Ask Rick Hastings and Austin Dickey about the biggest challenges they've faced since opening Liberty Ciderworks in downtown Spokane in 2013 and they’ll say it's not so much the difficulty of building a distribution network, trying to balance the business with their full-time jobs as architects, or even brewing their internationally acclaimed ciders — it's education.
"Cider is a new beverage to Americans — even to Washingtonians," says Hastings, Liberty's head cider maker. While the average foodie Northwesterner can talk at length about pinot and cab, or amber and IPA, they're still trying to make sense of a beverage that features Washington’s state fruit and has been drunk in the United States since colonial times.
"People don't really know what to expect," says Hastings, noting that although cider has become a common sight at grocery stores in the last few years, many of the brands that appear on the shelves are more akin to soda — sweetened with sugar and tarted up with artificial flavors. "We'll get folks in that are expecting that, or won't come in because they think that's what we do,” he says, “It's a new beverage and Americans are finding their way through it."
That's not a complaint, though. Indeed, both Hastings and Dickey seem happy to evangelize on behalf of traditional cider. If you find yourself in their tasting room on a slow afternoon, you'll have the pleasure of listening to Hastings rhapsodize about crabapples and tannins, Kingston Blacks and Yarlington Mills. He may even bring a couple of crabapples out of the back room so you can taste the difference for yourself.
The pair got their start as home brewers. Both were turned on to cider separately, and began to dabble in their basements, making runs to Greenbluff for unpasteurized juice and seeing what they could do with it. Shortly after they discovered their mutual admiration for the beverage, Hastings took a deep dive, enrolling in two weeklong courses with a British cider expert and spending the next year and a half learning everything he could. By their next conversation, Austin recalls, Hastings had already become an expert in his own right. "Rick was networking with cider makers and cidery owners and had a ridiculous amount of small batches going," says Dickey. "He had the passion and the chops to start a business, and he was looking for a partner."
They became licensed in the spring of 2013 and recorded their first sale that December. Since then, they've upped production from 1,200 gallons per year to around 3,000.
Hastings credits some of the challenges they've faced in their emerging market as one of the keys to their success. While orchards throughout the region have already begun to respond to the need for quality cider apples, the process is slow — it can take at least three years to get a good crop off the trees. To get the punch of a cider varietal, the pair began experimenting with using crabapples in their blends — especially crabapple types normally used for pollenating in the region's orchards.
"We're more of a pioneer than any other cidery I know of in using crabapples as an adjunct. And we might be perhaps the only cidery in the world that's making a single-varietal cider from cherry-sized Manchurian crabapples," Hastings says. "We're making good products with these apples that are typically discarded in Washington state and we had to learn that on our own."
Their product isn’t just unique, it’s exceptional. Liberty’s Stonewall cider (which is aged in Dry Fly whiskey barrels) has received international acclaim, including an astonishing Best of Show award at the world's biggest cider competition.
Hastings and Dickey have modest plans for growth, ideally hiring at least one full-time employee in 2017 to free up their own busy schedules. In the meantime, they'll continue to evangelize, throwing quarterly cider appreciation classes, partnering with local chefs to pair food with cider and growing their cider club — which offers members discounted prices and special access to some of their specialty, short-run offerings. They’re also looking into selling bottles from other cideries all around the world, turning the tasting room into a full-scale cider classroom.
"We'd love to be seen as one of those cool things you do when you come to Spokane, Washington," says Hastings. "Spokane is halfway to becoming a foodie Mecca. We've got awesome breweries and a world-class distillery. We'd love for them to come and try cider."