A River Runs Through It

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With 12 cideries to choose from, each with its own specialties, the Columbia River Gorge is ripe for a road trip.

STORY BY MEGAN HILL

Certain things about the Columbia River Gorge are impossible to miss: the drama of those steep cliffs. The ferocious wind. And the astounding abundance of booze.

Breweries, wineries, and cideries are fixtures in this river-threaded gash that forms the Washington-Oregon border just east of Portland. The rise in cideries, in particular, certainly makes sense: Not only is the beverage experiencing a meteoric jump in popularity, but the area is home to scores of orchards producing fruit for every bottle and keg in the region.

The Gorge holds around 12 tasting rooms and cideries (depending on how you draw the region’s borders) serving a diversity of styles. Thanks in large part to the availability of fruit, many cluster in the Hood River Valley, where the Hood River intersects the Columbia.

The Columbia River Gorge offers a double-whammy that perfectly suits fruit growth: a temperate climate and fertile land. Though hard cider has only recently come into vogue, fruit growing has not. Early homesteaders, in the mid-1800s, grew apples and pears, and for-profit sales launched in 1876, when Ezra Smith planted the first commercial orchard in the area.

Today, some 400 orchards, covering 15,000 acres, carpet the area, offering U-pick, tours, and fruit stands; several cideries also operate orchards. The Hood River County Fruit Loop is touted as the nation’s largest pear-growing area, and there are apples, wine grapes, and berries aplenty. It’s a popular place for tourists, who come to sample the goods. Drinking Gorge-produced cider in the Gorge, then, is a unique way to sample the region.

With so many options to choose from, consider picking a handful of stand-out cideries, head to a tasting room like Crush Cider Cafe that pours from several makers (as well as crafts its own), or plan a trip around an event like the Hood River Hard-Pressed Cider Fest, held in April. The dozen producers in the Gorge have also formed the Gorge Cider Society, a cooperative venture to promote the craft, which publishes a digital map of area cideries.

This chunk of Oregon is ripe for a road trip.

Rivercider, in Hood River, is perhaps the best example of the history-meets-modernity story of Columbia River Gorge apples. The farm, which produces all the cidery’s apples, traces its origins to 1886, when J.W. Morton founded Riverside Farms. Today, Morton’s great-great-grandson, Jordan Struck, runs the farm and co-runs its cider production.

“We truly make farmhouse cider,” Jordan says. “We grow the apples we use, and our crafting process is done entirely in-house, from juicing to bottling. We also hand-bottle each cider. Very labor intensive, but it means we have 100 percent quality control.” Jordan and his fellow cidermaker, Tony Gay, don’t make cider year-round, but only once — right after the fall harvest — and in very small batches. Visitors can stop in by appointment only, or try the ciders in area tasting rooms and restaurants.

Jordan’s favorite? The Crazy Crow hard cider, aged in American oak barrels and infused with Oregon blackberries. “It’s a dry cider, with subtle, floral notes of blackberry. Not syrupy or over-the-top like some other fruit-flavored ciders.”

One of Rivercider’s Hood River neighbors, Slopeswell Cider, is another producer of hard-to-find styles. Cidermaker John Metta specializes in Spanish and French farmhouse styles, relying on wild fermentation or using a French wine yeast that he “went through great lengths to get from France.”

Many of the ciders, which can be sampled at the tasting room in Hood River, have developed a slight sourness; all are bone-dry, with subtle flavors reminiscent more of white wine than the overly-sweet, in-your-face supermarket ciders. Some ciders use other fruit, too, like sour cherries or raspberries; one is dry-hopped. “That’s where my heart is,” John says. “You’ll get hints of fruit character without overwhelming the palate.”

John recommends trying his ciders with a bite of food, which helps highlight their subtleties. The taproom encourages this by offering a small menu that includes a smoked salmon and cheese plate, hummus, and empanadas.

Seven miles to Hood River’s east, the small riverside town of Mosier is home to two cideries: Rack & Cloth and Runcible Cider.

At Rack and Cloth, owners Kristina Nance and Silas Bleakley press Gorge-grown apples on-site, and the leftover solid remains — the pomace — are used to feed their farm’s livestock, which, in turn, fertilizes their orchards. Additional fruit is sourced exclusively from an organic grower 20 miles away.

“The Hood River Valley is a great place to grow fruit, making the Columbia River Gorge a great place to make hard cider,” Kristina says. “It doesn’t have to travel far. It’s also important to note that it’s an integral part of the culture of our community here in the Gorge to eat and drink locally as much as possible; there’s a tremendous amount of community support for small food- and beverage-producing businesses.”

Kristina and Silas ferment the juice slowly, over many months. They don’t filter their ciders, so the longer they ages, the more complex they grow. “We strive for consistent quality rather than consistent flavor,” says Kristina. “We acknowledge and embrace the varying character that each year’s harvest has, as well as the development of flavors as the cider itself matures. The result is cider that is complex, dry, well-balanced, vinous, and sometimes fruity — but never sweet.”

The couple’s Mosier taproom serves farm-to-table fare, with as much of the produce as possible grown by their farm or other farms in the area. That means an ever-changing menu that’s in tune with the seasons. Environmental consciousness extends to the farm’s solar panels, its choice to forgo bottling (the Mosier area doesn’t recycle glass), and the reduction of water use and other inputs.

Kristina says it’s tough to pick a favorite, but the Stony Pig, a blended dry cider, is her go-to. “It’s like a favorite pair of jeans,” she says. “Not the fanciest, but goes with everything and is supremely comfortable. It’s dry and crisp but really accessible.”

At Runcible Cider, also in Mosier, Kelly McCune relies on apples she grows, as well as those from nearby orchards. Though the land she purchased was originally planted with cherry trees, she’s replaced them with cider apple trees; she’s also working on opening a tasting room at the farm. For now, her ciders are available by appointment at the cidery, at Crush Cider Café in Hood River, and at several cider-focused taprooms in Portland. Eventually, Kelly, who has a background in food, wants to add events, like cider-pairing dinners, and start a cider club that lets members help with picking and crushing.

Kelly’s ciders are all made from hand-picked apples, and each sip carries a natural effervescence created by adding a few dashes of sugar to re-energize the residual yeast left after the initial fermentation. Runcible has earned regional respect for its incredible balance, where tannins and sugars work in harmony.

Kelly takes pride in being a part of the Gorge’s “cider club.” “We have a lot of cooperation among us,” she says. “It’s a really nice group of people making cider here. When you visit our area, you can see all the different ways you can approach cider. And, of course, we all use fruit from our area. I can’t think of anyone sourcing from outside the area. With all this amazing fruit, why would they?”

Kelly takes pride in being a part of the Gorge’s “cider club.” “We have a lot of cooperation among us,” she says. “It’s a really nice group of people making cider here. When you visit our area, you can see all the different ways you can approach cider. And, of course, we all use fruit from our area. I can’t think of anyone sourcing from outside the area. With all this amazing fruit, why would they?”

IF YOU GO
Visit the website GorgeCiderSociety.com for a digital map and profiles of each cidery telling which ones have tours, food, live music, U-Pick, and are dog- friendly.


Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.

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