FINNRIVER: How Handcrafted Hard Ciders Are Taking the World by Storm

Finnriver handcrafted hard cider

In a world dominated by craft beer, cidermaking is almost an art. An artisan winery with a love for everything craft-brewed, Finnriver is proving that you can produce high-quality organic drinks while supporting the local economy and trying new things.

We talked to Crystie Kisler, co-founder of Finnriver, and to Andrew Byers, a Finnriver cidermaker, to find out why cider is becoming the“next big trend” in craft brewing.

QUESTION: Finnriver is unique in the sense that it is located on a family farm, so you have direct access to many of the ingredients you use in the ciders and wines you make. Can you tell us a bit about the farm, what you grow and how it affects the production of your drinks?

CRYSTIE KISLER: Cidermaking began for us when we went searching for a way to diversify our small organic farm operation. Our neighbor grew apples in a small orchard next door, and he brought over a bottle of his homemade cider for us to taste. We loved it and felt it captured an authentic taste of the orchard, and we decided to pursue cider making. We quickly learned that we did not have enough fruit on site for a viable cidery, so we did two things. First, we established relationships with organic apple sources around the state so we could purchase regional apples and second; we began preparing to plant our orchard. We now have an organic orchard of traditional and heirloom apple and pear varieties, about 4000 trees, and we are focusing these fruit in our Traditional Ciders and Special Release line-ups. The bulk of apples we use, featured in our contemporary and seasonal ciders, come from the east side of the mountains.

For our seasonal ciders, we were inspired to capture the flavors of the land as the seasons turn by using wildcrafted and garden-grown ingredients from our area. So, for example, we use fir needles harvested from trees on the farm for our Fall seasonal Forest Ginger. For our winter seasonal, we have a crew pick wild rose hips from around the peninsula and we source organic cranberries from friends at an organic cranberry farm a few hours down the coast from us. We grow some of the lemon balms for the Spring seasonal, and our friends bring over bags full!

The farm inspired our cidermaking to begin with and now, although we do not source all of our ingredients from our land, we do remain committed to producing our ciders on a working farm and having the land inspire our crew and our product line. You can see chickens, cows and ducks from the cider production barn and there is a sense of purpose we share around creating beautiful food and drink to help reconnect folks to family farms and vibrant farmland.

QUESTION: You’re committed to keeping things green during production, including choosing salmon safe certification and renewable energy. Can you tell us a bit about these and other things you’re doing to keep your business sustainable?

CK: One thing I can say is that we know ‘sustainability’ is a tricky concept and that we are striving to care for the land and produce our product conscientiously and with ecological and social integrity, but this is a very high aspiration! Currently, we are pursuing B Corps certification, and this application process is allowing us to dig into our business structure and production methods and analyze where we could be better in terms of efficiencies and environmental improvements.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about your craft ciders? People usually associate the word “craft” with beer, so it’s nice to see companies helping expand that concept.

ANDREW BYERS: I think craft implies a deeper connection to both the product and the consumer support the product has. It is a humanizing connection between human process and human consumption. Each batch we put together here at Finnriver is the culmination of crafted process that started with the choice to be a steward of the farm land we work on. That initial decision shaped the type of facility that has grown here in Chimacum. The type of facility shapes the style of product, and the style constraints shape my creative process as a cider maker. So I think ‘Craft’ is about connection and process- not specifically size or scale.

We use the term ‘Farmcrafted’ to reference our connection to agricultural roots in our community and our farm – and perhaps to recognize the rustic environment our cider is produced. For me the term craft implies love, somewhere in the creation of this thing I hold in my hand, someone loved it, someone or some team crafted it.

QUESTION: In addition to producing ciders, you also make wines. How is the process different and does it make things difficult to have two different processes going at the farm?

AB: Wine is alcohol fermented from fruit. While that typically means grapes, today there are fruit wines from blueberries to kiwi to dragon fruit. The process of winemaking is applied to fruit and apples fall right into this category. I am a wine maker that works primarily with apples.

The deviation in the process is that most folks are delighted by a carbonated cider while most grape wines are still. So, unlike a winery, our Cidery has brite tanks used for carbonating the cider, as well as steel kegs for delivery to bars and restaurants to pour on draft.

There are some challenges to tank space and rotation that come up as some products require longer maturation periods than others; temperature control remains paramount to healthy yeast culture as well as long-term wine storage. To further blur the line we also produce a champagne style cider that is bottle conditioned and disgorged as would be a bottle of sparkling wine. This is a labor intensive pathway for a product to come to market, and we embrace the history and delight in the deviations.

I understand that there are many breweries using oak barrels for aging and maturing their beer and we also use a variety of oak cooperage to craft ciders and fortified wines , though I think the pH of cider helps a barrel stay free of spoilage organisms for a longer period of time. There seem to be more parallels to commercial production of a wine than there are differences; never having made a suitable beer I am not the one to speak to beer/ cider process crossovers, but I know there is much equipment that applies to moving liquids, chilling liquids, packaging etc. that are in use across the alcohol industry.

There is also the balance that comes from working alongside a fully operational organic farm. Until yesterday, the Cidery and the Farm shared a walk in cooler. We consistently overflowed our designated spaces, and that has lead to a culture of heighten communication. We talk a lot, about what we are doing today, tomorrow, and next month as well all plan for success in the process. There are also ways that we consistently placate each other- from fresh cider in a crew keg to access to veggies and ripe berries throughout the year. The spirit is collaborative, and it keeps us all alive.

Diana Bocco is a writer and author who writes for Yahoo!, the Discovery Channel website, Marie Claire, Poplar Mechanics, and more. You can find more about her work on her website

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