By Phil Vogelzang
Steve “Bear” Bishop is used to fights. But not just any fights. Bear fights fires professionally, which he has done all over the Northwest since 1976. He’s a focused and determined individual who clearly knows how to get things done. One look at his and wife Nancy’s “Alpenfire” organic cidery on Cape George near Discovery Bay and it’s clear. With rows and rows of perfectly pruned, trellised, and drip irrigated cider apple trees in the backyard of their home and newly finished tasting room, this cidery is a testament to determination.
But Bear and Nancy weren’t ready for the legal battle that presented itself when they were told the name of their cidery, ”Wildfire”, was owned by a large Chicago based restaurant chain that began threatening legal action against them as soon as they started commercial production for copyright infringement. After considering their options and the absurdity of the claim, they decided to embrace a new name – “Alpenfire” last year, with enthusiasm and determination. And it shows.
Nancy used to run a marine canvas shop in Port Townsend. Bear’s first love was fighting fires, and he continues with this work. One of the little known “facts” he relates about firefighters is their love of home-brewed beer “since they can’t afford to buy it in the store” jokes Bear. His beer-making skills led him to consider making hard apple cider. In 1991 they purchased their Cape George property where they began dabbling in cider-making as hobbyists.
In 2001 (when they got serious according to Nancy) they embarked on a visit to Europe’s traditional cider-making regions in England, France, and Spain to learn all that they could. They learned that maritime environments, like we have here, grow the best tasting apples for cider. The cool nights and foggy mornings allow the fruit to ripen slowly, giving it a chance to fully develop a rich palate of flavors. When they returned home, they were delighted to find that WSU was offering classes at Mt Vernon, taught by the English Cider master Peter Mitchell, which they eagerly attended.
With the knowledge and confidence they gleamed from that, they immediately placed an order for 900 French and English cider variety trees and began clearing and prepping their land, using the milled lumber to build a 4 wire trellis system. The trees were planted in 2003, and in 2008 they had their first harvest and began production. They grow 12 traditional European cider varieties with names like Kingston Black, Brownsnout, Vilberie and Dabinett, and are now experimenting with 5 “perry” trees for pear cider, and some early American varieties. The varieties were chosen to provide them a full range of bittersweet and bittersharp flavors that they can then carefully blend to produce a nuanced old-world style cider.
I should note here that the entire operation is certified organic — that they never considered doing otherwise. Bear grins and boasts at this point — “We’re the only organically certified cidery in the state!” Nancy and Bear enjoy the extra attention being certified organic requires as it keeps them in touch with the myriad of complex relationships and coping mechanisms found in nature. Bear has hung his drip lines high and wrapped the base of each tree with leftover fire retardant fabric from discarded fire shelters that firefighters routinely use on their missions. This allows him to burn weeds with a propane torch right up to the trunk without damage.
They have also decided to forgo the use of sulfites in all of their ciders except for small amounts used in “Spark”. Sulfites are an inexpensive and, according to the Bishops, “often over-used” preservative that controls the growth of unwanted yeasts and bacteria. The Bishops claim they can taste sulfites in the underlying flavor and finish when used, plus they point out that there are those allergic to sulfites. Not using sulfites requires extreme attention to the cleanliness of the fruit, the speed of processing, and temperature, but again, they say they enjoy the challenge.
Inside the newly finished pressing facility and tasting room are more examples of their attention to detail. Each high tech piece of equipment, including an impressive Austrian chopper and press, is gleaming and shiny. There are stacks of handcrafted white Oregon oak barrels for aging their organic bone-dry reserve blend call Pirates Plank, as well as bittersweet organic cider called Ember. Spark is a pasteurized semi-sweet cider that contains small amounts of sulfites and uses a wider range of apple varietals. All delicious. Other ciders they have made which I didn’t get to taste include their “Methode Champenoise” cider and their traditional German style Apfelwein.
Lastly, in a separate area, they now produce an exquisite apple cider vinegar using the “Orleans” method developed in France 600 years ago. The vast majority of apple vinegar is made in a matter of hours using “submerged fermentation and oxygenation” which produces a vinegar with acetic acid levels far greater than 5%. They then dilute it with water to bring the concentration down to 5%. Using the “slow Orleans” method, the Bishops start with their organic hard cider, add a floating mother, and then let it ferment slowly in a warm place until it has fully gone acetic (a natural 5%). They then age it in oak casks. The result is extraordinary. One may not be in the habit of tasting vinegar, but comparing Alpenfire’s vinegar to even a good unfiltered organic brand of commodity apple cider reveals an astounding difference. The commodity brand tastes sharp and watery without any complexity, whereas the Alpenfire vinegar is dense with complex flavors. One is tempted to pour a glass and just keep sipping. On the future horizon, look for their fruit, honey and herbal vinegars.
All are available at the Chimacum Corner Farmstand including ciders pre-chilled in our refrigerated case. So come on down and get your world-class “CIDER AND VINEGAR FROM HERE”!
We also definitely recommend a visit to their tasting room which is open June-Sept, Fri-Mon, 1-5 (or call for an appointment at 360-379-8915). They are located outside Port Townsend at 220 Pocket Lane. Have fun!