It must have come as a bit of a shock to Joel VandenBrink when he discovered that he could no longer drink beer. That’s a small exaggeration, but several years after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease the owner and head brewer at the award winning Two Beers Brewing in Seattle realized that his system just couldn’t handle more than a one beer at a sitting. For someone whose company motto was “life’s a little more honest after two beers” being limited to one was pretty close to being cut off entirely. Friend and colleague Brent Miles, with his family history of celiac disease, faced a similar problem. Luckily, they were in a perfect position to explore creating a great tasting session beverage that was easier for them to digest. A gluten-free beer was an obvious choice, but they had a better idea – make cider!
As brewers they already understood the basics of fermentation, the importance of cleanliness, and the mechanics of getting from raw ingredients to liquid in a bottle or keg. So they set out to learn about apples. They started with small tests of indivdual apple varieties all fermented under identical condtions, then moved on to fermenting the same apple varieties at different temperatures, and finally with different strains of yeast. Along the way they sampled and took notes and did the one thing that is essential for every cider maker – they taught themselves how to taste. Anyone can learn the mechanics of makng cider, but the art is in being able to understand and combine flavor components that can make up a perfectly balanced, perfectly drinkable glass. Seattle Cider Company, the first cidery opened in Seattle since Prohibition, launched next door to its sister Two Beers in 2013 and has never looked back (Washington’s alcohol laws dictated separate companies under separate licenses). They produce two year round ciders, dry and semi-dry, made from a blend of desert apples grown and pressed in the nearby Yakima Valley for same day delivery to the cidery, as well as a rotating range of seasonal and limited release ciders using a similar juice blend in combination with other flavor components such as the spent gin botanicals they get from local small distilery Batch 206. Unlike some flavored ciders, any extras are added before fermentation gets underway so that the yeast has an opportuntiy to work its alchemical magic on a richer starting mix. The results are often more nuanced than obvious. The pumpkin, cloves, and cinnamon in the Pumpkin Spice doesn’t scream of pumpkin pie but of a warm subtle earthiness. Similarly, the Three Peppers cider builds its flavors in layers, starting with an intriguing muskiness in the nose from the poblanos, to the sharp green bite of the jalapeños, finishing with the citrusy habañero. The combination is snappy without being overwhelming. The company gives a nod to more traditional Old World ciders with its Heirloom Blend, a combination of Pippin, Winesap, Jonagold, and seven varieties of British and French cider apples. Explosively sparkling, this rich straw-colored cider has a ripe apple nose and a flavor arc that starts with a summer fruitiness – a bit of apricot, perhaps – that gives way to a tart brightness with an underpinning of mild tannins and a smooth clean finish. As with all the Seattle Cider offerings, the bottle lists the level of residual sugar, the brix. This is a very sensible labeling choice on Seattle Cider’s part, for nothing can be more dissapointing to the discerning cider drinker than selecting a cider with the word “Dry” on the label only to discover that the cider inside is sweet enough to double as a desert topping.
As with many cideries, Seattle Cider has a tap room, The Woods, serving both their ciders and Two Beers brews. It’s a popular spot tucked away in a somewhat gritty area of warehouses and the like, perfectly in keeping with Seattle’s modern youthful edge. It’s also a perfect place for Joel and Brent to try out new ideas and get a little instant feedback on future releases. As several of their first ciders garnered awards at the 2014 inaugural Pacific Northwest Cider Awards, Joel and Brent appear to be looking at a very bright future indeed.