Most cider-makers think about the product, which is to say the end point, of the process. Kevin Zielinski thinks about the process itself - all the way back to the very beginnings when a seed hits the dirt. Zielinski is the proprietor of E.Z. Orchards (named after Edward Zielinski, the progenitor of the name off Oregon Trail), a cidery connected to the fields his family has farmed for 86 years. He’s a farmer first, and the cidery is a relatively recent outgrowth of the family business. With his tannic, effervescent French-inspired cidres (he prefers the French spelling), Zielinski has, nevertheless, quickly built a reputation as one of the best cider-makers in the country. Writing in World’s Best Ciders, English writer Pete Brown gushed, “Based on Normandy-style cider, this arguably surpasses its influence. One of the best ciders in the United States—or anywhere else.”
For traditional cider-makers, the process begins with the fields, not the juice. In fact, for orchardists like Zielinski, the crops are the primary concern; cider-making is just one of the products that comes from the trees. Being an orchardist distinguishes Zielinski from many American cider-makers, but puts him very much in the mainstream of traditional European cider-making—and he thinks like they do, as well.
When I visited Herefordshire in the UK in 2014, cider-maker Mike Johnson discussed orchards his grandfather had planted. He pointed out an old perry pear tree that dated to 1827 (pear trees outlive apple trees by generations). He’d seen not only seasons and years roll by, but decades, and it gave him a direct sense of what the land brought to his cider. When an orchardist and cider-maker walks his land, he’s already tasting the cider. “Hereford sandstone,” Johnson said, describing his soil. “It’s very free-draining, which can only be a problem in a hot, dry summer. Some varieties suit these soils and some suit heavier soils.”
Zielinski’s orchards are planted in one of the most productive valleys in the country, a place that produces several crops, any one of which might define another region—hazelnuts, Christmas trees, and pinot noir grapes among them. The Zielinskis have been farming this valley long enough for Kevin to have developed a keen sense of his soil and climate as well. “That’s what I am—I’m an orchardist. I’ve grown many different types of apples in my career, and they all behave differently. So I can work with that.”
He has older orchards with eating apples, but began cultivating (mostly French) cider apples in 2000 for a winemaker who was interested in branching out. When the vintner instead moved to Washington in 2003, Zielinski decided to continue the experiment and make the cider himself. As with Johnson, he began learning which varieties flourished, and which ones didn’t, in the Willamette Valley. “I didn’t have a lot of concern about growing these trees…but the characteristics of the fruit I was not familiar with.”
Walking around the orchards with Kevin is like working a room with an extrovert—at every new tree he encounters, he brightens like he’s found and old friend. “This is a row of Marie Menard, which is a very well balanced French bittersweet,” he said as we entered one end of the orchard. He pulled out a knife from his pocket, plucked an apple, and sliced it in half in a single, swift motion. He slices apples around the midline, exposing the star-patterned seeds inside. “This is some of the Yarlington Mill here. It’s a wonderful fruit,” he said, showing off a ripe, fat beauty. He moved on, naming something in French I couldn’t catch. “It’s got a great russet on it. A very old-world looking fruit with that color and stripe, the deep russet. It’s not a shiny apple, but gosh, it’s a wonderful-looking apple.” Even when he encountered one of the trees that wouldn’t flourish in Oregon, he still couldn’t bring himself to disparage it. “Oh, here’s an interesting one. It bears very erratically, and it took forever to start producing.” He paused to consider it, plucking and halving an apple for me to inspect. He admitted that he’d pulled all the others of the variety out, but couldn’t take this one out. He looked up at it. “It’s a cool-looking tree.”
He has been making his own wines since the 1990s, so fermenting apple juice didn’t seem like a stretch. “My wine-making interest was in doing spontaneous ferments, either no use of sulfites or very low use of sulfites, post-malolactic fermentation—and just going with a very fruit-sensitive, fruit-aware method of fermentation.” He started making ciders in the mid-2000s, but didn’t release a commercial product until 2009. Think about that in brewery terms for a second. That’s nine years of patience. He had already begun to gravitate to the French approach, so the acre of French varieties he’d planted for the winemaker served as a bit of happy serendipity. “As I was looking at the way to make cider, I looked at a more traditional or ancestral method. And the French fruit lent itself best to that.”
Although it is becoming slightly more common, the use of natural fermentation is still not widely practiced in the U.S. Many of the more serious cider-makers approach their products like wines, using particular yeast strains and specific apple varieties as a palette from which to build, layer by layer, the precise arrangement of flavors they want in a cider. This is a modern approach, and not common among traditional cideries in England, France, and Spain, where spontaneous or “natural” fermentation is ubiquitous. Orchardists grow dozens of different apple varieties and don’t bother with precision; they just blend to get the right amount of acids, tannins, and sugars in a juice that may contain a dozen different types of apples.
“What [natural fermentation] allows is for uncontrolled elements to be involved with the process,” Zielinski explained. “But I’m not manipulating it. I hear other cider makers—wine makers, beer makers—say what they’re going to do with this yeast to create another character.” Natural fermentation is an extension of the process that begins in the fields. For fans of natural fermentation, not only do the flavors harmonize with the fruit more ably—they’re a part of the fruit. Natural yeasts and bacteria come into the cider on the skins of the apple; they’re a part of the native terroir, and a distinctive marker of place. “[Natural fermentation] is truer to what the fruit itself would do than if I’d purified it with SO2 and fermented it with a yeast inoculation.”
If you’ve ever had a French cider, you will have recognized the natural fermentation. It has a fecund, wild quality that very often recalls the flavors of the cheeses produced in Normandy—Camembert and Pont-l’Évêque. Zielinski’s cidres don’t have that quality. In fact, you have to sniff and swish very carefully to find any evidence that they’re naturally fermented. Oregon yeasts are apparently fairly neutral creatures, and they leave apples to shine in E.Z. Orchard Cidre.
They are nevertheless heavily influenced by the biochemistry of the yeast. He uses a modified process of keeving, which is to withhold nutrients from the yeast in order to encourage a much slower, gentler fermentation and keep the ciders sweet (by American standards; the French would call them bone-dry), and they naturally carbonate in the bottle. When they’re young, they sometimes seem sharply tannic. A year on, and the bottles begin to come into harmony, the sweetness, spicy tannic bitterness, and silky carbonation melding into a complex cidre that has a lush aroma of apple blossom, black pepper, earth, and shafts of mango and a full, lively, and dry palate.
The final and most challenging stage of the process is the fermentation. Zielinski bottles a bit before the cider has completely finished fermenting so it will carbonate in the bottle—but judging that moment is a fraught process. The French method is one in which the yeast is slowly starved of nutrients. Even though the yeasts might otherwise love to eat the tasty sugars still floating around, they go dormant for lack of these nutrients. But when exactly does that moment come? When I was in the Calvados region of Normandy, cider-maker Guillaume Drouin put it this way. “If you think about a traditional cider, it is made to be a problem. You put in the bottle sugar, yeast, bacteria all together and then you put a cork on it. And then you pray.” Everything happening inside the bottle can be explained by science; judging when the cider is ready, though, is a matter of art.
It’s one of the main reasons most people eschew the French approach, and, if Zielinski were more focused on the product, he might, too. But he doesn’t think of it that way. In the years since he planted the first acre of cider fruit, he has expanded it to 11. Each season of the calendar demands him to tend to his trees in some fashion or other—pruning, grafting, nurturing, harvesting—so he’s always thinking of the progression. An apple is not made at harvest, nor is a cider made from juice. They’re made from a very long process that begins years before anything heads to market.
“It was the method,” he told me. “It was the method I was most interested in. I’d had some ciders, and I preferred lower-acid ciders so I was naturally drawn to those. I also liked working with some of the other senses; you know, more nose, more fruit characteristics. But it was the method itself, using spontaneous ferments, natural carbonation—all of these things seemed rational to me.”
To be an orchardist or a traditional cider-maker is to think of fruit holistically. You come to know and appreciate the apples over years, recognizing not only the fruit of a tree, but the shape of its habit, the size and color of its leaves. You get to know apples deeply. That flows directly into the cider. “If I’m making cider from fruit, let’s let the fruit be the factor that has the most influence,” Zielinski said. And fruit, of course, is a process — first and foremost, a verb.