A Northwest Cidermaker's Terroir

Terroir is a French word that has no English equivalent – a rough translation is "a taste of place”.  The term was originally used to describe the unique character of wines from different regions in France, but now is applied to agricultural products such as olive oil, coffee, cheeses, liquors and honey from all over the world. Terroir is occasionally used in reference to cider, but not in the Northwest. Most, though not all, Northwest cider makers are doing things quite a bit differently than their old world counterparts. 

The definition of Northwest cider terroir starts with whether or not the cidermaker even sees an apple, much less an orchard. If fruit and farm are part of the mix, the definition  includes the agricultural methods employed, post harvest handling, cider making techniques and the difficult concept of “sustainable” cider making. It takes this French concept to a place where most Frenchmen would probably agree it does not belong, but they are in France. We are here in Seattle or Portland or Wenatchee, in a new, mixed up frontier of cidermaking.

Whether or not this attempt to define a Northwest cider terroir succeeds or not, it should help form the thoughtful cider drinker’s questions about what is, and what is not, in their glass. 

From fruit, or fruitless? The great divide in cider making is whether the cidermaker starts with apples, a container of apple juice, or concentrate.

Fruitless cider is a kind of virtual terroir - the terroir of no place at all, or everyplace at once. Concentrate is many times easier to ship and handle than real fruit, has become an international commodity (which means it is cheap), and therefore is the choice of most industrial cider makers, large or small. If the cider you are drinking is made in an urban area, it probably is made with concentrate. Since the vast majority of concentrate in this country comes from China - when you see "made from concentrate" on the label, odds are it is a Chinese product.

When a cidermaker starts with a container of juice, versus concentrate, the juice is probably pressed from fruit grown within a few hundred miles of the cidery. There is a chance the variety of apples pressed is known, if not where the specific fruit is sourced.  This is a long way from the traditional notion of terroir, but moving closer.

When you start with fruit you know what the fruit looks like. You know the variety you are pressing and its particular characteristics. You know the condition of the fruit – if it is still fresh, whether there are signs of rot, sunburn, bitter pit, or any other malady or condition which will affect the flavor of the raw cider. You can throw out the fruit that doesn’t meet your standards. When you start with concentrate you have no idea what was thrown into the juicer bin.

Artisanal cider - on the farm, or in the warehouse?   The second question is whether the cidery is located on a farm or in an urban area.

Perfectly good cider, beer and wine are made far from the orchards, hop fields and vineyards where the raw ingredient is grown. Perfectly bad cider can be made on the farm with fruit grown a few feet away in the cidermaker's orchard. As in winemaking, however, a cidermaker who tends his or her own fruit is closer, consciously or subconsciously, to all the things that happen between spring bloom, fall harvest and winter bottling. He or she knows the type and condition of the fruit going into the press. The term "artisanal", which is always a source of debate among cidermakers, is most appropriately applied to ciders made on the farm, from fruit grown on the farm or local orchards. 

Whether artisanal cider is superior to cider made in the warehouse district of Seattle or Portland is very much up to you, but it is an essential element of Northwest cider terroir to know where your cider is made.

What apples? Assuming the cider is made from actual fruit, and not "fruitless" (see above) the question of what apple variety, or varieties, is used by the cidermaker is next.

England, France and Spain are European countries with long cider traditions and farmers who still dedicate a significant portion of their orchards to true cider apples.  A "true cider apple" is characterized by high acid and tannin levels, and is generally unfit to eat. In American colonial times these apples were called "spitters", and still are on the East Coast.

German and Swiss cider apples have high sugar and acid levels, with less tannin, and can often be used on the table as well as in the cidery. Annie Proulx, in her book entitled Cider, painfully observes that in "North America ...the question of which apples make the best cider is something of a headache."

Northwest cidermakers are, for the most part, an amiable group but they can always be stirred up by the question of which apples make the best cider. There are relatively few ciders fermented exclusively from traditional cider fruit. The reasons for this are twofold: there are very few traditional cider apples available in the Northwest (or anywhere in America) compared to conventional varieties; and Americans do not readily accept the astringency associated with high tannin levels. American taste buds seem to have gone the way of the Swiss or Germans, at least as far as cider.

The artisanal cider maker who grows his or her own "true" cider apples is a craftsman.  He or she is the only cidermaker who can claim a kinship with the traditional interpretation of terroir. This doesn't mean that a ferment with heritage fruit will be your favorite cider, but the effort is worth respect and very much a part of the new Northwest terroir.

How is it grown?  Old World terroir is concerned with how the fruit is grown. The New World is also concerned about how their food is grown - the Department of Agriculture received more comment letters and emails when it was promulgating the National Organic Standards than it has received on any other issue.

In the world of viticulture, vines planted in gravelly soils that would be considered poor for any other crop often produce remarkable wine. When a vine is stressed, it focuses its efforts on making fruit, not more vine. When there is less fruit, minerals and other expressions of terroir are concentrated in the grapes that reach harvest. 

Studies on whether organic fruit tastes better than conventionally grown fruit are inconsistent. But, where research results are statistically significant they support the contention that organic fruit does taste better. The reason, or one of the reasons, for a difference in taste follows the logic of the stressed grape vine - organic growers cannot use conventional nitrogen fertilizers and other inputs that increase yield, therefore there is less fruit. Organic fruit is generally smaller, which means that sugars and the nutrients that support flavor are more concentrated.

Aside from flavor, the conventional apple is consistently at the top of the Environmental Watch Group's "dirty dozen" list of fruits and vegetables found to retain pesticides from the field. The pesticides of concern cannot be used on certified organic fruit.

Cider can be made from certified organic fruit, and not be a certified organic cider. For a cider to be certified organic, sulfites and other synthetic additives cannot be used in the cider making process. The cider is either unpastuerized and kept cold, or pasteurized with heat.  

Sustainable cider? All cidermakers have one common sustainable practice - they encourage the planting of apple trees, whether in Wenatchee or Xian.  But there is, of course, much more to this term “sustainable” than planting trees.

When I have a glass of New Belgium beer, the fact that every element of its operation at the Fort Collins campus has been engineered to reduce resource use - from water to aluminum to energy to cardboard - adds something desirable to what is in the glass.  For some, sustainability is the essence of terroir – it is the ultimate sense of place.

Solar panels and recycled packing materials will not make a bad cider a good one. But if a cidery takes into account its strain on the environment and its commitment to community, it may make a good cider taste that much better.

It is another question to ask about what is in your glass...

John Sinclair
Sinclair Orchards
Sixknot Cider