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Merridale: A Story Of Apples And Passion

At Cobble Hill in southern Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley is the apple farm that’s home to the granddaddy of BC Craft Cider: Merridale Cidery and Distillery. Original owner Al Piggott operated an orchard cidery there beginning as far back as the early 1980s with a staff of just two and a half, including himself.

In 1990, through a provincial government special order in council, the farm was one of the first within BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve to be awarded an ‘Estate Winery’ licence. Since there were no specific regulations for cideries, Merridale was directed to follow the same rules and regulations as wineries…with the caveat that they were not allowed to sell their ciders to BC’s VQA Wine stores. From then on, Merridale blazed a trail as BC’s first modern orchard cidery.

In 1999, Al Piggott moved on and Merridale’s current co-owners, Janet Docherty and Rick Pipes, stepped into the cider business. They toyed beforehand with whether to purchase Merridale or forget about it and go off to Spain for a romantic one-month sailing trip. The cidery won and became a 20-plus-year love affair.

Planting the Seeds

Janet and Rick had a vision of what they wanted for Merridale and knew there were many changes needed to make their dream a reality. Challenges both bureaucratic and political soon presented themselves. When asked to recall things that might have been in their way, Janet responded, “What wasn’t in the way! Everything was in the way.” Undaunted, Janet and Rick methodically and tenaciously worked through various regulatory obstacles in order to stay focussed on their plan.

Rick shares, “In the early 2000s, no one could get a cider license without going to the provincial cabinet for a land-based winery license. As the fruit wineries made inroads, the craft cider business tagged along.”

There are two types of cider production in BC. Merridale falls under the umbrella of land-based/agricultural wineries and cideries. Those without orchards are ‘Commercial’, meaning that they purchase their juice or apples in bulk, then manufacture their product and take it to market.

“Being land-based, we must bring the clients to us,” Rick mentions. “We do sell our ciders to private liquor stores and supply kegs to some craft brewpubs. But our manufacturing cost is too high for wholesale to government liquor stores.” Janet confirms, “That’s what we chose – to be a craft, to be agriculture-based; that’s our brand.”

In the early days, Merridale’s only competition was ‘commercial’ soda-pop style cider. So, they referred to their products as “Artisanal Cider.” Then they incorporated the word “Cidery” in their name. As far as Janet knows, they were the first around to refer to their cider business that way (as opposed to, say, “Cider Maker”). “People would say, ‘Cidery? Is that even a word?’,” she recalls. “Then everyone started using the word cidery—that’s pretty cool.”

There seem to be many firsts for Janet and Rick. In the mid-2000s, they were the first craft cider company to reach out to BC craft beer enthusiasts by joining beer advocacy society CAMRA Victoria (the same group that founded the publication you’re reading) as corporate members. But long before that, Merridale was a founding vendor at the 1994 Great Canadian Beer Festival—the first year the CAMRA-founded event used that name—and they’ve been there every year since. They were the de facto non-beer option at GCBF for two decades before other cideries were brought on board.

Jason Child is Janet’s son and Merridale’s General Manager. He confirms that “The first cidery was us, and then Sea Cider” . Since Merridale’s founding, southern Vancouver Island and the Okanagan have become centres for craft-based cideries. But Rick says he’d be surprised if any orchard cidery that started in Washington, Oregon, or BC in the last fifteen years hadn’t visited Merridale first. “They do tours, talk to our staff—we give them some insight, then they follow their passion,” he shares.

Progress in government licensing was slow, but two decades later there are over 30 estate cideries in BC. A lot of this can be attributed to Rick and Janet’s persistent efforts.

Growing Their Skills

At the time Merridale changed hands, the orchard was a mix of English and French cider apples. That has not changed, partially because government indicated they didn’t want the orchard in competition with growers of eating apples. “Why would we want to?,” Rick contends. “We are making cider from cider apples. Some are not too bad to eat, but some are challenging. We’ve never seen that as a limitation; it’s our niche.” Merridale has close to 20 varieties in their orchard.

That orchard is in a perfect spot: lots of sun, good water and drainage, and less frost on its hill than in the lower Cowichan Valley. There are two wells on the property, both running through fractured granite 280 feet deep, which adds a little calcium carbonate to their water. When they took over the farm, the orchard had been terraced and an irrigation system was in place, but it needed a serious overhaul.

The two new owners also decided to overhaul Merridale’s approach to profiling their ciders. For this, they contacted Britain’s Peter Mitchell, a food and beverage consultant, biochemist and microbiologist, and a leader in the world of cider whose courses have been taken by more than 80% of all craft cideries. Rick approached Peter early on and retained him to consult for Merridale. Janet and Rick took his courses at the University of Washington in 2001 then fine-tuned the ciders they produced over the next five years.

Around 2006, they travelled to England for a one-week course with Mitchell as instructor. During that time, they met third-and fourth-generation English cider makers. One farm had a 200-year history and was still using a horse mill to grind their apples.

Janet recalls, “We were given the opportunity to understand the terroir of apples—a concept that doesn’t exist here, even now. There were hundreds and hundreds of acres of cider apples. We got the opportunity to try them in different places and see how important the climate and soil is.” After that experience, they decided that they would always create blends (as opposed to varietals made from a single apple), because to them, blends offer more creativity.

Family fun in the orchard

A side benefit of the trip was the chance to try fruit-based spirits, especially apple brandy. After tastings in the UK and northern France, they decided this was something they also wanted to do. Only one problem: more legislative change was required before Rick Pipes could become the expert distiller that we’ll get to know later in this issue.

The Terroir of BC Cider

Orchard cideries don’t typically rely completely on their own fruit. Merridale, for instance, has contract growers on Vancouver Island and in the Okanagan, recently having added 10,000 trees on a property in Keremeos. A homebrewer myself, I asked if they sell their apples so people can make their own cider. Janet and Rick agreed that they never have and never would. They have very special apples, and they need all the apples they can get.

Proud Islander Rick admits that cideries in the Okanagan are more numerous but contends that this has more to do with fruit supply than local terroir advantages. “We have growers in the Okanagan with the same apples,” he explains. “But if I gave you a varietal cider made from a Dabinett grown here and one from the Okanagan, you wouldn’t think they were the same fruit.”

Rick believes that local climate and conditions on the Island are better for overall flavour development for the varieties of apples they use. He points out that the Okanagan’s growing season is quicker and warmer, and that fruit ripens faster there. He asserts that the South Island climate allows for polyphenols and tannins to develop differently, resulting in more complex juices to use for true English ciders. Those juices are blended to create Merridale’s eight different cider labels.

“Our Scrumpy is pretty much Cowichan,” Janet says. “Not just pretty much,” Rick objects, adding, “Traditional is also pretty heavy Cowichan focussed.”

During my stay at the orchard, I sampled—okay, drank—most of the ciders available. Scrumpy and Cyser were my favourites. I even tried them blended. Very organic, earthy flavours. You could taste the land they were grown on. Jason told me that this was due to the tannins.

Building the Craft Cider Business

Merridale’s General Manager Jason also happens to serve as the current President of the BC Farm Crafted Cider Association. The Association is doing its best to educate people about farm-crafted cider. “When people go into the liquor store and see a huge price difference between the two, they go ‘Why?’,” he shares. “Why can I get a six-pack of this, and it’s the same price as a bottle of yours?”

“We have grown the apples, then pressed and fermented them with lots of love and time,” he shares. He compares that against “Some apple juice that is fermented to 12% ABV then cut back with water, sugar and colour. We are not saying these products are wrong or bad; they are just different.”

One of the important parts of the business, whether it be craft beer or cider, is getting your beverages on tap in the local pubs. Some have been very supportive; Merridale now occupies four taps at St. Augustine’s beer bar in Vancouver, which has brought on other cideries too.

More taps are being devoted to cider as more people drink it. Recent data shows that craft cideries in North America are going through a rapid expansion, similar to craft breweries during the past decade. With this new surge of interest of craft cider, what would Rick and Janet tell people jumping into the business?

“Grow good fruit to start with, then involve quality processes, heart, and passion along the way,” Rick opines. “One of the first things Peter Mitchell said to us was, ‘Don’t make cider you like; make cider your customers like.’ That’s the best advice of all.”

Janet adds, “Recognize that this is a business. You have to have tenacity. If you’re in for the long run, work should be about having fun, and about passion. Life is long, so you’d better enjoy the work.”

Cider Maker Jeff Phillips

Cider Maker Jeff Phillips started as a hobbyist brewer over 15 years ago, making IPAs to enjoy in his back yard. About seven years ago, a general labour position opened up at Merridale. Having an interest in fermenting things to drink, he applied for it. At first, he just weeded, raked leaves, and gathered apples, but after a while he started training with Rick and Merridale’s master blender Laurent Lafuente. He proved quick to pick up everything needed to work in the cidery.

Jeff has noticed a lot of growth in seven years—more volume, especially in draught. Having weddings, festival events and the restaurant has tripled the business on the farm. Asked how much cider they produce a year, Jeff responded, “Let’s just say a lot”.

More growth equals more employees and more responsibility. Janet notes that “The biggest challenge is HR; there is a lack of people to hire.”

The picturesque Eatery building

Other factors to deal with in running a craft cidery today include rising land prices and taxes. Merridale’s entire property used to be classified as farmland, at a preferred tax rate. But about seven or eight years ago, the provincial government decided that having a processing facility meant the cidery should be taxed as an industrial building. Rick points out that a dairy farmer’s barn is also used for processing milk, yet dairy farms don’t get taxed that way.

Crushing It: How the cider is crafted

The process of cider making begins early in the fall with the harvest of apples. Assorted ground apples are collected, after local bears and deer help themselves to a fair amount of the windfall. Jeff laments, “They’ll go under, over or through any fence, even electric or barbed wire. We’ve got lots of food for them, so we have just accepted we are going to lose some apples. It’s a race. The worst is when they just take a bite.”

The clean apples are crushed, pressed and kept in a vat to see what happens. Jason comments, “The first pressing is a bit of a smorgasbord. All of our bins are numbered, so there are different apples from different parts of the orchard, and we know what they are and how we can blend them.” All juice is ‘first press’; it goes into the tanks, yeast is added, then they wait and babysit the tanks. Generally, the ciders are fully matured after one year.

Some of Merridale’s ciders come in plastic bottles, and others in glass. Cider in glass bottles and cans retains its flavour profile when pasteurization is done at a lower temperature for an extended time. Plastic bottles, on the other hand, can expand under pressure, making them better for the unpasteurized ciders that react to the environment and generate more gas when stored in warm places.

Running the cidery is a full-time, year-round job. In the winter, batches of product are created from the previous year’s ciders by blending for each particular brand. The staff stockpile and package products to be ready for the next summer. In the spring, trees are pruned, and the orchard tidied up. During the summer there are many events and a lot of people visit the farm, so it’s important to get the cider out the door as quickly as possible.

Matching flavour from year to year, given the change in weather and variable summer temperatures, is tricky. “Generally, we adjust our blending,” Jeff explains. “You might have to go 30% higher or lower on the tannins to match the previous year. We take pride in the product being a little different each year.”

Getting into the Hospitality Business

Rick and Janet realized early on that no one knew what craft cider should taste like, so it should be promoted by pairing with food, much like wine. In 2003, Merridale’s original eight-by-ten-foot tasting room was replaced by a new building housing a full Eatery, complete with bakery. The idea was to build a quality restaurant for a slightly educated palate. Not to be missed in Merridale’s Eatery are their prosciutto, pear, and fig pizza, and the Merridale Burger.

Merridale has also built a reputation as the perfect wedding venue. They’ve perfected the art over the years, adding full reception services and even a bus to return guests to Victoria. (They offer this bus service during cider and spirit festivals, too.) In 2019 Merridale hosted 50 weddings, with all the event planning done by their own team. They even have the perfect accommodations for the bride and groom to use: two yurts that overlook a pond.

The yurts at Merridale

Rick explains, “A yurt is a Mongolian tent. Our yurts are made to withstand wind, rain, and snow. They are insulated, but they still are a tent.” The first one went up on the property in 2004, taking about four days to assemble. They were built in Oregon, with Rick modifying the plan to add bamboo floors. Guests can contact Merridale to book their yurts during the warmer months.

In the colder months, to keep their property active year-round, they host special events such as Christmas at the Farm with light displays and long-table dinners. Another popular event is Getting Into The Spirits, an interactive holiday workshop. Guests learn how to make cocktails in the tasting barn and how to prepare a charcuterie board—all the things needed to be the best Christmas host.

Merridale Comes to the City

On the horizon for Merridale in 2020 is a completely new project: a brewpub and whisky distillery in Victoria’s Dockside Green district.

Merridale in the City will be the first “green” distillery in North America, heated by its own industrial activity. The distillery will capture and reuse as much energy and water as possible, because brewing and distilling require a lot of both. Water in the distillery condensers will be recycled, cooled, and reused. Plans are to redistribute energy back to the whole Dockside Green community through a district energy plant.

The green aspect is a mindset and philosophy. State of-the-art energy and rainwater recovery systems will be at the heart of the new facility.  Almost all distilleries dump their water and flush their heat, but Merridale’s greywater will be used for the washroom facilities. The building plan was designed to attain the top Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Designation.

Jason at the future Victoria Distillery & Brewhouse site

The design of the tasting lounge will give guests the opportunity to feel right in the middle of a brewery and distillery. There will even be a catwalk around the perimeter of the second floor to let patrons see the core of the operations. But these ideas take a lot of time to become a reality at city hall. “We tend to do things first,” Janet laughs. “That’s Merridale–doing it the hard way.”

“We will be the first timber-frame open distillery in BC,” Rick adds. “That’s what’s taking so much time. Tearing through a maze and hiring consultants to convince the city that we are right. We think it’s important and worth the time to make sure we get it right.”

Once the building is up, they will need to start brewing as quickly as possible. Having good friends in the beer community is always a great help. For Merridale, that friend is Matt Phillips. With one of the most successful craft breweries in BC, he is able to help with design and direct skilled brewers their way. Vancouver’s Brassneck Brewing represents the feel they’re aiming for, so they’re seeking brewers who want to do small batch with passion and creativity.

Merridale Cidery & Distillery in Cobble Hill will remain all fruit-based, while Merridale Distillery & Brewhouse in Victoria will be all grain-based—meaning whisky distilled from their beer. That side of the new establishment will need more than three years to be ready to serve distilled grain-based spirits. Meanwhile, their fruit-based spirits will be on tap alongside their beers and ciders.

I ask about the vision for five or ten years down the road. Will Janet and Rick retire? Rick replies that he doesn’t golf or fish. Jason adds, “My mom doesn’t want to step out—she still wants to do marketing, deal with tourism boards, etc. There are so many things that she enjoys. I am taking on more and more; the Victoria project is so big.”

“Janet and I both come from a business background. We have seen a lot, so we are not caught up in the romance of it,” Rick shares “It’s all about pride and passion. My father said, ‘Be proud of everything you do each day; each day, try to be one percent better than you were the day before’. If you follow that, you will eventually be in a good spot.”

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