Sinclair Orchards finds ready market for Sixknot Cider
By Laurelle Walsh
Sinclair Orchards and Sixknot Cider owners Beth and John Sinclair have plenty to crow about at the moment: Sixknot ciders are winning awards in regional competitions, and their young brand is reaching new markets in the United States and overseas.
The Sinclairs make — and sell — a product that they believe in, and they’re doing it their way: chemical-free, solar-powered, certified organic hard cider made from apples grown in the Northwest “terroir.”
“What makes our farm different is that it is centered on and supports the cidery,” John said. “If we only had fruit, it would not be worth the effort — horticulture is not my gift. But knowing what happens in the orchard, and being connected to other growers in the area, provides a foundation for the way we make cider.”
The 2015 harvest is finished at Sinclair Orchards, located on the west-side road between Twisp and Carlton, and the apples are now in cold storage at Chelan Fruit Co-op for sorting and grading. Fresh-market-grade organic honeycrisps are “so valuable we can’t afford to put them into cider,” John said — they are destined for Whole Foods markets in the Seattle area — but the processor-grade apples return to the cidery where they are blended with organic apples grown around the region that have “other flavor profiles,” he said.
“Most cider makers never see an apple; they don’t know what they’re using,” said John, who takes pride in the fact that Sixknot ciders come from whole fruit — not concentrate — that he selects himself. “I develop a relationship with the forklift driver at the warehouse. He’ll set aside the fruit we’re looking for,” John said.
That fruit is pressed into juice in the Sixknot pressing room, after which begins the slow, cold fermentation process that is the key to Sixknot ciders. “The fermentation is temperature controlled rather than with chemicals,” said Beth, noting that their certified organic ciders contain no added sugars or chemicals such as sulfites.
The bottled cider is pasteurized, which kills the yeast and stops the fermentation process; whereas Sixknot cider by the keg is “live,” and must be kept very cold. “As far as I know there is only one other cidery doing live, unpasteurized cider in the United States,” said John.
The cider market
The Methow has become something of a cider center in North Central Washington. The Methow Valley Ciderhouse has been operating for several years on East Chewuch Road near Winthrop, producing a variety of ciders that are available locally and beyond the valley.
The Sinclairs’ first venture was Mazama Juice, the unpasteurized juice of their organic honeycrisp apples, which was sold in area markets for around three years, according to Beth. “I loved making sweet cider and offering that to the kids,” she said, but Mazama Juice had a short shelf life; it had to be stored frozen, and kept refrigerated in stores. Stocking store shelves became a full-time job for the Sinclairs and “we couldn’t do it the way we wanted and make a profit,” Beth said. “People will only pay so much for apple juice.”
Adult beverages are a different story. “Hard cider is booming right now,” said John; in fact, it’s the fastest-growing segment of the beverage market in the United States, Time magazine reported. Sixknot Cider went on the market in the spring of 2014, and “this year we’ll sell twice the cider we sold last year,” John said. “People are excited about cider,” said Beth.
Sixknot is also popular with the critics: Its limited edition Cherry Challenge — an apple/cherry blend — won second place at the recent Seattle Cider Summit, and in June one of Sixknot’s mainstays, Gingerella, earned a silver medal at the 2015 Pacific Northwest Cider Awards.
Sixknot is sold all over Western Washington; it branched into the Spokane-area market last summer; and in the past month it broke into two new markets: California and Taiwan. John just returned from the LA Cider Fest, where “Sixknot was well received,” he said. Their California distributor, Half Pint Ciders, “is confident that it will do well throughout the state.”
Last spring, the Sinclairs received an email from Jasmine and Louis Pai, sibling entrepreneurs who were traveling the West Coast looking for organic wine and beer to import to Taiwan. “They knew nothing about cider,” John said, but in August the brother and sister traveled to the Methow Valley to tour the Sixknot cidery. The next thing the Sinclairs knew, a pallet of their ciders was wrapped and on a ship headed across the ocean.
“The pallet is arriving in Taiwan this week and Jasmine reports that she has most of it sold already,” said John. “Little Sixknot ciderhouse goes global.”
The Sixknot cidery is largely powered by a 7-kilowatt solar array, but the way John looks at it, everything on the farm is produced by solar energy: the apples, the cider, and the electricity that powers the machines.
“Leaves are your basic solar cell; in fact, a farm is a giant biological solar collector,” John said. “The solar electric system is the technological manifestation of what’s going on at the farm.”
John, who has been excited about alternative energy for many years, built the solar system, with panels made by a Canadian company using responsibly manufactured silicon wafers. This is important to John, who wants people to be aware of the environmental costs of making silicon cells, he said.
He explained that since China became the dominant global producer of silicon and silicon cells, most of the energy used to transform sand into silicon has come from coal-powered plants. In addition, a toxic by-product of the manufacturing process often ends up in Chinese rivers, he said.
“Keep in mind that here in the Methow Valley we already have renewable grid power from Columbia River dams, so we don’t want to dump silicon tetrachloride in someone’s fishing hole in China in an attempt to appear even more renewable,” he said.
“Renewable energy is still where we need to go, but check the label,” John said. “Do a little research. Not all renewable energy is created equally.”