Vancouver Island

Craft Cider’s Comeback

Exploring Vancouver Island’s exciting cider scene

by John Lee

Merri Berri being poured, Photo courtesy of Merridale Cidery & Distillery

It’s a sun-dappled Sunday in Vancouver Island’s Cobble Hill community, where several chatty visitors are raising their glasses at Merridale Cidery’s winery-style tasting bar. The adjoining gastropub is even busier, with leisurely diners feasting on brick-oven-baked pizzas while surveying the gently sloping orchards through wide-open windows.

Merridale Estate Cidery in the Cowichan Valley, Photo courtesy of Destination BC/Graeme Owsianski

“Craft cider wasn’t even a sector when we bought this place in 1999,” recalls Merridale’s energetic co-owner, Janet Docherty. “Our competition back then was commercial producers like Strongbow, and we had to work hard to convince everyone that cider made from local fruit and traditional methods was better.”

Fast-forward 18 years, and B.C.’s cider scene is effervescent. But, while producers from other areas of the province, from Pender Island (Twin Island Cider) to Oliver (Howling Moon Craft Cider) have since popped-up, Vancouver Island’s southern half remains one of the most exciting regions for fans of apple-made libations—with Merridale a popular pilgrimage spot.

“The Traditional is our top-seller, but we think we have ciders for almost everyone, from dry and tannic Scrumpy to lighter and fruity Merri Berri,” says Docherty, adding that Merridale’s apples—including celebrated Dabinett and Hauxapfel varieties—are combined with simple, pure ingredients and a slow fermentation process.

The result is that reluctant cider sippers are often turned on to a tipple they’ve long neglected or even dismissed. It’s a eureka moment familiar to the region’s other cider makers.

Sparkling Amber Cider, Photo courtesy of Mike Pepperdine / Sea Cider

“We’re best known for our Rumrunner,” says fifth-generation farmer Kristen Needham, owner of Sea Cider, which is centered on a large, handsomely gabled Saanichton ciderhouse. “It’s our homage to those who ran liquor boats over the international line during prohibition—in waters you can actually see from here.”

Consisting of aromatic organic apples like Winter Banana and Stayman Winesap, and aged in rum-soaked bourbon barrels, the caramel-noted cider is one of many inviting options at Needham’s high-ceilinged tasting bar. “Our range runs from still to sparkling, brut dry to dessert style, and fruity to minerally—we’re always aiming to change the way people think about cider,” she says.

Tod Creek Craft Cider – Bamfield Bound, Photo courtesy of TBD

It’s an approach mirrored at Tod Creek Craft Cider, which opened on the outskirts of Victoria in 2014. Transforming a pasture-framed old dairy farm into a rustic, red-painted charmer, owner Chris Schmidt has a passion for new flavours. And he thinks B.C.’s surging craft beer scene has made locals more receptive to cider, too.

“Beer fans try farm-crafted cider for a variety of reasons. The ciders tend to have intriguing complexities and tasting notes—far superior to syrupy commercial ciders—and the gluten-free, lower-calorie aspects also appeal,” says Schmidt, whose small, microbrewery-like tasting room does a brisk trade in growler refills.

Back at Merridale, Docherty—who reveals she’s also opening a satellite brewery and distillery in Victoria in 2018—loves how the island’s cider scene has blossomed and matured since she started out. “Many creative and passionate people have joined us here. We always welcome these new artisans: it keeps all of us thinking outside the box.”