Vancouver Island's Cider Scene
It’s a sun dappled Sunday in Vancouver Island’s Cobble Hill farmlands and several chatty tipplers are raising their glasses at Merridale Cidery’s winery-style tasting bar. The adjoining bistro is even busier, with leisurely diners feasting on brick-oven pizzas while surveying the gently sloping orchards through wide-open windows.
“Craft cider wasn’t even a sector when we bought this place in 1999,”recalls Merridale’s energetic owner Janet Docherty. “Our competition back then was commercial producers like Strongbow and we had to work hard to convince everyone that cider made from local fruit and traditional methods was better.”
Fast-forward 18 years and B.C.’s cider scene is effervescent. But while piquant producers from Pender Island (Twin Island Cider) to Oliver (Howling Moon Craft Cider) have since popped-up, Vancouver Island’s southern half continues to lure fans of apple-made libations – with Merridale a popular pilgrimage spot.
“The Traditional is our top-seller but we think we have ciders for almost everyone, from dry and tannic Scrumpy to light and fruity Merri Berri,” explains Docherty, adding that their apples – including celebrated Dabinett and Hauxapfel varieties – are combined with simple, pure ingredients and a slow fermentation process.
The result is that drinkers are often turned-on to a tipple they’ve long neglected or even dismissed. It’s a eureka moment familiar to the region’s other cidermakers.
“We’re best known for our Rumrunner,” says fifth-generation farmer Kristen Needham, owner of Sea Cider, which is centered on a large, handsomely gabled Saanicton ciderhouse. “It’s our homage to those who ran liquor boats over the international line during prohibition – in waters you can actually see from here.”
Blending aromatic organic apples like Winter Banana and Stayman Winesap – and aging in rum-soaked bourbon barrels – the caramel-noted cider is one of many inviting options at her high-ceilinged tasting bar. “Our range runs from still to sparkling, brut dry to dessert style, and fruity to minerally – we’re always aiming to change the way people think about cider,” says Needham.
It’s an approach mirrored at Tod Creek Craft Cider, which opened on the outskirts of Victoria in 2014. Transforming a pasture-framed old dairy farm into a rustic, red-painted charmer, owner Chris Schmidt has a passion for new flavours. And he thinks B.C.’s surging craft beer scene has made locals more receptive to them.
“Beer fans try farm-crafted cider for a variety of reasons. They tend to have intriguing complexities and tasting notes – far superior to syrupy commercial ciders – and the gluten-free, lower-calorie aspects also appeal,” says Schmidt, whose small, microbrewery-like tasting room does a brisk trade in growler refills.
“Our bestselling Tod Cider is an easy choice for dry cider fans. But we also produce flavoured ciders made with blueberries and cranberries. My personal favourite is our Mala-Hop, made with organic B.C. hops – it combines complexity with great fruity notes and pairs well with many foods.”
Back at Merridale, Docherty – who reveals she’s also opening a satellite bar in Victoria in 2018 – loves how the Island’s cider scene has blossomed and matured since she started out. “Many creative and passionate people have joined us here. We always welcome these new artisans: it keeps all us thinking outside the box.”