PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. —I couldn't smell any of the fragrant apples on this finger-numbing cold November afternoon. But Steve "Bear" Bishop would change that in mere minutes.
With his white mane fluttering from under a cap, he hopped onto his John Deere, forklifted two bins of Honeycrisp onto the sorting table and watched as the apples made their way into the presser.
"Does this smell good or what?" he yelled, over the loud churning. "It smells like honey."
It was one of many batches that would go into the stainless-steel tank to ferment. It will be bottled in coming months for Bishop's Wildfire Cider, all made at this cidery on the edge of town.
In years past, this repetitive task of pressing and juicing fresh apples would generate little excitement, with no audience, no folks asking questions about aging in oak barrels or the craft of cider making.
But hard cider has become big in this apple state, and it's getting the tourism treatment like breweries and wineries. Tasting rooms are popping up. Cider-pairing dinners, too: In November, Dahlia Lounge and Ivar's both held hard-cider pairing events that sold out. The Herbfarm in Woodinville even held a $125 cider-pairing feast last summer.
This year, hard cider earned its own tasting area at the city's biggest food and wine event, Taste of Washington, and at the summer's biggest beer event, the Washington Brewers Festival.
And this fall, at the inaugural Cider Summit N.W., dozens of cider makers from as far away as California and British Columbia came to South Lake Union to showcase ciders in all their glory — English and French style, dry to sweet, bubbly and dessert cider.
It's so popular now that foodies and booze fans are driving directly to the cider houses to drink and check out the operations — all mom-and-pop affairs, spread across the state, mostly in farming communities.
Want to try a cider tour of your own, maybe pick up some samples for the holidays? Make a day trip to the Port Townsend area, where three cider houses — Eaglemount Cider, Finnriver Farm & Cidery, and Wildfire Cider — are within a 10- to 20-minute drive of each other.
From them, you can learn how hard cider gets made, how varied their taste profiles are and what food to pair them with.
You have to drive into a long, winding gravel driveway off Eaglemount Road, southeast of Discovery Bay, to get to this former homestead, circa 1883. Jim and Trudy Davis live in the refurbished cedar cabin.
The century-old apple trees on their 35-acre spread still bear the fruit that goes into their ciders, said Jim Davis, who was on his tractor when I pulled up.
"We had so many apples here, we had to do something with them," said his wife, a winemaker who started selling hard ciders at the local farmers market in 2007. Back then, they needed to explain to shoppers what hard cider was. You know. There's alcohol. Like beer.
No explanations needed now. They make about 500 cases a year, and it sold so well that Trudy has increased production and will have to shorten the nine-month barrel-aging process so they will have some ciders left to sell in the spring.
Eaglemount ciders taste crisp and clean. In her tasting room, she offers six varieties, from dry to sweet, including a ginger cider to pair with Asian food. She also sells her line of wine here.
—Finnriver Farm & Cidery
About three miles east of Eaglemount Cider, Finnriver Farm is the most visitor-friendly of the three. Farmers Keith and Crystie Kisler opened a tasting room last summer and invited visitors to peek into the backroom where they make cider.
You get a panoramic view of the valley, with their blueberry field and orchards. There are sheep, pigs and chickens down the hill, and a bridge over Chimacum Creek with a chum salmon run. Live music and other performances are held on their farm.
Visitors are encouraged to pick up a self-guided tour map, roam around and ask questions.
"We want people to see a working organic, small-scale farm and how we make cider," said Keith Kisler.
You can't miss the tasting room on their 33-acre spread. From the gravel parking lot, the fragrance of crushed apples fills the air.
Their ciders range from a dry Champagne style to a more traditional European take with a pungent, barnyard-like aroma that is popular with cider connoisseurs.
They've sold 95 percent of their ciders in stock, the couple said. Like other cider makers, the Kisler's production had been modest in years past. The sudden interest in hard cider has left Kisler and the others scrambling to make more.
Kisler has doubled his production for next year. But his ciders are still fermenting and won't be bottled until late winter and early spring.
You likely won't find much Finnriver cider left in stores this winter. But the owners saved some for visitors who stop by the tasting room.
Closer to Port Townsend, the cider house operated by Bishop and his wife, Nancy, produces the state's only certified organic hard cider. There are 900 apple trees of English and French varietals on their 5-acre farm.
The couple will build a tasting room next year. But folks can call ahead and stop by to tour their orchards, watch them press and hear how cider gets made.
Taking a break after pressing apples all morning, Bishop poured a cup of his signature Pirate's Plank cider, which has been aged in oak barrels for two months. It was made from four different European apples with some Granny Smith to add acidity and round out the bitter English varietals.
It's the driest cider I've tasted in the state and one of the best. A few sips and you can pucker your mouth with loud popping sounds. It goes well with smoked steelhead and game meat, Bishop said between sips.
What started out as a hobby for the couple turned into a business after they planted their first orchard in 2003.
Our state has come a long way, said Bishop, strolling along the 20 rows of orchards by his cabin. His European heirloom apples are bitter and high in tannins, producing the dry and complex ciders that he loved in France, England and Spain.
Five years ago, hard ciders were so bubbly and sweet, "you couldn't even taste what came out of those apples," he said.
"We're seeing a lot more quality ciders now. You can taste that they are made from a variety of apples. It's much more complex."
IF YOU GO:
Get there by taking either the Bainbridge Island ferry from Seattle to Winslow or the Edmonds ferry to Kingston. Follow signs to the Hood Canal Bridge. See websites for directions to the three cider houses. Ferry schedules and fares at www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.
Eaglemount Wine & Cider, 2350 Eaglemount Road, Port Townsend; 360-732-4084 or www.eaglemountwinery.com. Tasting room open Friday-Sunday noon-5 p.m.
Finnriver Farm & Cidery, 62 Barn Swallow Road, Chimacum (10 miles south of Port Townsend); 360-732-4337 or www.finnriver.com. Tasting room open Friday-Sunday 1-5 p.m.
Wildfire Cider, 220 Pocket Lane, Port Townsend; 360-379-8915 or www.wildfirecider.com. Regular visiting hours from June to September; by appointment at other times of the year.
On the ferry, pick up a copy of the "Getaway" guide to Port Townsend. On Page 24 is a map with directions to the cider houses.
You can make it a wine, beer and cider tour since Port Townsend also has several wineries and the popular Port Townsend Brewing Co., 330 10th St. (www.porttownsendbrewing.com).
OTHER HARD-CIDER PRODUCERS:
Red Barn Cider, 16163 Highway 536, Mount Vernon; 206-321-9424 or 360-428-6894, or www.redbarncider.com.
Snowdrift Cider Co., 277 Ward St., East Wenatchee; 509-630-3507 or www.snowdriftcider.com.
Tieton Cider Works, Tieton, Yakima County; 509-673-2880 or www.tietonciderworks.com.
Vashon Winery (also makes hard cider), 10317 S.W. 156th St., Vashon Island; 206-567-0055 or www.vashonwinery.com.
Westcott Bay Cider, San Juan Island; 360-378-3880 or www.westcottbaycider.com. MORE INFORMATION: Northwest Cider Association: www.nwcider.com More on Port Townsend: www.enjoypt.com