For winemaker Andrew Brown, it was a short leap of fermentation to add hard cider to his repertoire. After all, both wine and cider are made from crushed fruit, fermented with yeast and monitored for three key ingredients — sugar, acid and tannins — before bottling after aging.
Brown’s family has been farming in the Walla Walla Valley for three generations. Although they originally focused on apples, the Browns decided to transition to vineyards, establishing Watermill Winery in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, in 2005. In addition to local vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley and The Rocks District in Milton-Freewater, the family also has vineyards in the Rattlesnake Hills of Yakima County and in the Columbia Valley.
By contrast, Brown’s cider apples are sourced from local orchards, using fruit specifically grown for cider.
After Brown graduated from Oregon State University, he returned to his hometown and began working under well-known winemaker Richard Funk, who helped launch Watermill Winery. Soon, Brown was producing his own small batches of wine and cider.
From there, it was a natural progression to move apple presses and fermentation tanks into the Watermill production facility — Blue Mountain Cider was introduced in 2008. Then, Brown took over as head wine- and cider-maker.
Appropriately, Blue Mountain Cider’s historic 1944 production building was originally an apple processing plant and/or a pea cannery. The structure has been renovated and modernized, but its original thick concrete walls and high ceilings keep it naturally cool.
A casual, rustic tap room inside the production facility was created to showcase Blue Mountain Cider. In addition to cider, craft beer is served — Prodigal Son from Pendleton and Dragon’s Gate from Milton-Freewater — along with meat and cheese plates and popcorn. Adjacent, a spacious wood-paneled room — once a storage area for fresh fruit and vegetables — has been repurposed into a game room, complete with dart boards, a pool table and foosball. The company’s wine tasting room occupies a separate historic building, across the patio.
Brown makes six different ciders, available all year long, adding three seasonals in the warmer months. The six year-round signature ciders are Dry Creek, semi-dry; Eden Ridge, semi-sweet; Pear; Cherry; Peach and Estate Gravenstein. Summer additions are trendy fruit-infused ones: pineapple lime, blackberry lime and just plain lime. All varieties are carbonated before bottling.
“We always use fresh-pressed apples for fermentation of our ciders,” said Alex Hedges, sales and marketing manager. “Our apples are grown specifically for cider.” He named varieties like Gravenstein, Pippin, Winesap, Golden Russet, Hudson Gold Gem and Jonagold, all favored for their tannins, acids and sugars. Hedges joined Watermill in 2017 when the Foreman and Kleinman families entered a partnership with the Brown family. Hedges was recruited for his business experience in the wine industry.
Compared to wine, the cider-making process is relatively short. From apples to bottles, the cider cycle can be as short as three weeks. “We usually estimate 90 days from fresh-pressed apples to get our cider to market,” said Hedges. The process begins with pressing fresh apples, which takes a couple days. This is followed by another few days for fermentation. After about two weeks of cold-stabilizing, the liquid produced is filtered and allowed to settle. Bottling takes place the following week. This short turnaround time makes cider an appealing complement to wine, which is generally released about two years after grapes are harvested and crushed.
Cider can be crafted as needed. In addition to its own products, Blue Mountain creates cider for other customers and even accepts call-in orders. The company’s current total production is around 50,000 gallons. “We’re growing steadily,” said Hedges. “But we’re still considered boutique-sized.” By comparison, the largest cider maker in Oregon produced more than 400,000 gallons.
Blue Mountain Cider is available in six-pack and 22-ounce bottles, kegs and growlers. It’s distributed throughout the Northwest. •
Blue Mountain Cider
235 E. Broadway Ave., Milton-Freewater
541-938-5575 | drinkcider.com
Taproom hours: Thursday-Saturday noon to 8 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.