It’s no surprise Rick Hastings and Austin Dickey decided to call their hard-cider operation Liberty Ciderworks.
They met while working as architects at the Liberty Building in downtown Spokane. Liberty is one of the apple varieties used in their New World blend.
And the word conjures images of revolutionary America, when British-style cider was the common table drink. (Coincidentally, Hastings lives on Jefferson Street, Dickey on Adams, and their cidery is on Washington.)
Cider started to stumble when beer-loving German immigrants arrived and the young nation began shifting from rural to industrial. Prohibition delivered the knockout punch, with specialty cider apple orchards across the country converted to regular eating apples.
Now small-scale cideries are beginning to come back in a big way, riding the same artisanal and locavore trends that have boosted craft beer. And unlike beer, cider is gluten-free, a key selling point in a society increasingly attuned to gluten sensitivity.
While still a tiny fraction of the alcoholic beverage market, U.S. cider sales doubled last year, to more than $128 million. In Washington, the largest apple-producing state, the number of cideries has shot up to more than 20.
When Hastings, 54, started getting serious about cider making some five years ago, he said, “We had 600 wineries (statewide) and, at the time, four cideries. It seemed like there was something wrong with that picture.”
Hastings took classes with British cider authority Peter Mitchell. When he decided to go commercial in early 2012, he contacted his former co-worker, Dickey, 36, a longtime home cidermaker who acquired a taste for the stuff while traveling in Europe.
“We evaluated the business prospects, and each other,” Dickey said. “That May, we applied for a business license and got the ball rolling.”
Liberty received its final approvals last spring and started distributing kegs to select accounts in December. The big steps forward came at the beginning of April, when the partners opened their small, industrially stylish tasting room and began bottling. (Look for bottles at the Vino wine shop downtown and Bottles in Spokane Valley, and other stores soon.)
Their next task is educating a public accustomed to six-packs of sweet supermarket cider about the finer points of Liberty’s drier, more old-school offerings. “That’s why we were anxious to have a tasting room,” Dickey said. “You can do that face-to-face.”
Added Hastings: “It’s not like walking into a winery, where you know all about the product and it’s just a question of whether it will be to your taste. It’s a learning curve.”
Craft cider can be hard to get a handle on for those accustomed to thinking in terms of wine and beer. Like wine, it’s fermented fruit juice, but alcohol levels are closer to beer. You’ll find it on tap, like beer, but bottles are bigger and pricier, like wine.
When it comes to flavor, cider is clearly its own thing, a product of the complex interplay between various apples’ acids, tannins and sugars as they come into contact with yeast.
Liberty’s New World (8.2 percent alcohol by volume) is a blend of four culinary apple varieties – Liberty, Cortland, McIntosh and Empire – along with just enough of the more astringent Manchurian crabapples to give it a pleasant kick.
That mimics the sort of cider early Americans might have made from their backyard trees, Hastings said: “It’s the whole orchard.”
The dry English Style (8 percent ABV) gets its richer, deeper color and taste, and touch of smokiness, from three traditional, tannic British cider apples: Dabinett, Yarlington Mill and Ashton Bitter.
Along with those two mainstays, Liberty will produce a series of limited-release specialties. First up is a single-varietal Jonathan (8 percent ABV) that’s crisp, clean and fruity – billed as ideal for a summer evening on the deck.
All three were recognized last month at the nation’s largest cider contest, the Great Lakes International Cider Competition: a gold medal for the English, and bronzes for New World and Jonathan.
Liberty’s ciders are conditioned for a minimum of three months, on oak chips, to simulate the wooden casks used before the advent of stainless steel. Dickey and Hastings plan to age some cider in leftover whiskey barrels, which likely will be used in future blends.
“It’s a little bit of art and science, what the (acid) levels are, the sugar content,” Dickey said. “Sometimes we’ll come across a new apple we haven’t tried and think, how can we blend it, where does it fit into our lineup.”
Whatever concoctions might come along, you won’t see ciders from Liberty using other fruits or flavorings. “It’s amazing the range of flavors you can get from apples alone,” said Hastings, an admitted purist.
And while true cider apples are hard to come by these days, with cider’s resurgence, he said, “The trees are going into the ground faster and faster.”