Houses of Craft

Rack & Cloth — Squeezing a 17th Century Approach into Contemporary Cider-Making

Mosier, Oregon is tiny (pop. 421) and remote enough that almost no one knows it exists. It is located in the Colombia River Gorge, one of the most-touristed regions of the state, but at the far, dry end. When people think of the Gorge, they envision the portion between Hood River and the Portland, where white plumes of water fall from tall, emerald cliffs. Smack dab in the center of the wet Gorge is Cascade Locks, which gets 76 inches of rain a year. Drive twenty miles east to Hood River and the rainfall more than halves, to 32 inches. Just east of Hood River, the climate changes even more radically: drive another 20 miles to The Dalles, which gets just 14 inches of rain, and you’ve entered the high desert that covers the eastern half of the state.

Mosier is just east of Hood River and falls in the transitional zone between wet and dry, which makes it great for agriculture, the industry that has sustained it since the mid-19thcentury. The summers are hot and dry, but the rainfall is still plentiful enough to water the orchards that dot the valleys to the south. Some of those orchards are owned by Silas Bleakley and Kristina Nance, a young couple engaged in a small-scale, but hugely ambitious, project to revive an entirely farm-based method of cider-making.

The retail face of the operation is called the Mercantile, a cottage in the center of Mosier’s three blocks of downtown. Formerly a coffee shop, Bleakley and Nance have repurposed it as a restaurant that serves Bleakley’s cider and a daily menu composed of dishes Nance whips up from the produce and meat from the farm. And almost exclusively from the farm, year round. (“We make a lot of squash pizza in the winter,” she jokes.) They had originally planned to sell their produce from the café, too—hence the name Mercantile—but the restaurant is so successful that there’s little left to sell to the public. It has a country vibe, with sparkling white walls and heavy fir tables and lots of light, and has quickly become a destination for locals coming for great food and cider. 

The farm is just outside of town, down a picturesque unpaved road overlooking rolling hills studded with fields. Bleakley bought it in 2008, and he (and later, Nance) took up residence in a 100-year-old farmhouse on the property. There are a few scattered fruit trees left from previous owners, but Bleakley has re-planted with rows of apple, apricot, and peach trees. The farmhouse sits on top of a rise and the orchards run along a west-facing hill.

On the day we arrived, a coterie of chickens headed by a chatty rooster came out to greet us. Two farm dogs sniffed around, arousing not a bit of anxiety in the fowl. From where we stood, we could see a patch of vegetables and a greenhouse (for winter vegetables), and over the course of our visit we would encounter two oinking pigs and flock of sheep headed by a matriarch named PommePomme—who doubles as Rack and Cloth’s mascot.

Bleakley and Nance practice what they call “closed-loop farming,” which means essentially that the operation is self-sustaining. If you’ve ever traveled to cider orchards in England or France, this will be familiar to you. There, cows or sheep roam the orchards and trim the grass, fertilizing the soil. Because the trees are cropped to accommodate livestock, they get more air and are less prone to disease. Not only does the system work great for the orchard, but it gives farmers two crops on one piece of land. Industrial practices have driven farming away from integration into monoculture—vast tracts of a single crop. The idea of using a farm to provide year-round sources of food in a sustaining cycle may look radical now, but it was how farms functioned for most of human existence.

But while Bleakley and Nance manage several crops, the centerpiece of the farm are the cider apple orchards. One portion contains American heirlooms: Cox’s Orange Pippin, Winesap, wild crabs. They produced a small crop last year and should deliver more this year. Another part was grafted with scion wood Bleakley and Nance humped back from France and Spain when they visited cider makers there. Most American orchards are planted with heirloom American and English cider varieties. French apples are more rare. Spanish varieties are nearly unheard of. 

As a burgeoning apple nerd, I was fascinated to learn which ones he had—especially the Spanish apples. Alas, Bleakley is not a nerd.

“I don’t know, there’s 40 of them out there," he shrugged. "I couldn’t tell you which one’s which. Almost half of the orchard is grafted to 10 or fift15en French and Spanish types.”

One of the sources was Guillaume Drouin, whose family has been making cider and Calvados since 1960 in Normandy. “He gave me some and told me the names," Bleakley said. "I have it written down…somewhere.”

To understand Bleakley’s approach to cider, you have to understand the way a farmer thinks. Modern cider makers are often very focused on the apple varieties they can source. They carefully cultivate blends of specific varieties for a wine-like product. Many even follow the practice of making single-varietal ciders like winemakers do. But this wasn’t the approach of the old 17th-century farmers. They planted crops and worked with those that thrived. Apple orchards may have been planted by seed, not graft, and the juice came from blends of dozens of different varieties. That’s still the practice in Europe, where a single cider may have the juice of dozens of different apple varieties. Globalism and monoculture allows us to compose our cuisine of extremely precise ingredients—Madagascar vanilla, Wisconsin corn, Copper River Salmon—but the farmer worked with what he had at hand. 

Bleakley has the same flinty pragmatism that marks a farmer, too. “I’ll figure it out,” he told me. “See what works and what doesn’t. I’m looking for tannins and complexity. Most of their apples have that, whether they’re bittersharps or bittersweets.” (The same approach applies to the number and type of pigs on the farm.)

Nance added some context. “We did that our first year. We fermented varietally. We can harvest from one tree, ferment, and even if we’re just using carboys we can taste and get a sense of the character of that apple.”

Bleakley pruned a few hazelnut-sized apples from a nearby tree. “Worst case?” he said. “I can cut them down and re-graft.”

He added, “I sort of don’t care what they are as long as they’re good apples, but if they’re good apples no one else has, it’s not like I need to say the name. It just needs to go into making a good product. And it could be part of the story: we have crazy apples you can’t get anywhere but here.”

I sort of don’t care what they are as long as they’re good apples, but if they’re good apples no one else has, it’s not like I need to say the name. It just needs to go into making a good product.
— Silas Bleakley

Bleakley actually discovered cider early on—farming came later. He was traveling through Europe when he was 18 and found himself in San Sebastian, in the Basque Country. “That’s sort of where I fell in love with the culture, when we were doing the txotx.”

Following college, where he studied engineering, he says he “spent the last 15 years after college trying to get paid to learn.” That included living in New Zealand and working on a sheep farm, managing a lettuce farm in Hawaii, and eventually ending up in the Northwest, where he brought everything together. “When I first moved to this area I worked on an organic apple orchard. I managed a vineyard across the river and ended up managing a winery, and that’s where I learned fermentation.”

Rack and Cloth’s first cidery was in the farmhouse cellar, but putting the engineering degree to work, Bleakley built a new stand-alone cidery next to the house. He designed and built the whole thing himself, backing it up against a hillside to create a natural cellar like the Basques do. A solar array on the roof provides all the electricity to both the cidery and the house. It’s a beautiful facility—and spotlessly clean. (It’s the cleanest cidery I’ve ever seen.) 

For all the rusticity around, Bleakley makes cider more in the mode of a vintner—which makes sense, given his background. He recently purchased a reconditioned 50-hecto oaken foudre that came from a winery in the Médoc. He uses wine yeasts to ferment and produces ciders that have distinctive white-wine characteristics. His blends are lightly acidic, dry and marked by bright fruit flavors of peach and apricot along with a spine of minerality. “I just feel like a lot of people are making cider with a brewing mindset,” he told me. (This is especially true in the Pacific Northwest.) “But it’s a wine. There’s no arguing whether it’s a wine or not.”

No false advertising here: you’ll find an actual rack-and-cloth press at the cidery. While their own orchards are maturing, Bleakley and Nance augment their supply with heirloom apples from a grower in Parkdale, twenty miles away. In the fall, his slow, hands-on process requires him to grind his apples first, before pressing them. This creates a de facto maceration—the process of letting the pulp sit. He only presses in the fall, and never buys juice. Fermentation usually takes two and a half months—the longer the better. “I’ve always taken this cavalier attitude. People are always worried about stuck fermentations, but I’m going for a stuck fermentation.” 

I’ve always taken this cavalier attitude. People are always worried about stuck fermentations, but I’m going for a stuck fermentation.
— Silas Bleakley

It’s not an exaggeration to say Rack and Cloth is making some of the best cider in the country. The local press has discovered it, and the cidery is now mentioned alongside EZ Orchards and Wandering Aengus as the state’s best. What’s amazing is that in order to get a glass of Stony Pig or PommePomme, their house ciders, you have to visit Mosier—it almost never leaves the building. The practice of closed-loop farming is entirely unscalable. Rack and Cloth will never be shipping their ciders across around the country—even Portland is a challenge. (Bleakley expects to make 3,000 gallons this year and thinks his capacity will top out at 5,000 gallons. For beer folks, that’s just 160 barrels.) 

But that doesn’t mean the cidery’s impact is small. Head to the Mercantile in the afternoon, you’ll see it begin to fill up with people who, on sunny days, spill out onto the patio outside. A few tourists may find their way here (and cider tourists are becoming more common), but mostly, the ciders and entrées at the Rack and Cloth Mercantile go to locals. It has helped revitalize Mosier’s downtown and serves a vital role in the little community. More importantly, the life-cycle of the farm and café allow Bleakley and Nance to focus on making very slow, very well-crafted cider that doesn’t have to compete on price with supermarket ciders. 

As cider struggles to find a permanent place in the American ecosystem of drinks, it will depend on the passionate artisans making world-class products—just as beer and wine did. Rack and Cloth’s vision, which may look small-town antiquated, is actually expansive and forward-thinking. If they can pull it off, their 17th-century farm-to-glass model may help establish cider as the equal of Oregon’s best pinot noirs and IPAs. 

Words by Jeff Alworth
Photos by Michael Kiser

Jeff Alworth

Jeff Alworth lives and drinks in Portland, Oregon, and has been writing professionally for over 15 years. His passion has taken him all over the world where he’s collected insight and know-how for a number of books, including “Brewing the World's Classic Styles: Advice From the Pros,” his comprehensive guide to beer, “The Beer Bible,” and soon, a wonderful introduction to another fermented cousin, cider called “Cider Made Simple.”

See more stories from Jeff

Houses of Craft

Wherever there's a house devoted to the craft, GBH will find them. Big and small, near and far, old school and avant garde, they all play a role in the next generation of beer.

See more Houses of Craft stories