Story by Kathleen Kenna
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
COBBLE HILL, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Ripening apples signal harvest in the Cowichan Valley, and that means the first press of the season for Merridale Ciderworks, the oldest estate cidery in British Columbia.
None of the apples on its 3,500 trees near Vancouver Island‘s southeast coast are for eating: They’re old-fashioned cider apples, produced only for drinking.
Merridale has the largest cider apple orchard in Canada. When these cider apple trees were planted 30 years ago, there was only one other orchard in North America producing apples solely for cider.
This is not your grandmother’s cider either, although Merridale uses old-fashioned methods. Alcohol content in its ciders ranges from 6% for “Merri Berri” to 12% for Cidre Normandie.
Tastings are available at the Cider House, a modern, barn-like building with fieldstone fireplace and cosy restaurant and bar. Merridale has won international awards for its traditional, English-style cider — one of a flight of six offered for $4.
The flight includes the full-bodied Cidre Normandie — aged in French oak — and a champagne-style cider called Somerset. Both are dry, although not as sharp as the popular “Scrumpy.”
Cider makers who couldn’t afford orchards stole or “scrumped” apples from British trees centuries ago, and made their own hard stuff. The Merridale version won gold and silver medals at a North American Brewers Association competition.
“There’s a resurgence in cider,” says Merridale owner Janet Docherty. “It’s the craft aspect — people are more interested in artisanal production. They want to know where their food comes from, where their drink comes from, and if the way it’s produced is good for the environment.”
Merridale uses only pure apples — no reconstituted juice or concentrate — and no water, chemicals, or pasteurization.
And there’s only one press.
“We focus on the old-fashioned way of doing things,” Docherty says during a tour of the rack and cloth press, distillery, fermentation room, bottling station and Cider House. “We’re farming with ecological methods, using older methods, and focusing on the environment.”
On Vancouver Island, Cider Goes Artisanal
Unfermented, wildflower honey from the hives is blended with vintage cider apples for a dessert cider called “Cyser,” awarded a silver medal by the North American Brewers Association. It’s described as “Viking-style.”
The copper still, from Germany, is heated with wood, producing a Calvados-style brandy that is aged in oak barrels imported from France.
Merridale is one of a small number of distilleries in British Columbia producing such spirits as Blackberry Oh de Vie (unfermented, pure blackberry juice is added to brandy) and Apple Oh de Vie.
Its best-seller? Frizz, a berry-coloured vodka made with fruit instead of being infused with fruit.
Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the orchards, production plant, pond/wetlands and gardens, where herbs and vegetables are grown for the restaurant, the Merridale Bistro.
An outdoor kitchen, with big, brick oven, and dining patio have a splendid view of the property, and are popular for weddings. Heated, covered decks allow intimate meals and family-style dining. One deck overlooks an orchard; one overlooks the trout pond.
The bistro features house-smoked cheese and house-cured meats such as traditional bacon and house-made salami. Dressings and sauces are house-made, and cider yeast is used in homemade bread, baked in Merridale’s brick ovens.
Organic greens, applewood-smoked cheddar, smoked, cider-glazed wild salmon and smoked vegetables are specialties. Poached apples, in salad or dessert, are hearty yet delicate in fall.
“Simple foods, comfort foods,” Docherty says, when describing the daily menu, which follows the “100-mile diet” parameters of everything being grown or produced within that range. Fresh tomatoes and basil from the garden are especially popular on Merridale’s house-made, wood-oven pizzas.
Seasonal, local food is paired with cider or BC wines. Sangria is made from local wine blended with Merridale’s “Merri Berri” cider, made from raspberries, cherries and black currants. Mulled or hot cider becomes more popular when the temperatures dip.
The restaurant has expanded in the past year to include a pastry chef from France and three Red Seal chefs — two Canadian, one Australian — who have added field-to-table dinners and Sunday brunch to Merridale’s offerings. Some of their charcuterie is also sold at the Ciderworks deli, along with Vancouver Island and BC wines and artisanal products.
Merridale prides itself on giving to the community, donating all of its tasting fees to an Easter Seals camp for children with disabilities, the United Way, and an island campaign for multiple sclerosis research. These donations also help the food bank, which Docherty notes, is especially “close to home.”
Children are welcomed to Merridale, where faeries named Dale and Merri have made a home. A “fairie treasure hunt” map is available for free wandering, taking visitors from faerie lookouts to a miniature tree house, where notes for the faeries can be left in a tiny mailbox. (Youngsters under 12 must be accompanied by an adult.)
Merridale Ciderworks is one of the most tasty stops along the Pacific Marine Circle Route, a two- to four-day loop around southern Vancouver Island. The 255-kilometre route is promoted by Tourism Vancouver Island and Tourism British Columbia.
More About Merridale Ciderworks
Location: 1230 Merridale Road, Cobble Hill, BC.
Contact: 800.998.9908 or 250.743.4293; merridalecider.com.
More on the Pacific Marine Circle Route: Visit the tourism sites at hellobc.com and vancouverisland.travel, or call 800.HelloBC (435.5622).