This account of real life was experienced and written by Christina Miller and Greg Parker
Recently, a small group of cousins jumped in my minivan and we all drove out to Wheel Line Cider. It was a windy day, just before the cideries busy farmers market season was about to start. Wheel Line is so far out of town that at some point you will be pretty sure you are lost because Google Maps has steered you wrong. The orchard and cidery are in a part of the Kittitas Valley called Badger Pocket. Just before you feel like you have come to the end of the road, there is a sign proving that you’ve reached the end of the road. Just kidding. It’s a sign pointing you up the hill to the Wheel Line Cider tasting room.
As you pull up, you see gigantic metal sculptures for growing hops towering over the tasting room (hey, we’re the beer people). There is an outdoor seating area, and a beautifully restored airstream that serves as their summertime tap room. The metal structures seem a little out of place on a farm surrounded by hay fields, but they are so striking and unique it’s also hard to imagine the land without them.
Then we met the owner, Susie, and the towering sculptures that are part art and part agriculture totally make sense. Susie is a force of nature, and at 72 it doesn’t feel like she will be slowing down anytime soon. She travels all over the world to market and sell her ciders, and those giant metal sculptures were inspired by her trip to The Getty Art Museum Gardens in LA. She is just as involved in the growing of her many varieties of apples. Susie has a clear vision for her ciders, her farm, and her tasting room. She has been working hard since her retirement from teaching to make it all come to life, with her family by her side.
So why are a bunch of Iron Horse Brewery cousins visiting a local cidery and learning about apple orchards? A couple years ago Iron Horse Brewery bought Bad Granny Cider to jump into the world of cider making. Speaking of, if you need a lesson on the most expensive and dumbest way to start a cidery, we can provide this lesson. This winter we made our very first batch of cider at Iron Horse under our Oddstock brand called Red Flesh Experimental Cider. We are in love with the way it turned out and happy to find out that when people have a chance to try it they feel the same way. We are in those beginning stages of a new love, our new love with cider making, where we want to learn as much as we can. So a field trip to Wheel Line felt like a good place to learn more and share some libations with makers who obsess over fermentation as much as we do.
We began with a tour of their eight acres of heritage cider apple trees on the top of a hill with their orchardist Roberto. Roberto had a glint in his eye when discussing the hard work and challenges of the orchard. I heard him say something like, “yes, it is rewarding to bring in the harvest, mostly to see the happy people when we do.” Roberto reflected the passion that clearly runs through the whole organization.
Moving on from the orchard, Nate the Wheel Line cider maker walked us through all the trials and tribulations of a small beverage producer. Such as bottling 4 bottles at a time, working in relationship with machines that are just barely suited to the work we ask them to do, and the fallacy of job descriptions; everyone does every job in these small businesses. Topically relevant, before we had even sat down to try their ciders, our fearless leader Greg had already volunteered us all up to harvest apples this fall.
The folks of Wheel Line shared freely of their time and didn’t reject any question we asked despite the fact that we could easily be viewed as a new competitor. They opened their business to us and shared their love of the complex and nuanced flavors that heritage apples bring to cider making. As we sat down to learn about all their different ciders and how they each came to be, Susie told us about her heritage as the great granddaughter of Jacob Schmidt, the founder of Schmidt Brewing in St. Paul, Minnesota. While fermentation runs in her blood, she has always been a fan of cider especially in her travels all over the world and tasting all the many different ways cider is made. She and her daughter Maryanna run Wheel Line together and their mutual vision is less on the size of their market share, but more on their share of their little pocket out in “the pocket.”
If you make the effort to join them at their tasting room and get to know the people who make Wheel Line Cider possible, I have no doubt you will feel the warmth and welcome that we did.