time to learn more.
Matt Swihart arrived in Hood River to work for Full Sail back in the 1990s. He would go on to found Double Mountain with Charlie Devereux in 2007, but in 2000, he was able to buy a decent parcel of orchard land near Odell in the heart of the Hood River Valley “fruit loop.” It contained 14 acres of 45-year-old pear trees, cherry trees, and about ten acres of Newtown Pippen and Red Delicious apples. It was during a period when Chinese growers were flooding the market with cheap apples, and he and his wife watched as land prices plummeted. Land prices fell so low they were able to buy the farm from a kind of gentleman orchardist who lived out of state.
Initially, Matt thought he’d grow grapes and make wine. He even went to UC-Davis to do learn winemaking. But along the way he ran into a colorful character named David Swann who used to collect apples from various disused orchards where he could find heirloom fruit and press them himself. Swann wasn’t an orchardist, but a woodworker (the bar at the Woodstock outpost is his work), yet his DIY ciders inspired Matt to forsake grapes for apples.
We began our tour at an old fruit warehouse a few miles from the brewery in Hood River. Facilities like this are scattered across the valley, and they’re big. This one is 25,000 square feet, which doesn’t do the space justice because the ceiling soars 24 feet above the cement pad. Double Mountain uses it as storage, and it’s big enough they’re storing cans for Everybody’s Brewing and beer for pFriem—and there’s still plenty of room for fruit, beer, and ingredients storage for Double Mountain. And, as I was shocked to discover, this:
That’s a bladder wine press. Inside the cylinder is a large balloon that inflates, pressing the fruit against the sides of the drum to squeeze the juice out. It works well with apples too—it’s what Kevin Zielinski uses at EZ Orchards—though when he received his from Italy, Matt found only instructions about how to press different grape varieties. Double Mountain also has a mill and dedicated tanks onsite for fermentation. We tried a bit of Dry Cider that had been fermenting for five weeks and had a couple more to go to condition. Seeing these large (and I presume expensive) pieces of equipment further reset my understanding of just how committed to cider Double Mountain is. It’s one (big!) thing to grow your own apples; it’s another level of commitment to actually buy a mill and press.
We were off to the orchard next, where more trees are about to go in. Matt’s cider trees aren’t very old, and his current supply is limited. “I've got about an acre and a half of cider apples in the ground, but am planting another block this spring with 1,600 cider trees coming in—two varieties of higher tannin/tart varieties to bring ever more character to what we do.”
As he’s increased his orchard, he’s planted a selection of famous cider varieties, and these go into his Heirloom Estate blend: Dabinett, Foxwhelp (a favorite of mine), Harrison, Wickson Crab, Golden Russet, Brown Snout, Kingston Black, as well as some Braeburn.
For his Dry Cider and the new Rosé, he was able to source heirloom fruit from the Valley, and will need to consider doing so until new trees—almost ready for planting when I arrived, come online and start producing. “I source local Newtown Pippins from three different growers in Hood River and blend in some Heirloom varieties as well from couple of niche Heirloom growers also here in Parkdale and Odell.” One important grower is Randy Kiyokawa, a third-generation grower in Hood River since 1911. Randy was the source for the Mountain Rose, one of the two red-fleshed apples. (Kiyokawa Farms grows some classic cider apples—Ashmead’s Kernel, Dabinett, Kingston Black, Roxbury Russet, Winesap, Wickson Crab, Yarlington Mill—as well as a bunch of cool Japanese varieties.)
Growers in the valley have been very helpful in getting Matt started, and he works with an orchardist on his farm—Rich Hanners, famous for his giant Eve’s Delight apples. Listening to him talk, it reminded me a lot of the camaraderie among brewers. “Having been around the orchards and growing for the last 20 years, I've established some great relationships with the growers and can walk the fields with them at spring and throughout the season and pick varieties that will blend well for the dry cider.”
This is the year when Double Mountain is really ramping up production. “I've been working with one of the heirloom growers and we've done a few single varietals as a seasonal. They were anxious to showcase what the singular approach to cider production and learn the nuances of each variety. Rosè just shipped April 1, so rough schedule is Arkansas Black in June, Wickson in August, then we'll kick it back in next season with new pears for Perry first thing in November.“
Cidermaking is a lot different than making beer. The flavors come from the fruit and fermentation, and nothing else. In my experience, brewers tend to treat juice like wort—it’s the easy step in the process, the thing you do once the hard work is done. But the composition of flavors, which comes from the holy trinity of acid, tannin, and sweetness, is very different than beer. Ferments, too, behave differently. Matt started making cider with a level of respect for this craft, but that didn’t mean he avoided all pitfalls. Some batches of the cider have come in sulfury, and he and his head cidermaker, Rich Dickens, have been learning blending as they go. I like the Dry Cider more than the Estate, for example, because the blend is clearer and more harmonious. Estate will evolve, though, as Matt and Rich figure out how their apples interact. Of the other stuff filtering out this year, I especially enjoyed the Wickson single-varietal; it’s bright and lightly acidic like a white wine.
Matt plans to get into barrel-aging and wild fermentation, and he even talked about keeving. (I, meanwhile, will continue to lobby for him to go see some farmhouse cidermakers in Herefordshire and Normandy.)
Double Mountain has plenty of time for all of this, because they’re in for the long haul. “My approach on the cider is to learn and be a nice add-on to what we do at the brewery. When we started Double Mountain, the cider and fruit (krieks) were always going to be part of the story. It just evolved more slowly because I never wanted to use bulk juice or apples that I couldn't put my hands on.” It will be wonderful to watch this brewery continue to grow and evolve into its new co-identity as a proper cidery.