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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cider Saturday: Wandering Aengus

James Kohn (L) and Nick Gunn
 “Orchard-based ciders, that’s what I’m calling them.”  That comment came from Wandering Aengus's James Kohn, and it led to one of my key recent insights about the nature of cider.  It's an odd thing to say, isn't it?  What else besides orchard-based would a cider be?  This is one of the areas where beer and cider diverge sharply, and it's something I hope everyone puts firmly in their head--especially if the alternative is using the word "craft."  Beer people may hate mass market lagers, but they can't deny that they are still beer, just like double IPAs.  Made from malt and hops, mashed, lautered, boiled, and fermented--all beer is made like that.

But mass market ciders are actually a different thing altogether. They're made with water and sugar, sometimes apple concentrate, get their acidity from malic acid, and their apple flavor from a back-sweetening of apple juice after fermentation (and before pasteurization), and some even use apple essence to aromatize things.  They're reverse-engineered drinks made to simulate the natural flavor of apples. 

Wandering Aengus, like most of the new Northwest cideries, makes orchard-based cider.  The ingredients are apples, yeast, and touch of sulfite* (a naturally-occuring compound that retards oxidation).  In a Wandering Aengus, you get about three apples in liquid form, fermented.  What distinguishes the products are the apple varieties and attenuation.

Nick's eyes!
I had the opportunity to make a run to Salem twice in as many weeks to visit cideries, and first up was one of the oldest, Wandering Aengus.  Old is a relative term, of course--Wandering Aengus is just a decade old.  But it was enough time for them to round up some of the best apples in orchards ranging from Hood River down to Ashland.  Founder Nick Gunn calls it “the largest collection—that we know of—of this heirloom cider fruit in the country.”  (I suspect it's actually the largest collection on the West Coast--I suspect Farnum Hill has more.)

There's still just not a ton of traditional cider fruit out there, so Wandering Aengus ciders tend toward the tart and acidic.  In one interesting experiment, Gunn and Kohn have used oak-aging in one dry cider to pull tannins from something other than the fruit.  Like breweries, cideries have a house character that comes from the preferences of the makers.  What you get in Wandering Aengus are strong, assertive, and very dry, tart ciders.  They're a really nice counterpoint to the sweet ciders made with dessert fruit that are more common.

Head cider-maker Adam
Cocker (a former brewer)
The cidery also makes sweeter, easier-drinking ciders under their Anthem banner--the line most people will have tried.  These are made with Washington dessert fruit (eating apples), which leaves them without a ton of character.  Sugars convert directly to alcohol, and without acids and tannins and aromatic compounds, the ciders can be one-dimensional.  Like other cideries, Kohn and Gunn enliven them with other fruit--pear and tart cherry--to add interest.  They also have what is now pretty common, a hopped cider.  It started here: “Hop ciders are actually our progeny," Gunn said.  "James’ baby."  This year they took the very short drive to the hop fields and made a fresh-hop version as well.

If you're wondering whether the cider thing is really a thing (there's even a game!), consider Wandering Aengus.  This year they did about 650 barrels of the Wandering Aengus line, and 5,000 of Anthem.  Next year they expect to double their volume.  Eleven thousand barrels?  That's definitely a thing.

*We can tackle the sulfite debate another time.


  1. James gets credit for the modern reinvention of hopped cider, but there are historical references to it hundreds of years ago. Jeff if you need the source, I can dig it up. They were using Fuggle-type and bittersweet apples back then so it's an entirely different drink!

  2. Honest Question. Is Oregon's Cider scene as unbearably white as the beer scene?

  3. Reality -

    What would you have people do, recruit cidermakers in non-white neighborhoods?

  4. I'm not sure what to do. It is an honest question for Jeff. He is the one that broke the story of racism in the Oregon craft scene. Count the number of non-white people you see in the Oregon Brewed segment. Zero.

    This is a serious issue. It turns my stomach a little bit. I won't be buying any Oregon craft until they sort this issue out. Peaceful boycotts are one tool for people that are disturbed by this.

  5. Nat, I'd love a gander at your historical stuff--for a lot of reasons. I should also come visit your joint soon.

  6. Reality, let's clarify a few things. While craft brewing is overwhelmingly white, that doesn't make it racist. Huge difference. Nearly every social phenomenon has different demographics--its an issue of sorting by self-selection.

    Is cider dominated by white people? As far as I can tell, but it's a tiny scene compared to even craft beer. But before we start talking about malign motivation, I'd ask how many black orchardists you expect to find in the Pacific Northwest.

  7. My recent article Craft Cider – Do You Know It When You See It? helps drinkers to distinguish "orchard-based" cider from not. It's great to see you acknowledge that beer is made roughly the same way across the quality spectrum, whereas cider is certainly not.

    Wandering Aengus is a pioneer for quality cider in much the same way that Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams were pioneers for quality beer. I expect Nick and James to keep putting out a good product even if they do see the exponential growth that many people are predicting for cider!

  8. There are actually quite a few Japanese American orchardists in the Hood River valley. For example Kiyokawa Family Orchards who grow heirloom apples, including cider apples.