We drove from Portland, Oregon, to the Hood River Valley on a blustery April afternoon. Our destination: the 4th annual Hard-Pressed Cider Fest in Odell, a small town of 2,000 devoted to the cherries, pears and apples that thrive here.
The dramatic weather enhanced every vista. Scattered raindrops did not interfere with incredible views of the Columbia Gorge. Misty clouds clung to forested slopes, waterfalls cascaded from the sky, salmon fishing boats bobbed on the river. As we headed south into the Hood River Valley, sunshine teased the orchards that marched up and down the hillsides and the lush grass glowed an iridescent green in the sunlight. Fluffy blossoms hinted at the fruit we’d soon enjoy in liquid form–apples and pears grown in this valley since the late 1800s.
The Hard-Pressed Cider Festival is held on the grounds of Mt. Defiance Cold Storage, one of several large-scale fruit storage facilities clustered in the valley. Parking snaked among towers of giant fruit crates stenciled with fruit trademarks. All around us orchards bloomed on nearby slopes. The atmosphere merged rural and industrial, evoking the story of the vibrant fruit industry of the mid-Columbia valley.
Shortly the sky opened up with a downpour, but we were safely ensconced in an enormous tent where 28 regional craft cideries offered samples of their cider. Let the tasting begin!
With nine cideries operating in the Hood River area, the festival was a locavore drinker’s dream come true. Fox-Tail Cider, located a mere mile and half from the festival, seemed like a fitting place to begin. I handed my commemorative glass and a token over the counter for a sample of Fuzzy Haven, a fragrant and fruity cider enhanced with Red Haven, a local celebrated peach variety. The Fox siblings opened Fox-Tail in 2013, utilizing fruit from the acres planted by their great-great grandfather in the late 1800’s. Fox-Tail’s second tasting option was Strawberry Rheum, a brilliantly colored cider with strawberry and rhubarb. The Fox-Tail brewers are big fans of fruity ciders, creating ciders with boysenberries, raspberries, blackberries, and plums. This year they’re collaborating with Full Sail Brewery, using Full Sail yeast in a new cider.
I stepped over to the Gorge White House tasting table for a sample of their cherry cider. They’re just three miles north of the festival venue, where they grow and sell dahlias and seasonal fruit, craft wines from grapes, pears and blueberries. They also sell gourmet flatbreads, burgers and sandwiches from a food cart outside the 1908 Dutch Colonial white house with views of Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams.
Next stop: Tumalo Cider Company from Bend. I couldn’t resist trying their Prickly Passion, a cider flavored with passion fruit and prickly pear. The effervescent drink balanced the sweet and tart aspects of its ingredients with aplomb. Also on tap at Tumalo was Ginger Barrel, a spicy cider with a buttery finish.
Next stops included a taste of Salem. First I checked out Wandering Aengus and Anthem Cider. One cidery releases both labels. Wandering Aengus is one of Oregon’s oldest cider makers, familiar to farmer’s market customers where they’ve offered samples for many years. Their traditional ciders are crafted in small batches from heirloom cider apples. As cider’s popularity has exploded, the supply of this heritage fruit is increasingly limited, so they launched the Anthem label to make more adventurous flavors out of widely available dessert apples. I tried the Wandering Aengus Rye Barrell, a traditional cider aged in rye barrels. The earthy rye lent subtle notes of spice and smoke to this delicious specimen.
The other Salem cidery was La Familia, where cider is inspired by Mexican aqua frescas. The Tamarindo cider was a lovely golden color and offered a captivating balance of sweet and sour. , their second, combined the tart floral notes of hibiscus flower with the moderate sweetness of apples for a rosy beverage with a wine-like finish.
Another imaginative innovation was presented by Seattle Cider Company. They offered Dry, an unfiltered cider with notes of lilac and blood orange, and the wonderfully refreshing Basil Mint cider–the mojito of the cider world, it was crisp, lively and thirst-quenching.
Washington was also represented by Jester and Judge, located in Stevenson on the Columbia River. They offered the only tea enhanced cider at the festival: Gunslinger Earl, flavored with Earl Grey and green tea whose tannins were a perfect foil for the dry cider.
Hopped ciders presented another angle on fusion ciders–appropriate since Oregon and Washington are the nation’s chief hop producers. Bull Run Cider from Forest Grove, Oregon, offered Dry Hop cider with notes of citrus from Palisade hops; Rack and Cloth of Mosier, Oregon sampled their Superbloom made with EKUANOT hops; Slopeswell Cider Company of Hood River shared their Emperium. I tried Dank Hop from Swift, in Portland. Their blend of Columbus, Centennial and Chinook hops put a funky, piney base into their concoction.
I finished with perhaps the purest expressions of cider at the festival: Rack & Cloth’s 2015 Etienne. This single varietal cider was pressed in Mosier, Oregon, from organic Winesap apples and aged in French oak for 12 months. Dry and vibrant, this cider was a revelation–easily as complex and sophisticated as a fine wine.
With more than 50 ciders available to sample, I hadn’t a prayer to sample them all. My curiosity lingers still for Finnriver Farm & Cidery’s Habanero, and for their Black Current; for 2 Towns Ciderhouse’s Peach Saison Cider; for Schilling Cider’s Grapefruit and Chill; and for WildCraft Cider Work’s Wild Rose cider.
And Food Too
All those Cider samples required a little solid sustenance. Solstice Wood Fire Cafe offered locavore pizza: one slice featured local pears, caramelized onions and bleu cheese; another local cherries, chorizo, goat cheese and marinara. Their monstrous gluten-free wood fired s’more was a decadent display, suitable to share with three or four folks: a pecan crust topped with house made honey marshmallow and chocolate ganache. Other choices included barbecue from Apple Valley BBQ, Hawaiian food from The Local Grind, and burgers and tacos from El Cuate. And of course, kettle corn. What’s a festival without kettle corn? There were also a few craft booths selling jewelry, ceramics, and Cascadia Creamery sampled four luscious local cheeses.
As the weather shifted wildly from sunny to rainy to windy and back, folks happily dined at picnic tables lined up under the vast overhang of the cooling warehouse, with a view of the live bands and the orchards beyond. Inside the empty building, kids frolicked in a bouncy house and lined up for face painting and airbrushed tattoos.
As one of the cider samplers expressed it, the Northwest cider culture is where craft brewing was 10 or 20 years ago. It’s a small and supportive community of adventurous makers exploring new horizons of flavor and style with local talent and local ingredients. The festival left me with a taste for more cider and for more exploration in the lovely rural terrain south of the Columbia Gorge. Spring blossoms, summer fruit, the fall harvest, and more cider all sound like great reasons to take another visit to the beautiful Hood River Valley. – Story and photos by Annelise Kelly