Food & Drink

Farm to bottle: Cockrell Hard Ciders in Puyallup is years-long dream realized

A newly restored apple-red tractor is once again working the land in Puyallup. Like the tractor, the land itself has a new lease on life as it becomes Pierce County’s first hard cidery.

Rich Cockrell has just opened Cockrell Hard Ciders on 17 newly purchased acres along the banks of the Puyallup River.

The business may be new but Cockrell has been making hard cider for more than 15 years and has been a home brewer for 25 years. A chiropractor by profession, he had long dreamed of starting his own brewery. Then, his wife pointed out that he was much better at making cider than beer.

“My ciders have always outperformed my beer,” Cockrell said.

Cockrell isn’t alone on his new venture. His Yakima-based brother John is a partner and he has a large posse of friends who just like to stay busy by helping him.

Cockrell bought the property this summer from Gwen and Don Dewey who owned and ran Gwendon Farm on the site since 1967.

“We didn’t want to sell it to a developer. I would have kept it until I died,” Gwen said.

At one point during the Deweys’ long ownership, the farm had 1,500 apple trees, along with raspberries and other crops.

Today, just a few liberties and johnny golds are left from those days. But rows of young and healthy Jonastar trees fill one section of the orchard. Next year, Cockrell will unceremoniously cut them off at their grafts. Onto the EMLA rootstalk he will graft dabinett, Kingston black, yarlington mill, brown snout and other apple varieties.

There’s a reason you won’t find those apples in your local grocery or farmers market. They specifically are used for hard cider and they make terrible eating apples.

With cideries opening all over the country the apples needed to make the alcoholic beverage are difficult to find.

“Trying to find cider trees is ridiculous,” Cockrell said. Eventually he hopes to have 400-500 trees on his property.

Eastern Washington may lay claim to the state’s apple kingdom but Western Washington’s climate is closer to England’s — the traditional home of cider. Cider apples grow better in a maritime climate, Cockrell said.

“That’s why I bought this farm. I want to be in control of the apples,” Cockrell said.

Cockrell isn’t a purist. Of his four varieties of cider one is flavored with raspberries and another with hops. The raspberries already grow on the farm. But whatever he makes he wants to have control over it from start to finish.

“Five years from now I want to have an outstanding English style cider that’s been grown, pressed, fermented and packaged on this property,” Cockrell said.

Most large scale ciders, like Angry Orchard, are sweet. Cockrell thinks it’s natural for drinkers entering the cider world to gravitate toward sweeter versions much like Muscat is popular with newbie wine drinkers.

“You’re going to see people go to drier, more complex ciders,” Cockrell predicted.

Cockrell, his brother and their crew of friends and family just completed the fall harvest and squeeze.

After the apples were picked they were run through a grinder. The resulting grind, called pomace, is placed in cloth-bound slabs called cheeses that are then pressed.

The process is labor intensive.

“We’ve got all the brewery steps plus a few more,” Cockrell said.

The fresh juice goes in to fermentation tanks where it’s tested for sugar and acid levels. Malic acid (found naturally in apples) and apple concentrate can be added if levels are not correct. The process can take 10 days to two months.

A secondary fermentation lasts for about a month. Finally, a third “bright” tank adds carbonation just in time for bottling.

While his bottled ciders are pasteurized Cockrell sells unpasteurized versions for his keg draft sales.

“Then we label them and off we go,” Cockrell said.

Cockrell’s first batch was 1,500 gallons. He plans to increase by 1,500 gallons every year for the next three to four years.