Fine wines, micro-brewed beer and regional distilleries have popped up in every corner of the state, and hard cider and perry – made from fermented apple and pear juices – are the newest members of the club.
Consumer demand is strong, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Cider drink sales grew 7 percent nationally in the first quarter of 2018, but increased 30 percent in Oregon during that time, says Emily Ritchie, head of the Northwest Cider Association.
Purists believe Northwest cider will improve as more growers plant traditional cider apple trees, including old French and British varieties that produce gnarly, astringent fruit. For now, many cider makers use dessert apples, but more cider apple trees are being planted throughout the state. In Jefferson, south of Salem, former financier Richard Hostetter bought a 60-acre farm and is in the process of transforming it into a high-density cider apple orchard, planted with 1,200 trees per acre. He’ll harvest his first commercial crop from 12 acres in the fall of 2018.
Hostetter believes the Willamette Valley will become a premier cider apple-growing area and welcomes the increased commercial research attention the crop is receiving.
Oregon State University established a research orchard of more than 90 cider apple varieties and is evaluating how they fare in western Oregon conditions.
Oregon growers have a knack for finding and filling economic niches. People involved in the state’s fledgling tea industry hope they can repeat the success of hazelnuts, which grew by about 3,000 acres of new orchard plantings per year over the past decade.
Minto Island Tea Co., part of a diversified vegetable and berry farm near Salem, was the first to grow tea plants – Camellia sinensis. The family-run business started with a half-acre research plot of tea plants in 1988 and, by commercial standards, is miniscule. Owner Elizabeth Miller says she typically produces several hundred pounds of tea per year.
Tea plants are difficult to propagate and slow to produce, Miller says. The farm now has about 8 acres approaching production, but the half-acre plot established by her father and a research partner remains the base of the operation.
The future, however, is intriguing. Tea is a high-value specialty crop that can be profitable on a small scale, Miller says. Minto Island quickly sells its annual harvest.
The 2017 production was very small and sold out within hours.
There is “unbelievable interest and passion” for tea, which she says is the most widely consumed beverage in the world. Miller eventually wants to open a traditional teahouse on the property. Meanwhile, Japanese tea farmers have come walking up the farm’s driveway unannounced, eager to see the small Oregon operation they’ve heard about.
“There’s a huge demand,” Miller says. “We’re nowhere close to even meeting it.”