Flatbed Cider
Credit: Courtesy of Flatbed Cider Co.

Asked to consider hard cider’s closest cousin, most drinkers would probably say beer. Both are carbonated. Both have similar alcohol contents. Both tend to be served in 12-ounce packages. From a commercial standpoint the two are tied as well—America’s top cider brand, Angry Orchard, is produced by the Boston Beer Company, makers of Sam Adams.

But in many ways, cider’s closest relative is actually wine. Unlike beer, cider is never “brewed”; instead, it’s fermented from fruit juice, like wine. And just as the finest wines come from the best grapes, great ciders stem from great apples. Many of the best ciders on the market today are produced by people with a background in winemaking, farming or both.

So though Flatbed Cider was launched quietly in January, its potential impact on the industry could be much bigger. The brand is a new endeavor from Chateau Ste. Michelle, easily the largest wine producer in the state of Washington, an interesting distinction since Washington is by far the largest producer of apples in the country. Suddenly, a new player has stepped onto the cider scene: one with a lot of resources, a lot of local apple farms and a major winemaking pedigree.

The task of making that cider was handed to Steve Rothwell, a white wine specialist who has been with Chateau Ste. Michelle since 2007. “I expressed the most interest and excitement among the winemaking staff here,” said Rothwell, explaining how the guy who’s also in charge of Chardonnay production for the company’s Columbia Crest brand ended up the resident cidermaker. “I have a wide range of interests amongst alcoholic beverages,” he quipped.

To get the project off the ground, Ste. Michelle partnered with the Blue Mountain Cider Company, an established cider producer located across the border in Milton-Freewater, Oregon. “We come in with our winemaking chops; they come in with a lot of experience with orchards, growing apples and also making cider,” said Josh Weiner, Ste. Michelle’s senior marketing manager. “It has really been a cool collaboration.”

It’s those winemaking chops that Chateau Ste. Michelle hopes will set Flatbed apart from other brands: focusing on details like fruit sourcing, fresh pressing and blending. “A winemaker’s palate lends itself to the drier profile that I find much more appealing in Flatbed Cider,” added Rothwell. “It’s not at all in line with the current sugar bombs that are out there.”

But the brand openly admits they’re aiming for a mainstream audience, albeit one they believe has shifting tastes. “The palate in the market is evolving,” suggested Rothwell. “People, I think, are getting a little tired of the ultra-sweet near soda pop levels of sugar in their cider and it’s becoming more mature so they’re looking for something that’s got a little more substance to it…. That’s where we’re headed and we want to take everyone along with us. That’s the essence of what the brand is.”

In contrast to these lofty goals, however, Flatbed has launched as an extremely small project, nothing more than a large company “dipping our toe in the water,” as they describe it. Production will be modest this year, with numbers in the “thousands of cases” of their two varieties, Crisp Apple and Pear, which will only be available in Washington and Oregon.

But if Flatbed does expand, a new intriguing set of issues emerge. With its established national distribution network, Chateau Ste. Michelle would seem positioned to bring Flatbed to a larger audience, but a problem looms: Ironically, the company might not be able to get enough apples.

Despite Washington’s title as America’s top apple producing state, the vast majority of those apples are “culinary” apples – the kind you eat as a snack or bake into pies. To make more complex, dry ciders, cidermakers want to work with specific cider, or heirloom, varieties. For Flatbed to grow their production while maintaining their current blends, hunting down a large amount of cider-friendly apples could be tricky. “Something the industry is struggling with right now is how do you get culinary apple growers to grow these heirloom varieties that can be completely unpalatable,” explained Rothwell. “Growers are quite cautious because the outlay is all on their end and they’re growing something that can only specifically go into cider and they have no other outlet for…. Convincing them to get onboard with heirloom varieties is a bit of challenge.”

Interestingly, the cider apple issue has some parallels to what Washington went through decades ago with wine grapes. In the 1960s, when the Ste. Michelle brand launched, the state had no real wine industry. As the brand became successful, more Washington farmers began growing grapes and more wineries came to follow in Ste. Michelle’s footsteps. Today, Washington is the second largest wine producing state in the US behind California. But all those vineyards didn’t pop up overnight. They were driven by interest and demand, not just for grapes, but for quality wine grapes.

If brands like Flatbed from well-established makers become successful, Washington could see similar growth in its cider apple industry. “If you want to keep that quality and consistency your growth is going to be in line with your sourcing,” Rothwell says, stressing that a natural symbiosis exists between farmers and cidermakers. “It’s got to grow in parallel.”

So though it’s far too early to suggest that Flatbed could have the kind of impact on Washington’s apple production that Ste. Michelle had on its vineyard growth, the historical precedent certainly exists. This time around, Ste. Michelle has far more resources than they did five decades ago, and unlike grape growers in the ‘60s, Washington farmers already know quite a bit of about growing apples, even if they aren’t the cider-specific kind.

Sure, Flatbed could flop. Cider as a whole could even be passing fad. But if America’s interest in cider continues to gain momentum and evolve, Chateau Ste. Michelle could find itself in a unique and potentially lucrative spot within the industry – one that could have ramifications not just for cider drinkers, but winemakers and Northwest apple growers as well.