Steelhead Cider – Full Interview with Ben Barnes
Below is an interview with Ben Barnes – operator of Steelhead Cider in Chelan, WA. In our interview, Ben explains how he got his start in the cider business, his family history with apples in central Washington, and how a trip to France in May of 2017 gave him inspiration for a new way of making traditional hard ciders.
You can play or download the full podcast above or listen here. Recorded December 2, 2017
So Ben, why don’t you introduce yourself, and tell us where you’re from and what your business is called.
Yeah my name is Ben Barnes. I run Steelhead Cider and we’ve been open here in Chelan, WA for 4 years.
So how did you get started with making and selling cider?
I started making cider about 7 or 8 years ago after I got out of college. I was just looking for a way to have some cheap to free alcohol. We’ve got a family orchard and I was just experimenting with different varieties, using crab apples, johnny golds, winter bananas – whatever I could get my hands on. And a couple of years went by and the cider industry was booming, so we decided to make a business out of it.
So who did you start selling to right away? I mean, were you giving it away to you’re friends to start? What got you over the hump from being a hobbyist to being a business?
It took awhile. It was kind of just going wherever I could. I went to a couple bars that I liked to frequent and they picked up a few bottles here and there. We did some farmers markets to start out. And we just did bottles for the first 2 years of business. So it was finding grocery stores, fruit stands and that kind of thing. We started doing some sweeter varieties and started to get some pasteurizing capabilities. We started putting things in kegs and then were able to get into more bars, and now we have a tasting room.
What’s unique about the community of Chelan?
You know, there’s quite a bit that’s unique here. We’re a tourist town. So summer is the best season for us. We get most of our traffic then. It’s an apple community that turned into a grape community that we’re trying to get back into an apple community. There was no one else doing cider here except a few wineries. And we thought it was time to make something else of our own family business, which was orcharding and bring cider to the apple community.
So what do you like to do when you get a few hours to spare? What do you do for fun?
We started to get into cross country and downhill skiing here. There’s great boating here, and I like to do some fishing… hence the name “Steelhead Cider”.
What’s new and exciting in cider? New flavors, techniques, etc..?
There’s a lot new in cider. With our company, we’re kind of toeing the line between Northwest modern cider and traditional cider, so we kind of have something for everybody. Northwest modern cider is a lot like what we have on tap. We have a vanilla pear cider, a cherry cider; we implement other things into the ingredients that complement the traditional cider.
And then there’s the traditional methods where you use real cider fruit. So we planted our own varieties that use those techniques. One of those techniques is keiving. We took a trip to France back in May of 2017 and that is where we learned their own technique. It’s a couple hundred years old. And it’s the process of removing nutrients and nitrogen from the juice to make it nutrient deficient so that the yeast work cold and slow. And hopefully it stops early and makes a naturally sweet cider and not fully fermented to finish dryness. So that’s something we’re kind of playing around with this year for the first time.
So is there a cider culture over here and has it been hard to get people to try cider as opposed to beer or wine?
Yeah that’s the whole goal. There’s been a bit of a cider community. There was a winery here that was making cider. And they’re a full-fledged cider company now; they’re quite big. So that kind of brought the first attention of cider to the valley. We like that people come around and do wine… there’s lot’s of wine tasting going on in surrounding areas, but there’s only one wine tasting location in downtown Chelan. So we’re kind of offering that alternative for people to come in and try cider and it’s working out nicely.
So what do you call a place that makes or sells cider?\
I call it a cidery.
If somebody is interested in trying cider for the first time, what are some tips about things they might like… parings and such?
One thing I want to tell someone who hasn’t tried cider before is that, you don’t want to expect it to taste like apples. You can backsweeten it with apple juice and make it taste like apples and maybe that is something that a first time cider trier should do. I tend to push sweeter things onto a first time cider drinker.
You can pair it with cheese. We like to do really greasy cured meats and sausage. That goes really well with drier cider. If you have sweeter cider, that goes great with chicken or a rich salad with vinaigrette and berries.
How many apple varieties are you growing right now? And are you growing different fruits?
Growing cider is a new thing for us. We have a thousand trees of thirteen varieties that are 4 years old. And we’ve been growing apples and cherries since the 60’s. My grandfather bought the land in the 60’s and planted apples. My dad transitioned into doing a bit of cherries, so we’ve got a roughly 40/60 split of cherries to apples. So the cider apples are new and that’s kind of what I was bringing to the table. We’ve got our first crop on them this year so I’m excited to see what they turn into.
What’s your busiest time of the year as far as making cider?
So that kind of toes the line into modern cider making and traditional cider making as well. Right now (November) we’re really busy with fermenting because we’re fermenting all of our cider fruit. Before that, we were just fermenting and pressing on demand. So whenever we ran out of cider, we’d buy from the warehouses in town. So they are able to store it in a oxygen-deprived room; they flush it with nitrogen and keep it really cold. And you can buy apples year-round there. So we buy local fruit just on demand whenever we need juice. With this cider fruit, it’s gonna be a little different. We’re gonna be doing all of our pressing from September to November and it’s gonna take as long as it takes for those.
Can you explain what back-sweetening is?
So back-sweetening comes after the process of fermenting the cider to dryness, meaning there is no residual sugar left over. And then back-sweetening is where you take fresh juice that’s full of nice sugar and then you add it to the dry cider to give it a bit of sweetened additional flavor. And then you have to stabilize that. So if you have active yeast going, which you most likely do, you’ve got to pasteurize or chemically stabilize and filter your cider.
So where did you learn how to make cider?
I learned by hobby at first. I was picking up whatever I could, there are lot’s of great books out there and lot’s of great internet forums. But when I decided to start a business out of it, I took Peter Mitchell’s course in cider-making. And that’s an extensive seven week course over in Mount Vernon at the WSU branch.
So you actually went over the mountain to Mount Vernon?
Yep, I drove over there and took the course and it was really valuable. There was a lot I know about fermentation and trial and error. But what he taught in equipment and lab work and testing was completely necessary.
So tell us a little bit about your tasting room… it hasn’t been open that long, right?
Yeah, we’ve been open since August of 2017. So we got the butt end of summer there and it was really nice. We’re doing a lot of winter activities and we’ve got Winter Fest coming up. We’re open from 1-7 Thursday thru Monday. We’re gonna have some live music in here during Winter Fest and on the weekend. We’ve got a great back patio… it’s actually the only spot in town that overlooks the river and the lack. We’re gonna get some food in here as well, so it’s a great spot. If you haven’t been to Chelan, we’re right downtown and we’re the only hard cider tasting room downtown. We’re easy to find and we hope you come see us!
You can learn more about Ben Barnes and Steelhead Cider at SteelheadCider.com.
114 E. Woodin Ave.
Chelan, Washington 98816