FOR CHEF TURNED CIDER MAKER, COMPLEXITY IS A VIRTUE

 

 

BY WILLIAM DEAN

  Her craft cider is a hit, spreading like a tongue-tingling wave across the Long Beach peninsula. But there was a moment when she still had doubts.

  In launching Ilwaco Cider Co., Vinessa Karnofski opted to go bold from the start, ignoring the advice of someone who’d spent years in the hard cider business. He thought she should simplify her complex recipes.

  “That’s not me,” she told him. “I can’t do that.”

  Her first four batches, brewed in a high-ceilinged, concrete-floored building on Spring Street, Ilwaco’s main drag, involved intriguing pairings of fresh whole fruit, with rinds, peels and assorted spices and natural sweeteners mixed in. Even two kinds of tea. 

  She’d tested the recipes in miniature and was pleased enough to start filling the fermentation tanks.

  A few weeks later, when the ciders were ready for sampling, she arranged for a May 19 private tasting in a makeshift taproom. Invitees included family, friends and a smattering of local business people, including restaurateurs and the owners of North Jetty Brewing up the road in Seaview. 

  Vinessa served taster trays featuring all four ciders to her guests, then stood by anxiously. 

Ciders of all colors and flavors are on tap.

  She didn’t have to wait long. A buzz quickly filled the room. People began raving about the flavors, the aromas, the effervescence. When could they place keg orders, some asked. North Jetty offered a tap or two.

  A trained chef with restaurant and catering experience, Vinessa felt energized.

  “As a chef, you can be in love with a dish, but you need to see others satisfied by it,” she said afterward. “And that’s how I feel about cider. I just love the fact that people sit down and try it, then they enjoy it and feel excited. That feeds into me.”

***

  Ilwaco Cider’s brewhouse was still being set up when the only cidery on Oregon’s North Coast died.

  Fortune & Glory Cider Co. in downtown Astoria abruptly closed in January, with the owners citing shrinking profit margins.

  Was it a warning or an opportunity?

   A self-proclaimed “positive person,” Vinessa, 44, chose to believe the latter. She and her husband Jarrod pressed ahead, forging initial partnerships with regional farms, including peninsula cranberry growers Evil Mistress and Starvation Alley. It was the first step in their farm-to-pint glass plan, using whole fruit sourced regionally and only natural ingredients.

  Their flagship cider, she knew, would be made with those cranberries, including the especially flavorful late-harvest variety.

  Springrider Cran would become that brew – but not without a “huge” learning curve. 

  The berries were meticulously cleaned then pureed several times, gradually mixing in lime juice, wildflower honey and a small amount of raw sugar.

  The puree went into a 30-barrel tank, added to an apple juice base. A special yeast was introduced to create alcohol. Later, Vinessa introduced even more flavors: a crimson tea blend with currants, rose hips, elderberry and hibiscus that was dipped into the mix wrapped in cheesecloth.

  Then it was “tasting, tasting, tasting” until the perfect flavor was reached.

  When it came time to add CO2 and filter (for clarity and removal of any remaining yeast), she ran into an unexpected problem: Standard filters quickly became clogged, causing her to switch to a higher grade. The filtering process itself also dulled the flavor slightly, causing her to recalculate her recipe proportions.

  “I just took copious notes all the way through,” she recalled. “I wrote afterward: ‘Double here.’ ‘Keep this the same.’”

   Soon, she had her first batch of Springrider Cran to offer, as well as three others: Solitary Euphoria – bubbly and wine-like with elderberry, cardamon and grapefruit peel; Fisherman’s Flannel – semi-dry and Christmassy with notes of ginger, peppercorn, cinnamon, clove and allspice; and Columbia Fog – a blend of Oolong tea, orange peel, lavender flowers, vanilla beans and orange blossom honey.

  The zesty drinks come with a kick: alcohol by volume ranges from 6 to 7 percent.

  Vinessa was hoping to have two more ciders available by the cidery’s June 29 grand opening. A wall at the back of the existing taproom was to be taken out, creating space for about 60 guests. A custom bar made from a massive redwood slab was in the works. 

The proud owners posing by the fermentation tanks.

  The final phase of the buildout involves adding a kitchen and food menu by next summer. All while ramping up production to some 60 barrels every seven weeks. 

  “That’s a lot,” she said of her own projections. “We’re basically running on adrenalin right now.”

  Erik Svendsen, owner of North Jetty, admires the Karnofskis for bringing their business dream to life.

  “They made a plan and went for it. I really like seeing people take a leap like that,” he said. 

  John Oakes, owner of Starvation Alley Farms, is blown away by how Ilwaco Cider has exploded on the scene, rapidly building a fan base.

  “It’s surprising everyone,” he said. “It’s very, very cool. … And I like the cider.”

***

   Vinessa has always loved to cook.

  After graduating from culinary school in Portland in 1998, she worked in both restaurants and catering. But when she married Jarrod and they wound up raising a combined five kids, it was time to strike a better balance.

  “I needed to find something in line with my passion, which is cooking. Something where I could be creative, but didn’t have the same [long] hours like a restaurant,” she said. 

  Vinessa, who’d been home-brewing cider for a while, began thinking about opening a cidery. Jarrod, who grew up in Ilwaco and now works for Columbia Memorial Hospital, loved the idea of launching a business that could help revitalize the downtown.

  Soon, she began creating those challenging recipes, drawing on her culinary skills. 

  “Because I’ve worked with lots of ingredients for 20-plus years, I have a flavor palette in my mind,” she said. “It’s definitely a benefit.”

  Lavender, for example, is an amazing ingredient when properly balanced with other flavors. “As long as it’s in harmony, it’s going to be fine,” she said.

  The same could be said for Ilwaco Cider as a business. For now, the Karnofskis are content to build up slowly, acting as their own distributors, before turning to Astoria and beyond. 

  When the taproom opens, Vinessa will be working amid the tanks while people sip cider and watch. What will that be like?

  “I think it’ll be a comedy initially,” she said, laughing. “But there’s a little theater in me.”

__

WILLIAM DEAN is an author with a passion for craft beer. His suspense novels Militia MenDangerous Freedom and The Ghosts We Know are available at Amazon and in bookstores. Check out his beer blog at astoriabeerzone.com.

(This article previously appeared in the July 2024 issue of HIPFiSH Monthly).

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