My wife works in Olympia, Washington. Oly is not exactly obscure because it is, after all, our state’s capitol and is also one of the great, semi-secret small cities in America…and please do NOT tell anybody that. We like Oly sleepy and kinda cloistered and as uber-hip as it is. It is a near-perfect mix of bureaucrats and functionaries and academics and hipsters and old Hippies and counter-culture throw-backs and friendly, down-home folks who like the place they live and have zero desire to be a cog in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue mover ‘n’ shakerism of the fat middle of Western Washington.
In the terms that matter to me, Oly is no longer confused with the defunct Olympia Beer brewery that spawned the cult appeal of that seminal belt buckle, popularized by the Marshall Tucker Band, which even I, a Maryland/DC kid to my genes, wore with proud irony. I had never set foot in WA state but, by damnit, I was rockin’ that Oly belt buckle at every gig my old college-days blues band played. It was a conversation starter and I loved that. And I probably gave out a lot of wrong info on Olympia because I couldn’t even have found it on a map, back then.
I wore it proudly and I can’t even say for sure that I knew that Olympia was a city or what state it was in.
Today, Oly is that same down-home, welcoming little city and it is still mainly known, in brewing terms, as the home of Fish Brewing or Fish Tale Beer or Reel Ales or whatever the exact proper name is. The brewery hunkers down there on Jefferson Street (Note: recently moved) and has long been the umbrella company for the brilliant, lager-centric Leavenworth Brewing and Spire Mountain Ciders, which makes a Blackberry Pear Cider that would make you weep.
Oly also has Three Magnets Brewing, an up-and-comer; Headless Mumby (not kidding), a masterful maker of their own twisted vision of German-inspired lagers; Well 80, a quirky but exceptional producer of…well, whatever they can imagine. There are a couple of others but that’s the core group…except that I had missed one.
About five blocks from the headquarters of the Large Financial Institution where my wife spent her days before Covid turned our den into a branch office, there is a TINY – and I mean that as in “garden shed tiny” – red building, set just off of Plum Street, that I had driven past maybe 100 times before Getting Curious. I am admittedly a hard sell when it comes to ciders. I have faves – Sea Cider of Saanichton, BC, Greg Hall’s Virtue Cider, Reveille Cider of Astoria, Oregon – but taste very few that yank my head around and demand Attention, Damnit!
But I got curious. I was making my first-ever visit to Well 80, a newish brewpub that used to be another restaurant but got Beer Religion and remade their whole paradigm. As I was doing a six-beer taster, I asked my server about the cider they had on their taplist, a thing called Red Cap from that micro-cidery that I was planning to visit in the next ten minutes.
“So,” I smiled, “What do you think of that Whitewood Cider?” I asked
“Oh man!” the guy said, “David White is a goddamned prodigy. Those things put me away and I am not ordinarily a cider fan.”…which described my mindset to a T.
He brought me out a small taster of Red Cap. I almost fell in the floor. It was just slightly sweet, mostly nicely dry/crisp, smooth as a baby’s rump, and Interesting. Interesting! I can’t even remember when the last time I was as instantly taken with a cider as I was then. (Actually, now that I think of it, it was 2010, when I first tasted Sea Cider’s immortal “Prohibition”, a rum-barreled Canadian cider that remains my fave ever…but a TOTALLY different experience from Red Cap.) It was light, absolutely ZERO cloying, bad cider mouth-coating. The flavors were defined and seamless. There was a flattering note of honey and or honeysuckle at the heart of it and a woodsy, grassy, citrusy cast to the whole thing. As I finished that half ounce, I realized that this was something I could sit and drink a pint of and be satisfied with missing a beer.
I paid the nice fellow and drove the two blocks up to Whitewood’s “cozy” little Tasting Room, which, for Covid precautions, is a window for ordering and a patio with social distancing baffles between tables, outdoors. I ordered three tasters: the Red Cap, natch, and their Barrel-Aged Newtown Pippin and Lil Rosybloom, a delicate, fresh, but ASS-Whoopin’ 10.2% ABV rosé cider that was like drinking some of my uncle’s feather-light dandelion wine.
I’m not all that much of a cider fan but there is one aspect of my cider hejira that I really enjoy: as opposed to the hyper-analytical scrutiny to which I routinely subject any wine, beer, or whiskey, I am far more likely to just sit and sip and enjoy (to whatever degree) a nicely-made cider. There ARE some ciders, admittedly not a huge number, that really do it for me. Aside from those mentioned above, Aspall Dry Suffolk remains, after almost sixteen years, one of the ciders I most enjoy just sipping. Double Mountain’s Crab Apple knocked me sideways and Eaglemount Ginger shows up in my fridge with regularity. So, despite the fact of receiving quite a lot of cider from PR firms and cideries, I’m a truly picky SOB and any bottle that’s just kinda same ol’ squeezed apples in a bottle is never gonna show up here. Ditto for those who made it.
After visiting Whitewood and doing samples of four ciders on their side porch and then taking three more home and trying those with my wife, I have to say that, out of the couple hundred cideries whose products I’ve tasted, this tiny little, well, hut in the corner of a mixed-use lot in downtown Olympia, Washington, is as good a maker of apple and pear ciders as I’ve ever come across.
Recently, David White and his partner, Heather Ringwood, (“White” + last half of Ringwood = “Whitewood”) are currently relocating their production facilities from Rich Road in South Olympia to the corner of Sussex Avenue (Highway 507) and Hodgden Street in the heart of Tenino’s historic downtown, about 18 miles south of Olympia. The tiny taproom at Plum and 4th will remain right where it is, giving frenzied Oly bureaucrats and legions of hipsters and a ton of hard-core cider geeks a congenial place to have their socks rolled down but with expanded production that will give a lot more folks a chance to sample ciders made with an almost defiant disregard for the whole idea of “traditional cider” and a definite artisan sensibility.
The one sitting patiently in my beer fridge is the astounding “Kingston Black, Dabinette & Brown’s“, a haunting blend of well-known (in England) bittersweet and bittersharp cider apples: Kingston Black, Dabinett, and Brown’s (duh). Front and center in the photo below, this is a crisp, bone-dry cider with a notes of caramel, red tree fruit, faint citrus, wildflowers, and a sort of brambly aroma and finish that suggests sniffing a hope chest and then drinking cider out of it. The damned stuff is bewitching; as interesting a cider of any type as I’ve tasted, maybe ever. And let me clarify this: LOTS of people have poured me ciders that they’ve claimed were “interesting” and many actually were. But what many of those had in common was that “interesting” is a kind of loaded, wobbly term. There is an old Chinese curse that goes, “May you live in Interesting Times“. Interesting does NOT always = good. MOST of the interesting ciders I was given were maybe great for analytical dissection, not so much for drinking. Which is, after all, kind of The Point. Kingston Black, Dabinette & Brown’s is DELICIOUS. Wildly drinkable. Balanced. Almost, well…dare I say this, elegant. It’s grown-up stuff, absolutely – even if you removed the brawny 8.3% ABV – NOT suitable for anyone’s sippy cup.
The NewTown Pippin, while totally different, is no less engrossing. It’s light and a bit less potent – 7.2% – and as aromatic as a South Georgia debutante ball. On the tongue, you get cherries and citrus and melon and pineapple and tangerines and jasmine and…WOW. Our bottle lasted about twelve minutes and I opined aloud that we need to get more. Which we did. Again, delicious and the kind of “interesting” your precocious kid wouldn’t appreciate at all. And that Red Cap? Well…minus alcohol, this COULD, quite plausibly, be sippy-cup material, if the kid had a freakishly sophisticated palate but it does taste, by Golly, like apples…but different. There is also a barrel-aged version which just knocks me sideways.
I don’t even know if David White intended to make these ciders “sophisticated”. I don’t know if he even thinks they are. But they damned sure are to me. If, as has been pretty well established, you can give five brewers or winemakers or distillers the exact same ingredients, and get back five different beers or ciders or whiskeys, the same is surely true of cider makers. How many fuggen times have I been sent a bottle of cider made from Gravenstein or McIntosh apples? It runs into the dozens, at least. And NOT ONE of those ever got written up here. And yet, David White makes cider from those same two workhorse apples and they come out…different. I don’t know if I can even explain how. Nor, really, do I want to.
If there is anything more to the consumption of fermented beverages than just conversational lubricant or, for many people, the desire for other ways to get hammered, it is in the element of magic of that fermentation process. It is also the fact of the rather profound conformation of personal creativity, ingenuity, and individualism that comes from the way people make fundamentally the same thing and have it result in something ranging from boringly pedestrian all the way to intellectually and aesthetically profound. Ultimately, what makes these Whitewood ciders so unusual, so shockingly unique and freakishly appealing…is David White and Heather Ringwood. Their tastes, their vision, their Way of Doing Things and that has nothing to do with the size of their operation or their funding or their space limitations or the fact of living in a town that is sometimes overlooked by that part of humanity that is not directly concerned with working the levers which run the State of Washington. Next to its neighbors Seattle, Bellevoid, and Tacoma, Olympia is almost invisible.
But here’s this little red building where you can taste things that will literally leave you wide-eyed and breathless.
And unlike the apples used in these amazing ciders, that “wide-eyed and breathless” don’t grow on no trees.