Peninsula Wayfarer: A detour through Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in the pursuit of cider

CiderCraft, Summer 2014

The initial allure for adventuring to Port Townsend was the romance of wooden boats and the surrounding Salish Sea. Then I read about the emerging cider route, and easily enticed my partner into a road trip for the next weekend. The historic, port town is about a four-hour drive from our home in Portland, Ore., and a scenic, mostly off-the-beaten path route to reach this northeast tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Midpoint into the trip, the beauty of the Pacific Northwest unfurls. We pass the enchanting snow-capped peaks of the Olympics and the vast, pearly inlets of the Hood River Canal, home to some of the most famous oyster growing appellations in the world. When we spot a dome of whitewashed oyster shells about the size of a small summer cottage, we pull over for a roadside snack in the teeny town of Lilliwaup, Wash.

Within minutes, we slurp a glistening platter of just shucked Hama Hamas, tumbled Blue Pools, and tumbled Sea Cows at the family-run Hama Hama Oyster Company. Satiated by the taste of the sea, we continue on windy Route 101, scheming all the potential pairings for cider and oysters in the kitchen (we definitely agree on apple cider mignonette).

Evergreens frame the quiet road, rising like the first bold brush strokes on an artist’s canvas. Rain showers burst and then break into patches of blue sky. Most of Jefferson County, which is where we headed, is in the Olympic National Park. You can thank the rain for the landscape, shades of green so luminous, it’s easy to imagine gnomes and hobbits traipsing through the mossy forest.

Eventually, the towering trees make way for waves of farmland, grazing cows, and rustic red barns. At the sign for Country Meadow Road, we ramble over a small bridge and through a gate to Finnriver Farm & Cidery. The first sounds we hear: the chatter of chickens, a tractor hum, and a cow moo in the distance.

I notice a Rumi quote on the chalkboard as we head into the tasting room (a charming converted barn): “Let the beauty we love be what we do.” Finnriver Cidery is run by husband-and-wife Crystie and Keith Kisler (along with co-owner Eric Jorgensen).

Crystie greets us today, along with the family dog, Pippin, who promptly leaps atop a corner chair. “It’s the best seat on the farm,” says Crystie. The view spans rain-soaked green pastures, and in summer, fields golden with sunflowers, wild berry patches and farm animals. Both farm dogs (Kingston is the younger) have apple inspired names.

We begin with a splash of their méthode champenoise artisan sparkling cider, a brut champagne-style cider with a delicate apple bouquet, and a crisp, clean finish. It’s the perfect summer patio aperitif, especially when Crystie adds a stir of spirited blackberry wine to the glass—for what she calls a rustic variation of a Kir Royale.

A hand-crafted wooden sign above the door to the production room quotes Dom Perignon: “Come quickly, I am drinking stars!” I peek behind the poetic words and spot shiny fermentation tanks, and to the right, wooden riddling racks (constructed by a boat-building neighbor). Each bottle crafted in the méthode champenoise style is turned by hand daily in the racks, each turn pushes sediments toward the neck of the bottle.

We continue tasting through the traditional ciders, featuring heritage cider variety apples, both earthy and complex on the palate. “These apple varieties really contain personality and charisma,” says Crystie. Our favorite is the Farmstead, the fruits of a community harvest held each October on the farm to celebrate World Apple Day. “We invite people to bring their bruised, bitter and bizarre backyard apples,” says Crystie.

Apple experts are on hand to identify varieties, and the collected apples are pressed and fermented into the Farmstead Cider, with ten cents from each bottle donated to local food banks. In addition to building community, the focus for the day is on education. “That’s an important part of our story,” says Crystie. She and her husband met while working in wilderness education at Yosemite National Park.

The focus of their teaching was reconnecting people to the land through wilderness exploration. After a few years, they wondered: How do we restore a sense of connection to the land just in daily life? A book by Wendell Berry inspired them both to pursue farm education, says Crystie. “And so we decided to get married and buy a farm!”

Their search for land led them to the Olympic Peninsula, where they found a community with similar values. In 2004, the couple became partners with two skilled farmers and together purchased a blueberry farm. The farm spans 33-acres and includes a variety of berries, mixed organic greens and vegetables, honey bees, a robust flock of chickens, ducks, pigs and goats.

The spark for cider came when their neighbor, Elijah, who is in his 70’s, began making hard cider, and brought over a bottle to share. It was a revelation that cider could be this complex, charismatic and earthy says Crystie. “It had layers, and was rustic and evoked the landscape.”

The array of ciders available in the Finnriver tasting room is beyond what we expected. A line of contemporary craft ciders are back flavored in creative ways—with a hopped cider (a tribute to the beer lovers on the farm) and habanero (which packs a wonderfully spicy kick). The habanero was first made for the Port Townsend Strange Brewfest, which celebrated ten years in 2014.
The most captivating ciders we tasted were from the Elijah Swan Seasonal Botanical Ciders, infused with seasonal herbs, and wild harvested botanicals, and made in honor of their neighbor. The Solstice Saffron is the perfect pairing for seafood paella; the cranberry rosehip, delightfully tart and a beautiful fuchsia hue.

“Cider emerged out of our commitment to the land and this place,” says Crystie. “When people open a bottle of cider, we are hoping that it helps rekindle a positive connection to the land.” Before we pack the car with our bottles of cider, we wander down a trail that leads to a restored salmon stream, where Coho salmon run every year. We look for the blue heron Crystie mentioned, and swooping eagles, but rest assured we’ll see them next time.

A few miles up the road, we pass by the Finnriver orchard, a vibrant mix of 500 heirloom cider apple and perry trees—including Brown Snout, Dabinette, Yarlington Mill, and Kingston Black varieties. The blossoms are imminent. On Crystie’s recommendation, we stop at the Chimacum Corner Farmstand, a charming rural grocery stocked with food grown or produced in the valleys of the Olympic Peninsula.

It’s easy to find the ideal picnic provisions for a Puget Sound sunset: a loaf of freshly-baked bread from Port Townsend’s Pane d’Amore and a Pacific Northwest version of camembert from Mt. Townsend Creamery. The farmstand, Finnriver and are other surrounding independent business are a testament to the values of the area. Jefferson County economy consists of almost entirely family-owned businesses.

As we coast into Port Townsend, and pass Point Hudson Marina and the Port of Port Townsend Boat Haven, it’s apparent why the town is known as a maritime center and the wooden boat capital of the west. In the course of a mile, we spot men clad in Carhartt and caps designing, building and repairing grand wooden vessels the size of a city house. We wander windswept docks, squinting at sailboats skimming the sound.

The historic district, a U.S. National Historic Landmark District, is peppered with stately Victorian buildings, now housing bike shops and book stores, boutiques, wine bars and organic coffee shops. An hour quickly disappears in William James Bookseller, a specialty book shop stocking leather bound used and out of print books. We leave with a copy of World’s Best Ciders.

At our bed and breakfast, a 1934 colonial style beach house, we settle into Adirondack chairs with a sweeping view of Mount Baker and the Puget Sound. We pull out the bread, the cheese and a bottle of spirited pear wine from Finnriver, fortified with custom-distilled pear brandy. “This is what you put in your flask when you go fishing,” Crystie said.

A sailboat silhouette reminds us of a favorite story she shared earlier in the afternoon. In the summer season, Finnriver plans to sail their cider to Seattle, one small effort to curb their energy consumption. “It’s symbolic of the kind of initiatives we believe in and want to see happen,” said Crystie. “One sailboat full of cider doesn’t save the world,” she mused, “but a million sailboats full of cider could.” And so we raised a glass to the potential of cider.