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An apple a day? Hard cider makes a comeback in Washington state

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In an unassuming South Seattle row of warehouses, Seattle Cider Company is making its golden product and squirting it into tall cans decorated with tiny pine trees. The company, that also brews Two Beers beer, has only been open for 10 weeks, but they're the first cidery to open in Seattle since Prohibition.

After more than 100 years of dormancy, hard cider is suddenly back with a vengeance and Washington and Oregon are leading the trend. But before we talk about the present, let's talk about cider's past.

"Cider isn't a new thing," says Andy Petek, cofounder of Woodinville's two-month old Grizzly Ciderworks. "It was really the most popular drink in the country in the 18th and 19th century. We're talking George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson. From the average settler to the founding fathers, they all grew apples and fermented to make cider. The thing about cider back then was it was a lower alcohol content and people could drink it throughout the day. So people drank cider in the morning, all day long, literally, on the battlefield, everywhere."

Andy says despite cider's popularity, it practically disappeared.

"In the late 18th century you started having a lot of immigrants coming from Europe and a lot of German influence brought beer. Beer and spirits are easier to make. You're going through industrialization and people are starting to move to urban areas rather than rural. So beer and spirits got really popular and cider kind of went away. When prohibition rolled around it just completely disappeared."

But in the last year, cider production, and the number of people drinking the crisp, fruity beverage, has increased by three to 400%. Seattle Cider Company founder Joel Venderbrink says there's a big reason for that; it's why he started making cider.

"Five years ago, I got diagnosed with Crohn's disease. At some point I will probably not be able to tolerate gluten and so I still want to be able to drink a product that I make."

The fact that 65% of the country's apples are farmed in the Northwest doesn't hurt the boom either. Although:

"The apples that make good cider are not the ones you eat at the grocery store," Andy explained. "The apples that are good for cider are these tart crabapples. There are a number of different kinds that people stopped farming during this huge dormant period of cider. Now there's a shortage of these. So there's a number of growers on the peninsula who are starting to grow cider acreage, as in the Yakima Valley and the Wenatchee Valley. But they're going to take a little while to be ready and there's a huge demand from this new industry."

But Joel says the sweet apples we're all familiar with work just fine.

"Our cider is made with 100% dessert apples and it turns out really, really well."

The last piece to the "Why is cider suddenly so popular?" puzzle is the fact that Northwesterners love craft alcohol.

"Cider can be done so many different ways," said Andy. "There is dry cider, sweet ciders and beyond apples there are a botanicals, different kinds of fruit, different kids of spices. Hops, like beer. That's what my company specializes in is hop ciders. I mean, people are doing banana ciders and ginger ciders and coffee ciders."

Seattle Cider Company is mixing the old with the new.

"This cider is our winter seasonal," said Joel, pouring me a tall glass from the tasting room tap. "We use brown sugar and raisins in the fermentation and then we back-sweeten it with caramelized brown sugar. Just a touch. It's one of the original recipes from the settlers over in New England. They added brown sugar to their apples and we're doing the same thing. We're bringing back the recipe."

In hard cider news, state legislators are now working on The Cider Act to try and lift the tax burden from small cider producers. Cider is served and distributed like a beer, but because of its higher alcohol content and carbonation, it's taxed far more heftily, like a wine or champagne.

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