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Named for the dragon who guards the apples of immortality, Dragon’s Head Cider takes a traditional approach to cider making.
STORY BY MARGARETT WATERBURY
PHOTOS BY MATT MORNICK
Vashon Island cider maker Laura Cherry pauses while pouring a sample of dusky pink Redfield Cider when she hears tires crunching on the gravel driveway. A car pulls up. Her nine-year-old son pops out from the back seat, hands frosted with clay dust. A quick hug, then he’s off again, on the hunt for dad and, probably, a snack.
“He’s at pottery camp this week,” Laura explains with a smile, then returns to explaining how the Redfield Cider is pink not from added coloring or the color of the apples’ skins, but because of the flesh itself, a brilliant fuchsia tone that keeps its color even through fermentation.
Vashon was once a fruit-growing powerhouse, employing hundreds of workers every harvest. But by the 1970s, that history had faded, dwindled to a few U-pick berry patches and the occasional rogue apple tree growing out in the woods someplace. Now, thanks to the Cherrys and others like them, commercial fruit growing is slowly coming back.
The Beginnings of Dragons Head
Laura and her husband, Wes Cherry, started Dragon’s Head Cider in 2010. At the time, they were living in Seattle. They’d just had their first son, and the question of what came next was front and center in their minds.
“We work up from the fog of the first year of parenting thinking, ‘What are we going to do with our lives?’” laughs Laura. The idea of growing apples and making cider sounded captivating, despite the fact that their previous experience as orchardists began and ended at the two fruit trees that anchored their urban yard.
So they started searching for properties. One afternoon, they took a ferry from Seattle to Vashon and spent the day driving around the island, scoping out real estate. “We fell in love,” Laura says. “And we stopped at the real estate office on our way out. And our five-year plan became a six-month plan.”
The 30-acre property they found was special for several reasons. Located in the middle of the island, it’s relatively flat, already cleared, and zoned for agricultural use because it was part of the Mukai Farm, a historic farm that had been a major part of Vashon’s once-dominant fruit growing industry during the early and mid 20th century. In short, it was the perfect place to grow apples — and a family.
Continuing a Legacy
The Cherrys aren’t the first to make a family home on this particular piece of land. B.D. Mukai, a Japanese immigrant and agriculturalist, arrived on Vashon Island exactly one century prior in 1910 with his young wife, Sato Nakanishi. As immigrants, BD and Sato were barred from owning property, so they leased first land and started growing strawberries. In 1911, their son Masa was born.
B.D. turned out to be a hugely successful farmer, quickly expanding his strawberry empire to 60 acres and developing a unique packing process that layered 300 pounds of strawberries with 150 pounds of sugar in a custom-made barrel. This packing system allowed him to begin shipping to Chicago and New York, where his strawberries, sold as BDM Brand, flew off the shelves.
By 1926, B.D. was looking to reinvest, so he bought 40 acres under Masa’s name and built a family home. At its height, he employed 500 people during the harvest. During World War II, he and his family left to stay with relatives in Idaho to avoid being interred, but they returned in 1945 and continued growing strawberries until the business finally started to decline in the 1960s.
Almost all that remains of Vashon’s rich berry history now is the annual Strawberry Festival, which once celebrated the strawberry harvest but now serves as a yearly excuse for the community to get together and dance to local bands in the beer garden. Yet the history of Vashon’s agricultural past looms large for residents, especially those who’ve lived here a long time, and the Mukai’s former home is now owned and managed by a local nonprofit trust. The farmland has been subdivided into smaller units, including the 30-acre parcel where the Cherrys now live.
Laura and Wes are orchardists as well as cider makers. Over the past eight years, they’ve planted 4,000 apple trees on eight acres of orchard land, focusing on heirloom cider apple varieties from England, France, and the United States. They also source fruit from other Washington growers.
The Cherrys’ decision to focus on heirloom varieties bred for cider production sets Dragon’s Head Cider apart and surprises many who travel to their Vashon Island tasting room. “Cider has had a big boom, and it’s gone through an identity crisis,” says Laura. “It’s so broad, everything from four-packs with lots of adjuncts to dry, elegant ciders made with traditional cider fruit.”
The U.S. Association of Cider Makers recently published a style guide differentiating between “modern ciders” made with culinary or dessert apples, and “heritage ciders” made from cider-specific heirloom varieties. Dragon’s Head Cider falls firmly into the “heritage” camp, with ample tannin, acid, and sometimes a gentle farmhouse funk. Those qualities help it pair effortlessly with food and make it a surprisingly perfect choice to accompany holiday meals, even for people who think they only like wine.
“I think of it as wine versus table grapes,” says Laura. “To us, the apple variety is the most important variable, so we chose a 750ml bottle that telegraphs a winemaker’s approach.” Reliance on wild yeasts and a rotating cast of seasonal, often single variety ciders underscore that philosophy.
Today, Dragon’s Head Cider, just like BDM Strawberries, is shipped all over the country. So sure, it’s a different format, and yeah, it’s a different century, but once again, Vashon fruit is on the move.
Dragon’s Head offers seven different year-round ciders in distribution, as well as a rotating cast of seasonal and one-off releases available only at the tasting room. All showcase traditional cider fruit and are made without adjuncts and with minimal intervention.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Traditional Cider
This dry, slightly hazy cider contains up to 20 different apple varieties from the Vashon orchard, including French and English apples.
Made using the eponymous British cider apple, Kingston Black is full-flavored and refreshingly brisk, with structured tannin and a tea-like bitterness.
Columbia Crabapple Cider
Using crabapples grown in Sunnyside, Washington, this cider balances gentle sweetness with mouthwatering acidity, making it a great cocktail ingredient.
Wild Fermented Cider
As suggested by its name, this cider is fermented using only the naturally occurring yeast present on the skin of the fruit, giving it a wild, slightly funky taste. (Laura says over time, they’ve relied more heavily on spontaneous fermentation for other varieties, too.)
This cider is made from a blend of apples and prominently features the Manchurian Crabapple, which gives it crisp acidity and a clean, slightly astringent finish.
This single varietal cider is made from Newtown Pippin apples, an heirloom American variety known for its crisp, clean flavor. The cider it produces is exceptionally pure, with lots of apple character and zesty citrus.
Perry — cider made with pears — is special, and Dragon’s Head’s version is doubly so. It mixes Taylor Golds with pears foraged from yards, farmsteads, and properties across Vashon Island, some from trees up to 100 years old.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_column_text]
Margarett Waterbury is a writer and editor who lives in Portland, Oregon. She grew up on Vashon Island and comes back often.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]