Apple cider is an alcoholic beverage which calls back memories from a distant time; ancestral memories of hearth, home and apple trees. A taste of summer gladness on the lips for frosty winter’s day. Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse on St. Michael’s Mountain near Saanichton, Vancouver Island is aiming to bring those memories back in a big way.
Owner Kristen Needham, who originally came from Medicine Hat and has deep ranching roots in the southern Alberta farm community, says cidering calls back a traditional way of life to meet a present day need.
“When I got married, we made homemade cider for our wedding guests,” remembers Needham. “I spent two years studying in Wales, and it was a real eye-opener in many ways. One of the things that was important during that time was the food and socialability where cider featured prominently in the culture locally.
“So part of it was my exposure to cider, and just that European culture of food and drink, at a young age, but if I hadn’t inherited an apple orchard, I don’t think I would be a cider maker today.”
Needham credits her father Jim for buying a summer property in British Columbia when she was younger. It had an old apple orchard on it, which her father had hoped to one day re-plant, but sadly passed away before he could do so.
Needham later continued to visit the summer property and the orchard with her own children while engaged in her first career as and international development consultant.
About 15 years-ago she decided to make a big change in her life, and the first thing she thought of was the orchard and starting a cider business.
After buying her current property on Vancouver Island, it took Needham five years to get her cider production up and running. Right from the beginning, she was all in.
“You can make cider out of any apple, but it takes some special varieties to make great cider. We decided from the get-go we were going to plant those special cider varieties.”
Needham planted 60 different varieties of “inedible” apples too sour for casual munching, but perfect for cidering. Her neighbours, many of whom owned commercial orchards, thought she was crazy, but Needham had a strong vision of where she wanted to go and was determined to get there.
“It took five years of planning and going to cider school while looking for a suitable farm property before we were finally able to open our doors to the public and sell our first bottle of cider,” Needham continues.
“Many ciders are delicious. If you want to ferment a hard apple cider and add raspberries, grapefruit or chocolate to it, you can. There are all sorts of things people are adding today, and those can be pretty delicious.
“But I think where the real art is where you are just working with apples, and you can achieve complexity and nuances just by choosing the right ones.”
Needham also decided to get Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse certified organic, which is a particularly challenging designation to keep up in the orchard business, where the pests and potential diseases can be absolutely devastating to your operation.
“The key to organic orcharding is prevention,” says Needham. “You are trying to avoid disease and infestations by just practicing good orcharding, like making sure you are pruning to allow for light and airflow to get through. And you are working on your soil to ensure it is nutrient rich. The trees do best when their roots are in really healthy soil so we spend a lot of time making sure the soil is as healthy as it can be.”
Tent caterpillars and deer can also be challenging to deal with. For the deer Needham has fences and dogs, for the tent caterpillars she only has vigilance, hard work and dedication.
“We will go through the orchard and prune out those nests manually,” she says.
Great cider may start with the right variety of apples, but it’s the of a whole series of choices you have to make along the way which dictates the quality of the final product, says Needham.
“I always like to say making cider is deceptively simple. It’s apples, plus yeast, plus people. The yeast is the alchemy which is turning the apples into liquid gold, but you need a team of people who know what they are doing. You need a team of people who is really committed to the operation and goal of making good cider. That work starts in the orchard and finishes in the bottling room, but there is a lot that goes on between.”
Harvest in the orchard generally starts in August, depending on the variety and weather, and finishes in late October. After harvest the apples are left to dehydrate for a few weeks to concentrate the sugars and get rid of excess water before being put into the juicing press. Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse uses a traditional cloth and rack juicing press.
“Once the apples are ready to go into the press, we use a traditional rack and cloth press. The apples get washed, then they get put through a grinder and it is pomace which comes out of the grinder. It’s that pomace which gets shovelled onto a rack. Then you’ve got a whole rack of what we call cheeses. You press those altogether. It’s a traditional technique which has been used for centuries, and it’s interesting how you get a surprisingly high juice yield from this very traditional technique.”
After pressing the juice is put into a special fermentation tank with different varieties of champagne yeast. Fermentation time dictates the type of cider you’ll get in the end.
“On a typical day, we will juice about 1,500 litres,” explains Needham. “The juice will go into a tank, and then we’ll pitch the yeast… Once the yeast has been pitched then fermentation takes a month or two, depending on the weather. The cooler the weather, the slower the fermentation.
“Once fermentation has finished and the yeast has converted all the sugar and juice into alcohol for some of our cider we allow it to age a little longer,” continues Needham. “Some of the cider we want to bottle right away. We produce over a dozen different styles of cider. The longer the cider is aged, I would say the more wine-like it becomes.”
Needham’s dedication and effort has recently paid off in a notable way. In May, her cider brand called “Bittersweet” won the Dan Berger International Cider Competition in Sonoma County, California.
“It’s been 15 years of hard work and planning, and lots of lessons learned along the way,” says Needham, who is understandably ecstatic with the victory. “We will continue to grow. When we first opened our doors for business 10 years-ago, we produced 5,000 litres that first year. We will be approaching 150,000 litres by the end of this year. There has been kind of a cider renaissance in the last few years. You are seeing more cider and cider-makers on the market.”
For more information on where to buy Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse brands visit their website to see vendor locations nearby.