Roger Kee isn’t a big fan of Prohibition. Sure, he hates that breweries were decimated after the passing of the Volstead Act, but it’s what it did to the cider apple orchards that really ticks him off.
“What Prohibition did to cider was horrible,” Kee said. “They burned apple orchards that had been growing apples for cider since the Founding Fathers. A number of cider apple species went extinct because of Prohibition.”
Orchards of sweet, non-cider apples were cultivated in their place to meet a new demand during the 1920s. Even after Prohibition was over, and breweries ramped back into production, cider lagged behind; it would take decades to convert orchards back to cidermaking apples.
In the past decade, though, cider has seen a rebirth, especially in the Northwest. It doesn’t hurt that we grow more apples here than anywhere else in the country. Kee is riding that wave, with a specific goal in mind: bring back cidermaking to its pre-Prohibition days.
“I’ve spent the last few years learning the lost art of cidermaking,” said Kee, just a few feet from a pristine antique apple crusher from 1879 that sits in the cidery. “Learning about the whole cider process, from the apple to the glass.”
Kee and his wife, Donna, officially open their Snohomish cidery, Three Kees, today, April 1, when they host a grand opening. The cidery is on a 9-acre farm near Lake Roesiger the family purchased in 2013, and is housed in a large outbuilding set off to the side of the family residence.
Kee started brewing beer more than a decade ago with friend Jeff Paden, a founding member of Greater Everett Brewers League. He won awards, including a gold medal at the Strange Brew Dixie Cup in Houston, Texas. But he was also good at making cider.
Kee’s perry won an award at the most prestigious cider contest in the country, the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry competition, and he was named Cidermaker of the Year at the National Homebrew Competition in 2012, a rare feat.
“I found that I brewed really good beer, but made world-class hard cider,” Kee said.
Kee took his cidermaking to the next level when he enrolled in classes taught by Peter Mitchell, a world-renowned cidermaker from the United Kingdom and a professor at Cornell. Mitchell, who like Kee is intent on bringing back the lost skills of pre-prohibition cidermaking, was teaching courses at the WSU Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center.
“When it comes to cider, Roger is a perfectionist,” Donna said. “It’s important to him to present the cider the way it’s supposed to be.”
That perfectionism extends to where Kee puts his cider on tap. He said he wants the quality of beer to match his cider. So far, he’s put it on tap at Marysville’s Whitewall Brewing and Everett’s At Large Brewing, two breweries run by old friends.
“It was a huge compliment to us when he asked us to put his cider on tap,” said Whitewall Brewing co-owner Sean Wallner. “He’s really doing similar things that we try to do. He’s using Washington ingredients and focusing on quality, so it was a natural fit.”
The Kees are growing pear and apple trees on their farm, which still has a number of blueberry bushes from the previous owner. Kee, a member of the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation, planted 136 apple trees of 83 different varieties, mostly variations of heirloom apples. The apples he gets from those trees should be able to be made into cider in six to seven years, Kee said.
Kee hopes to plant more trees in the future, including one special tree. Soon after moving to the farm, Kee took a walk near the woods around Lake Roesiger and discovered an apple tree from the remnants of an old orchard. He did some research and found that Richard Roesiger, who around the turn of the century built a trout-fishing resort on the lake for city slickers to enjoy on the weekend, made hard cider from the little orchard.
Last month, Kee went to look for the tree but workers from the county had cut it down. Thankfully, he had already cut off a half-dozen scions, or short twigs, off the tree. He plans to graft them onto some tree roots and re-grow the trees on his farm.
For the Kees, the cidery is a family affair. The name comes from the couple’s three kids, Spencer, Parker and Jennifer, who will all be mainstays at the cidery and on the farm. Roger and Donna see the cidery and farm as a place for Spencer, 16, and Parker, 14, who both have high-functioning autism, to be heavily involved.
“This will give them a vocation,” Kee said. “They’re going to be involved here and it will add value for them. I’m trying to be forward-thinking.”
The Kees want to eventually put a pavilion behind the cidery building and install a place to make wood-fired pizzas. For now, though, it’s all about the cider. Oh, and friends.
“We like to say ‘wassail’ around here,” Kee said, referring to the salutation that means good cheer. “It’s about building community and artisanal crafts.”
Three Kees Cider grand opening
Snohomish’s Three Kees Cider is hosting its official grand opening from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on April 1 at the cidery, 22831 Woods Creek Road, Monroe. There will be giveaways, special tasting sets and glassware and plenty of cider, including Three Kees’ Dessert Apple, Dessert Perry, Cherry Flint and Barrel-aged Apple. For more information, visit www.threekeescider.com.