The Best Northwest Ciders

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Blind tasting results: Ciders to seek out from Washington, Oregon, and Montana. [Photographs: Chris Lehault]

Think 'Pacific Northwest' when you're thirsty, and you'll likely picture hops. Or coffee, perhaps, or rain. What you're probably not thinking about is apples. But about 100 miles north of hoptopia's famed Yakima Valley is another valley—the Wenatchee Valley—where a different bumper crop is fueling the Northwest bar scene. Here, one of America's oldest drinks may just be the next big thing.

Apples, Apples Everywhere...

Washington grows more apples than any other state in America does. Washington farms are so efficient at harvesting, pressing, and transporting that hundreds of gallons of juice can go from farm to fermentor in as little as 48 hours. And where there is juice, there will always be cider.

But Washington's apples orchards are mostly industrial operations designed to churn out Galas, Grannies, and other supermarket varieties at unprecedented yields. These apples are great for eating but, when fermented, can be rather dull and insipid.

Most cidermakers overcome this lifeless juice by blending it with heirloom fruit from local orchards. Others use local breweries as inspiration and treat the juice as a blank slate, adding in hops, fruit, or putting the cider away to age in barrels. Some of the purists prefer to grow their own apples, collecting fruit from backyard orchards, or foraging wild apples.

Pacific Northwest Cider Styles

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Rows of cider apples line the backyard orchard at Alpenfire Cider in Port Townsend, WA.

Most ciders from the Pacific Northwest fall into two categories: orchard ciders and craft ciders.

Orchard ciders are all about apples reaching their fullest potential. These ciders are easy to spot because their labels either mention the apples by name or historical region. Terms like "bittersweet," "heirloom," or "English cider varieties" are printed across the front of these bottles. Most of these ciders are fermented slowly, over several months, to retain all the subtle flavors and aromas of the fruit. The results tend to be lively and bright: ranging from crisp (like dry Champagne), fruity and tangy (like Sauvignon Blanc), or even funky (like a Belgian Lambic).

Craft ciders, on the other hand, have more in common with beer than traditional cider. They are fermented more quickly, and cider makers are often more focused on acidity and sugar content than seeking out heirloom fruit. But what these ciders lack in horticultural pedigree, they more than make up for in creative flair. If a cider bottle boasts dry hopping, barrel aging, or a special seasonal theme, you're looking at craft cider. These tend to be sweeter than orchard ciders, but the best examples find balance between apples and any other ingredients.

Our Pacific Northwest Picks

While beer drinkers sometimes gravitate towards hopped ciders when spotted on a menu, even the biggest IPA fans in our blind taste test preferred orchard ciders to craft ones. Of the three dozen bottles that we tasted from Washington, Oregon, and Montana, these were our favorites:

Westcott Bay Cider Traditional Dry (Friday Harbor, WA)

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Using apples grown in Westcott Bay's own orchards on San Juan Island, Westcott Bay's Traditional Dry is a stellar example of traditional cider fruit fermented with precise, modern technique. The flavors from Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill, Dabinette, and Sweet Coppin apples are amplified by the cider's mild sweetness, soft, round tannins, and medium body. The rich, golden color teases at flavors of turbinado sugar, fresh apples, and a touch of smoke. This a polished cider evolves with every sip. If you are going to try just one cider on this list, seek out this bottle.

EZ Orchards Hawk Haus (Salem, OR)

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EZ Orchard's Cidre, a faithful recreation of traditional cider from Normandy is a favorite among local cider makers. But these days I prefer their new Hawk Haus cider, a livelier cider made from a blend of Jonathan apples (an American heirloom) and Yarlington Mill apples (traditionally used in British ciders). Hawk Haus is brighter than the Cidre, but still soft, dry, and tannic with flavors of freshly baked tart apples and a bit of caramely bananas Foster. Hawk Haus pairs best with dishes that balance richness with tang, such as roast pork with Granny Smith apples. (We also love it with Chinese takeout.)

Finnriver Perry (Chimacum, WA)

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If you enjoy cocktails made with St. Germain elderflower liqueur, you should try this stuff. Crisp and bright, with a mix of citrusy, floral flavors, this lively perry is perfect for those new to the pear-based beverage. Made from a blend of wild seedlings from Marrowstone island and traditional, English Hendre Huffcap pears, Finnriver Perry has a slight sweetness, a bit like prosecco, and pairs well with truffled cheese and apps made with puff pastry.

Alpenfire Pirate's Plank (Port Townsend, WA)

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The folks at Alpenfire have spent the better part of the last decade mastering the European art of fermentation with wild yeast. The result is a racy cider with hints of citrus, white pepper, and leather. Though made with native yeast, it's devoid of the barnyard and vinegar character common in wild ciders. Produced from estate-grown organic Kingston Black, Vilberie, Dabinett, and Yarlington Mill apples blended with organic Washington Granny Smith apples, Pirate's Plank spends up to six months in oak barrels after primary fermentation—the oak aging bolsters the tannins and adds a spicy tobacco note. Sip it with runny cheeses or roast duck or goose.

Montana Ciderworks Small Batch McIntosh (Conner, MT)

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McIntosh apples are probably the most polarizing fruit in the cider community. Their flavor is so familiar that it can sometimes overwhelm a cider blend. But they also offer tantalizing floral notes—in the right hands, these apples can yield a fantastic sweet cider devoid of the artificial flavors found in many sixpacks.

This cider from Montana's Ciderworks is the best McIntosh cider we've ever tried. It's easygoing and luscious with enough acidity to keep it from tasting overly sweet. Apple compote flavors mingle with a hint of honey to complement a crisp-skinned roast turkey as well as a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Track some down for the holidays.

Feeling Adventurous? Unusual NW Ciders to Try

Cider Riot! 1763 (Portland, OR)

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Cider Riot! is Portland's newest urban cidery, committed to making English-style cider on American soil. 1763 is the most brazen of their offerings with enamel-ripping acidity and mouth-puckering tannins reminiscent of those found in England's West Country. It's bold stuff, full of sweet ripe orange flavors cut by hints of chicory and bitter herbs. If you start your evening with Campari or other aperitifs, try this a bright, bubbly alternative.

Forgotten Virtue Hard Pear Cider (Neigel Vintners, E. Wenatchee, WA)

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Earthy flavors—hints of mustard seed and preserved lemon—blend with a sharpness and funk similar to what you'd find in Belgian lambic in this Spanish-style perry from the heart of Oregon's orchards. Edgy, with just a touch of sweetness, Forgotten Virtue can complement the tang of cheddar cheese or cut through the richness of grilled salmon. If you like a little funk with your pears, then Forgotten Virtue is the perry for you.