Growing up on his parents’ small farm, Steve Kaiser has always been surrounded by homemade projects involving food and drink. His dad grew his own grapes, cultivated a large fruit orchard and garden, and raised honeybees. His parents often made meals from the food grown right outside their front door, and his dad made his own wine, beer and cider.
So when Kaiser announced he was starting his own cidery out of the garage of his Edmonds home, his parents were the last people he needed to convince. “My family completely understands my passion,” Kaiser said with a laugh.
Since launching about three years ago, Core Hero Hard Cider has slowly grown along with the burgeoning hard cider industry. Around Edmonds and Lopez Island, the cider can be found at a number of shops, distinguished by its unique swing-cap bottles. Few realize, however, the connection it has to both communities. Ultimately made in Kaiser’s garage in a quiet neighborhood just south of bustling downtown Edmonds, it’s also partly made from apples grown in an orchard on Lopez Island.
Kaiser’s first foray into making his own cider came about 15 years ago when friends from Eastern Washington dumped a literal ton of apples on his front lawn. What to do with them all? Make hard cider, obviously.
Kaiser experimented with a number of different batches. Some worked, some didn’t. (“The raisin/brown sugar version was undrinkable,” Kaiser said, laughing. “The raisin did something funky to it.”)
One of the recipes was exquisite. An apple cranberry hard cider he made tasted amazing, so Kaiser filed the recipe away and figured he’d come back to it at some point.
During that time, Kaiser worked in marketing for Woodinville’s Silver Lake Winery. Part of the umbrella of products under Silver Lake was Spire Cider, which gave Kaiser a front-row seat to the hard-cider revolution that has occurred over the past decade. He noticed interest growing, especially in metropolitan areas on the West Coast, of handcrafted, boutique ciders, and decided it was a good time to get in the game.
He went to “cider school” with cider expert Peter Mitchell at Washington State University’s research and extension center in Mount Vernon. He learned the traditional style of making cider, from when to pick the fruit to testing pH and acid levels. He also was taught how to blend apples, how to stress the fruit, and the ins and outs of the business.
He found out that he knew more than he thought.
“At its most basic, there is so much in common between a winery and a cidery,” Kaiser said. “Growing grapes for wine is much like growing apples for cider. You stress the fruit on purpose to bring the flavors out, and you have to know how to blend. When it comes to a finished product, you’re looking for something with nuance that pairs well with food to bring out a wider range of flavor.”
In 2013, Kaiser began the transition from working at a winery to running his own cidery, collecting equipment, making contacts in the cider world and licensing. A few years later, he planted 130 Foxwhelp and Kingston black cider apple trees on half an acre near his home in Edmonds and started producing cider out of his garage, mostly from apples east of the mountains. Like wine grapes, cider apples take time to reach maturity, so it wasn’t until recently that Kaiser was able to really start using the apples from his own orchard.
From picking the apples to stocking the shelves, Core Hero is a one-man show. Kaiser, 61, who put off retirement a few years ago to open the cidery, picks the apples, presses them and transfers the liquid from fermenters to aging tanks. He bottles and even distributes the cider himself.
“My rule is that I only distribute directly to places I can drive to in my lunch hour,” said Kaiser, who continues to work as a marketing consultant.
Lopez Island holds a special place in Kaiser’s heart. He purchased property on the island nearly 20 years ago, and planted about 50 trees 11 years ago to create a small orchard of high-density dwarf trees that yield a half ton of apples annually.
On Lopez Island, orchard space is limited, and because of property-use laws, Kaiser couldn’t increase the number of trees on his property. Then he heard about a property that the Port of Lopez was stuck with near the airport. Adjacent to a runway, there wasn’t much that could be done with it.
The parcel turned out to be perfect for 125 low-growing apple trees that don’t require much water. It was cheap land for Kaiser and preserved the farmland for the port. Earlier this year, Kaiser transplanted by hand and utility trailer 130 cider apple trees from his Edmonds home to Lopez Island. His plan is to have a total of 450 trees by 2020.
“In a few years, cider we make will only come from apples grown on the island,” Kaiser said. “We’ll be able to really control the type of apples we want and flavors that we can express.”
A good example of that ability is Core Hero’s new Extra Dry Hard Cider. Made from apples grown in the Lopez Island orchard, the cider is bone dry and full of distinct nutty and floral flavors. It’s a great example of a cider maker hitting his stride.
Where to find it
Bothell: PCC Natural Market
Edmonds: QFC and PCC Natural Market
Lopez Island: The Galley, Lopez Village Market, Blossom Grocery, Ursa Minor and Lopez Haven
Lynnwood: Whole Foods Market
The process of making small-batch cider
Core Hero Hard Cider’s Steve Kaiser makes small batches of cider in his garage, about 30 gallons at a time. He follows the more traditional style of making cider, not skipping any steps and using special hard cider apples that have higher levels of tannins and acid.
Step 1: Pick apples and sweat them. To sweat apples, leave them in a dark, dry place away from heat for 1-2 weeks before pressing them.
Step 2: Grind the apples using an apple grinder. Embedded teeth in an apple grinder turn the apples into a pulpy pomace.
Step 3: Using an apple press, extract the liquid out of the pomace. About 13 pounds of apples equals approximately a gallon of liquid.
Step 4: Pour that juice into fermenter containers. Food grade plastic, glass or stainless steel containers work best.
Step 5: Kaiser next adds sulfites to kill the wild yeasts. Most cider makers take this step for consistent results.
Step 6: Wait two days and add intentional yeast, then install an airlock to let yeast do its job of chewing up the sugars.
Step 7: After three to four weeks, transfer to an aging container made of glass or stainless steel.
Step 8: Age your cider for at least one month.
Step 9: Bottle as-is if you want still cider or add sugar if you want bubbly cider.
Step 10: Store in a cool, dark location in anticipation of sharing with friends and family (or in Kaiser’s case, sell to the public).
Hard cider sorbet
It’s taken a while to jump through the hoops to get it approved and dial in the recipe and process, but Core Hero’s Steve Kaiser recently unveiled his Apple Cinnamon Sorbet. Made with his cidery’s Apple Cinnamon Hard Cider, the sorbet is lightly sweetened and comes with a buzz at 6 percent ABV. It’s a perfect fall treat. Enjoy it with apple crisp or make a hard cider float by adding a scoop to Apple Cinnamon Hard Cider. Sold in pint containers at PCC Markets. Have your ID ready; it’s 21 and older only.
Washington North Coast Magazine
This article is featured in the fall issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.