Signifiers

The Future is Orchards — Bull Run Cider in Forest Grove, OR

Drive 30 miles due west of downtown Portland, and you’ll come to some valleys that were so fertile they lured people in Ohio and Missouri to trek out in Conestoga wagons for the chance to farm them. It remains some of the most fertile farmland in America. Well over a century later, three partners found eight acres of that same lush soil near the town of Forest Grove in 2011 and became pioneers of a different sort. Like Angry Orchard, when they looked into cider’s future, they saw heirloom cider apple trees sunning themselves in these very fields. They figured the biggest missing element in cider’s future was good fruit, and therein saw an opportunity.

One of the partners, Pete Mulligan, takes me on a tour of the orchards. Cupped in a valley edged by fir-covered hills, the orchard still doesn’t rise above eye level, and stands on spindly legs, but Mulligan says they’re already producing usable fruit. They’re hoping to get a substantial crop for the first time in year five—this autumn.

Mulligan and his partner Galen Williams got started as a home cidermakers, but “realized there weren’t enough good apples.” They started poking around and stumbled across the Home Orchard Society, an Oregon nonprofit created to preserve and protect heirloom fruit varieties. The organization maintains a small orchard in cooperation with Clackamas Community College, including dozens of classic American and European cider varieties. It inspired Mulligan and Williams to plant their own orchards—and helped give them the information they needed to get started.

Strolling about the diminutive orchard, Mulligan sweeps his arm across a portion of the fields in our view. “So, we took a 10-year lease on this property four years ago,” he explains. “We have eight acres here, and that will double in the next two years.”

What’s fascinating is that Bull Run is mining not just Europe’s apple tradition, but one in America that was just on the brink of extinction. Bull Run’s connection to the Home Orchard Society put them in contact with orchardists who were maintaining rare and in some cases forgotten species of apples. “The Society has a lot of access to private orchards where, [for example], this guy is a retired engineer and he’s growing 15 different types of cider apples,” Mulligan says. “Nick Botner in Yoncalla, Oregon grows the world’s largest private collection of apples—4,000 varieties. He’s 88 years old.”

(Botner’s collection is renowned and, for the apple nerds, a rabbithole worth diving into.)

Inspired, Mulligan and Williams decided to invest in this genetic trove. “We have 95 different varieties of apples and 10 different varieties of French, German, and English perry pears,” Mulligan says. He also notes the similarity among Oregon’s climate and that of the cider regions of France and England. “This maritime climate we live in is very similar to the west side of the UK. We know those varieties do well in the UK and they’ve proven to do well here. And we’re trying other varieties.”

No doubt some of the trees will prove to be less expressive in Forest Grove (and may well not grow there well at all), but Bull Run has planted them with the assumption most will flourish. “We’re planting them in blocks of 30, 50 trees, sometimes up to 100, 150,” Mulligan says.

This is an experiment that’s been going on in different regions of the country, with very different climates and soils. One of the earliest orchardist cidermakers is Farnum Hill’s Steve Wood, who began planting cider apples in 1989 at his New Hampshire farm. Since then, he’s offered both his experience growing these kinds of trees along with wood from them to anyone who asked.

Wood says he’s always given away bud wood to aspiring cidermakers.  Apple trees, like human, are heterozygous, meaning that offspring are not exact copies of their parents. If you want to replicate a Kingston Black apple, you need to get a branch—known as “bud” or “scion” wood—from a Kingston Black tree. So Wood’s a generous guy giving the stuff away, but he also had an ulterior motive—he wanted to see which tree varieties grew in which climates.

The earliest cider trees were harvested in 1623 in the United States, and they grew from New England to Virginia. Each region produced varieties specially suited to that climate. “I could grow apples in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, I think, in the clay or silt loam soils they’ve got there,” Wood says, explaining the differences. “[But] if I went to the Hudson Valley with the gravely stuff they’ve got there I would be lost.”

The Oregon climate might be more forgiving than New Hampshire’s. At Bull Run, they’ve got a blend of European and American varieties. “We have some heirloom, we have some Baldwin, Spitzenberg, Northern Spy, Newtown Pippen,” Mulligan says. “We have traditional cider varieties of Dabinett, Medaille d’or, Muscadet de Berney, Harrison, Campfield, Porter’s Perfection, Frequin Rouge, some French varieties—all in pursuit of the tannins.” The Pacific Northwest’s gentle, wet climate is ideal for growing fruit, and Mulligan is hopeful about the way the trees have taken to the climate.

Why so many varieties? This may seem unusual—even outlandish—to an American, but by European standards, it’s not uncommon to have dozens of varieties like Bull Run is cultivating. This is one way in which cider is dissimilar from wine. Single-varietal wines are often considered the pinnacle of their craft. But very few apple varieties have all the elements you need—sugar, tannin, acidity, flavor, and aromatics—to make a superlative cider. You need to compose a cider from many different apples. And, because apple trees ripen at different times and often produce a crop only biennially, you need dozens of varieties to make sure you have enough for any given cider you want to make.

Put another way, Bull Run is one of the few orchardist cidermakers to see a bigger future. Much of the way we think about cider is colored by the limitations of the orchard. American cidermakers have to work with what they can find—and that usually means blending interesting apples with sweet, bland eating apples grown for the supermarket. But what would happen if cidermakers could choose from among dozens of different varieties? One of the things fueling craft brewing’s most popular style, IPA, is the availability of dozens of different flavors of hops. Imagine if breweries only had three hop types to work with? That’s where we are now with apples.

This will be familiar to anyone who watched the progress of wine in the 1970s. The early days of this new cider revolution have been built on bright, fresh apple flavors that remind people of ripe fruit. But as people’s palates evolve, they gravitate toward drier, more sophisticated flavors that come from distinctive varieties of cider apple. At one moment, people talked about picking up a bottle of red, white, or rosé. Within a few years, they instead spoke of Chardonnay, Cabernet, or Merlot. Now we describe ciders by what they have added—cherry, ginger, or hops.

About a year ago, Angry Orchard made a splash when it announced the purchase of a farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. That signaled an important turning point in the evolution of cider by the country’s largest producer. While Angry Orchard has fueled its tremendous growth with supermarket-friendly sweet- and semi-sweet ciders, buying orchards in Hudson Valley was a longterm investment in an orchard-based, high-quality cider future. A few cidermakers, like Angry Orchard and Bull Run, are betting that we’ll soon be using words like Dabinett, Winesap, and Hewe’s Crab.

Like most American cidermakers, Bull Run currently offers a fairly standard selection of fruit-infused products. They just don’t have the fruit to make ciders like their flagship, Powerhouse Dry, made with Newtown Pippen, Spitzenberg, Bulmer’s Norman, and Sherrington Norman apples. They’re biding their time until their orchards are flush with cider apples. To emphasize the rustic origin of their product, Mulligan and Williams have located a tasting room in a warehouse in Forest Grove that feels like the kind of space some orchardists store bins of fruit. There’s a comfortable bar in one corner, and over to the side are a grove of carboys bubbling slowly with experiments of future blends.

Beyond their own cider, they have planted the trees with an eye to providing other cidermakers with characterful, tannic apples—or the trees themselves. “We’re a registered nursery with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, so we sell trees,” Mulligan says. And they’re not alone—Willamette Valley cideries like Baird & Dewar and Two Towns have also planted substantial orchards in the past few years.

In the 1970s, farmers started planting grapes to make high-end, artisanal wines. In 1976, at the height of jug wine’s popularity, there were just 11 wineries and fewer than a thousand acres of grapes under cultivation in Oregon. By the end of 2014, there were 676 wineries and more than 27,000 acres of grapes. The revolution in wine happened not because vintners were cleverly using flavorings and cheap Southern California grapes. It only happened when farmers started using their native terroir to produce some of the world’s best pinots. That revolution is happening now in cider, and Bull Run is one of its leaders.


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.”

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