At this year’s Dan Berger International Cider Competition (DBICC), The Sea Cider Bittersweet, a traditional English-style, was presented with the Sweepstakes Award for the best cider of the Competition. Produced with traditional and heirloom cider apples, the Bittersweet was entered in the “Traditional-Sweet” category. But this cider is much more than that as Sea Cider’s owner Kristen Needham told us in an interview posted below. The cider is, in fact, a dedicated farm product that reflects the terroir of Sea Cider’s orchards and the specific weather conditions of the 2016 Harvest. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a wine of profound authenticity.
Located on Vancouver Island not far from Victoria in British Columbia, Sea Cider was founded only 10 years ago in 2007. However, owner Needham is a third generation orchardist. In 2003 Needham replanted the family’s orchard of primarily of culinary apples to bittersweets. That same year they turned a squash farm into another orchard and the following year acquired property that would eventually hold their ciderhouse and primary cider orchard.
I was extraordinarily happy when I learned our judges at the DBICC had honored the Sea Cider Bittersweet. The cidery and the award-winning cider itself are both exemplars of the concept of authentic craft cider that reflects a people, place and tradition. Please enjoy the interview below with Kristen Needham, owner of Sea Cider.
TCJ: What are the guiding principles that govern your work in the orchards and cidery?
KN: Good cider is deceptively simple: the three key ingredients are apples, yeast and people. You can grow exceptional fruit and pitch the best yeast, but the artistry and quality can only be achieved by a team of professionals working in cooperation. My job is to set a vision and then create the right conditions for the Sea Cider team to come together to achieve a common goal – making cider we all feel proud to produce.
TCJ: Tell us a little about the future of Sea Cider and how if that future is different from what you are currently doing with the cider, the brand and the orchards?KN: We are cautiously optimistic that the interest in traditional styles of cider will continue to grow, even as the innovative styles grow too. As a cidermaker I embrace that duality. We’ve been on a path of careful growth, and will continue to try to meet the growth in demand for both the traditional styles and the innovative styles, provided we have the right apples to continue to craft a quality product.
TCJ: What can you tell us about British Columbia cider making? In your view is there any particular approach or style that could be described as “British Columbian”? Is there momentum within and surrounding the production of British Columbia cider?
KN: BC has a long history of growing apples and making cider. And that link is pretty unique in today’s cider market, where most North American cider is not produced on the farm. BC’s Liquor manufacturing licence system has fostered the evolution of a high quality craft cider industry by demanding that growing fruit is a requirement of the licence. Thus most BC cider producers wear two hats: as orchardists and as cidermakers. Why is that important? Because it gives cidermakers the best possible quality control when it comes to the apples the they use.
TCJ: Sea Cider appears to have a growing success through traditional distribution channels, but what can you tell us about the importance and development of direct to consumer sales from your cider house.
KN: Cider can be experienced in a number of different ways. I think a farm-based ciderhouse is one of the best ways to experience cider. It’s where it all started for us: we wanted to build a farm business that honoured my family’s rural roots. We also wanted to take a European approach to the connection between food, farm, cider and people. We aim to provide that connective experience at Sea Cider.
TCJ: Talk a bit about the Bittersweet, the cider that won the Sweepstakes Award at the 2017 Dan Berger Cider Competition. What varieties of apples does it represent? How is it made? Has your approach to its production evolved over the years? Does it represent a particular year’s harvest?
KN: Bittersweet is a vintage cider, and the bottling that won the Sweepstakes Award was a 2016 vintage (in other words, made entirely from our 2016 apple harvest). We grow over 60 varieties of cider apples, and our apples fall into all four cider apple categories: sweets, sharps, bittersweets and bittersharps. Bittersweets are the main apple category used; hence the name. The vintage varies each year because our orchard harvest varies each year. Many cider varietals are biennial, which makes this cider challenging to produce consistently from year to year. But while the organoleptics vary to some extent by vintage, our Bittersweet cider always has the classic phenolic character one expects from English style cider.
TCJ: There seems to be a divide among North American cider producers where the majority view cider as closer to beer in spirit and the minority view cider’s place in the market as more akin to wine. What view do you take with the Sea Cider brand and products?
KN: As far as cider is compared to both wine and beer, it’s an understandable but nonetheless frustrating comparison; I think cider deserves its own place on the shelf. Cider is still finding its voice in North America. Sea Cider falls more into the wine camp, but we hope we are helping to forge a path for cider that shows its own uniqueness.
TCJ: How do you stay in touch with the wider world of cider production and the professional cider industry? Are you one to travel on behalf of your vocation and continuing education? Do you travel to events? Correspond with colleagues?
KN: One of the most rewarding parts of this business is the culture of cooperation the industry has created. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together to redefine cider, raise the bar and get the public excited about cider as its own unique category. Tasting events such as Alan Shapiro’s Cider Summits are absolutely essential to connecting with our consumers, and we attend his Summits as well as CiderCon whenever possible. And as a Board member with the Cider Institute of North America, I hope I can help develop standards for training and professional development that will help us be taken seriously as an industry.
TCJ: After a few years now of cider’s resurgence, should consumers still be excited about the North American cider category? About its future? Why or why not?
KN: Absolutely consumers should be excited! I wake up every morning happy to be a part of this industry. Never before have consumers had so many cider choices. And the attention paid to quality – whether in the production of innovative styles or traditional styles – means that whatever your palette you have many ciders of exceptional quality to choose from nowadays. I think the uptick in quality will only continue, which I hope will keep consumers excited.
TCJ: As a cider producer, what keeps you up at night?
KN: Scrambling to pay the bills before the summer cider season kicks in, bad weather that impacts the orchard, and juggling it all as a mother of two active teenagers.