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Love (And Drink) With Thy Neighbor

Neighborhoods are coming together to make tasty alcoholic ciders

One of the many varieties of Asian pears at Nashi Orchards.

While crowd-sourced funding, led by Kickstarter, takes over social media with requests to donate money to restaurants, inventors, and even medical bills, Nashi Orchards and similar companies aren't asking their neighbors for money. They just want the fruit from nearby trees.

In a move that is the exact opposite of the "single varietal" and "estate-grown" buzzwords that have come to define quality and excellence in the world of wine and cider, Nashi’s staff gather fruit from owners of private land all around Vashon Island, Washington to put into their ciders. Sales of the resulting cider, called “Issho Ni”—Japanese for “together with”—benefit a charity voted on by those who donate fruit, but the project also benefits the land and the local community through its agricultural benefits: pest control, heirloom tree identification, and food waste reduction.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]People were excited. They asked, ‘When can we bring them by?’ Is a paper bag okay?'[/quote]

Jim Gerlach and Cheryl Lubbert didn’t set out to be cider makers (he was a landscape architect, and Lubbert still works as president and CEO of a family of communications companies in Seattle), but the couple’s orchard was producing five to seven tons of fruit each year, and it became the next logical step.

“You can make only so many pickles, sauces, and jams,” Lubbert says.

Then Gerlach caught the bug: he took a class in cider-making and set about turning his newfound hobby into a viable business. One of the first things Gerlach decided was that he wanted to make a cider that was unique to the land from which it came, not an imitation of old-world styles. Rather than try to follow a preconceived notion of the ideal, Gerlach wanted to make the best with what already existed and thrived on the island.

“We can bring the fruits from England and plant them here and try to replicate their ciders, or we can use what’s here and make something that’s ours, that has our history, our style,” he said.

Cheryl Lubbert and Jim Gerlach of Nashi Orchards taste fruit.

Four years ago, Gerlach made his first crowd-sourced cider. When fruit in people’s backyards, on public land, or in forgotten private orchard corners was left to fall from the tree on the north end of the island, it would harbor pests that affected the health of fruit on the south end. He knocked on doors and asked to pick it before it fell. Once the apples are on the ground, spotted-wing fruit flies, coddling moths, apple maggots, and bag worms, Gerlach says, all find homes in fruit left to rot. Picking up fruit that otherwise would not only be waste, but actually detrimental to the local agriculture meant his efforts to make an island-sourced cider were a little self-serving: the less fruit left around on the island, the fewer pests he would have to deal with in his own orchard.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]“You can make only so many pickles, sauces, and jams." [/quote]

When they asked for fruit, they found a new way to not only meet neighbors, but often to help them out: “People were excited, they asked, ‘When can we bring them by?’ Is a paper bag okay?”

Neighbors who brought fruit felt like they’d contributed to something, been a part of something bigger. And they had: not only by donating fruit to Issho Ni, but by being a part of the emerging trend of crowd-sourced cider. In Washington, there’s White’s South Sounder and Seattle Cider Company makes one in collaboration with non-profit City Fruit (using the fruit they collect that isn’t appropriate to donate to a food bank, their main mission). Finnriver Farm and Cidery also makes one that donates proceeds back to local food banks.

The production barn at Nashi Orchards.

“You don’t need 20,000 trees,” Labbert says. “We get six tons out of our orchard. It’s a great way not to waste fruit.”

Labbert and Gerlach are both emphatic that this process replicable in other places around the country, that each place could make their own cider as uniquely tied directly to the land as Issho Ni is to Vashon.

“It’s part of a cycle,” he says, of both recycling the forgotten fruit and of the crowd-sourced cider project as a whole. Gerlach and Lubbert wanted to make sure their crowd-sourced cider gave back to the community; their first year of production, they did so by handing out bottles of the finished product to those who’d donated fruit. But by the second year, they were a commercial cider business and regulated by laws that do not permit alcoholic beverages to be given away for free. Instead, they let anyone who donated fruit vote for a local charity to which the proceeds would go.

The crowd-sourced cider, posed with the apple varieties used to make it.

This year, funds will go to the Vashon Land Trust, an organization which works to preserve the Island’s natural ecosystem and rural character. The trees Gerlach looks for vary, but mostly he wants old trees from the original 19th century homesteads on the island. Like wine grapes, the older the plant, the deeper the roots. On Vashon’s soil, that means the roots go deep enough to pull up all the minerals and flavors.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]You don’t need 20,000 trees. We get six tons out of our orchard.[/quote]

“We have these cool old trees, interesting varieties you can’t get elsewhere: Sweet Alfords, Roxbury Russets, Summer Rambos, Rhode Island Greenlings,” he says. advantage of the found fruit is that it is unfertilized, which means there are lower levels of nitrogen—a key to avoiding hot fermentation and harsher, higher alcohol by volume results. But the lack of nitrogen means “you get these nice cool ferments,” he says. “It helps in maintaining that great fruity quality in the cider.”

The quality that comes from the collected fruits is what makes the cider most interesting. Gerlach says he doesn’t aim for a specific mix. There are certain types he avoids too many of (kings), which are just bulk blenders, and ones that he likes more of (crabapples), because they add more interesting savory notes.

“The heirloom fruit that’s on old trees and allowed to ripen fully is just a nicer starting point than commercial fruit, so we just embrace the change year-to-year and don’t try to make a house style or something with consistency, because it’s about the seasons,” Lubbert says.

And it’s true—part of what makes the Issho Ni so interesting is that you can taste how the weather and the harvest determined the flavor each year. They could add sugar and make the same cider each year, she says, “But what fun would that be?”

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