Aaron Cousins stands facing two shiny new fermentation tanks, the toes of his boots wrapped several times around with duct tape. He is wearing a black skull cap and dressed in a black sleeveless hoodie that shows off aqua-colored lines of a sprawling tattoo on his right shoulder.
"Cider sales in the U.S. have doubled every year since 2011," he says calmly. "I can't really tell you why it has taken off so well, but it has taken off in the Northwest because there are so many craft beverage makers and drinkers."
Tucked behind the fermentation tanks is a surfboard with a hand-drawn chainsaw and the words "Oregon Pride" etched on it. Another surfboard rests behind two cooling tanks nearby.
Filled with equipment but not cluttered, Red Tank's production facilities on Bend's industrial east side is a modest, but busy, operation. It produces 2,000 gallons every other week—which it sell as kegs and, notably, in 16-ounce tall boys.
About a decade ago, Cousins started working in the wine industry in Oregon, but soon shifted over to working for a cider company.
"I wanted to be a pioneer in an industry," he explains, "and was 30 years too late in the wine industry."
Now, though, he is positioned perfectly; sales of hard cider are growing faster than any other segment of the beverage industry. Over the past three years, the industry has boomed. Nationwide, after an impressive 60 percent growth in 2012 and an even more startling 100 percent growth the following year, sales in 2014 crested $1 billion. From fewer than 10 cideries in the Pacific Northwest in 2010, there are now 70 registered in Oregon and Washington.
As another telling sign, at the most recent CiderCon, an annual conference for cider makers, the event had to move to a larger facility to accommodate all the new interest: In 2011, there had been some 100 attendees; at the most recent meeting on a frigid February weekend in Chicago, that number went past 500.
But perhaps the most startling indicator of the growing popularity of hard cider is that Angry Orchid, which was purchased by Boston Beer Company in 2013, earned a reported $400 million in 2012, an amount that rivals revenues from that company's flagship beer, Sam Adams. Alone, Boston Beer Company is spending $1 million annually on advertising for hard cider.
"I feel fortunate to see [the hard cider industry] go from nothing to all-out full throttle," says Cousins. Over the summer, Red Tank plans to triple its capacity and production.
Not far from Red Tank's facility on Bend's east side is Atlas Cider's production facility. The third-largest hard cider company in Oregon, they were also the first in Bend.
"Let's introduce cider to Bend," says co-owner Dan McCoy, recalling the original motivation to open up Atlas, pointing out that five years ago, there was, at most, only one hard cider on tap at local breweries. Now it is difficult to not find at least one cider offering at each brewpub and restaurant in town.
Atlas has helped lead this boom in popularity, introducing basic ciders to Bend drinkers and also crafting robust flavors that can convince even the most hardy beer or whiskey drinker that cider is no sissy drink. A week ago, Portland's popular weekly newspaper Willamette Week ran a cover story about the booming hard cider industry, and noted Atlas' Apricot as one of the five best new ciders in Oregon, describing it as, "the comforting aroma of a morning hug from grandma, and the bite of the cocktail grandpa would sneak you sips of as he drank it with breakfast."
But unlike the craft beer industry, which took more than a decade to grow past its first few breweries, the time between the pioneers like McCoy and the next wave has been greatly compressed—with three cider companies already open in Bend, and murmurings of two more opening in Bend in the near future. Moreover, later this spring, Atlas will open a 1,500-square-foot tasting room along SW Industrial, smack dab between downtown and the Old Mill District.
At first, explains McCoy, Atlas offered a simple tasting room at its eastside facility, and it was only open on weekend evenings. But meeting demand, it slowly expanded those hours over the past two years, and are now open to the public every day.
Starting this spring, that tasting room will greatly expand, and be more accessible to the general public. McCoy talks about a space with sofas and pinball machines, and points out that they also will make space on their taps for Central Oregon's beer drinkers.
"It is the same adventurous craft drinker," he says. "We're also going to have a lot of beer in there, as a way to say 'thank you' to the breweries who have supported us."
Red Tank Cider
840 SE Woodland Blvd., Bend
4-6 pm Friday
Atlas Hard Cider Company
900 SE Wilson Ave., Suite H, Bend
2 pm-6 pm Monday-Thursday, Noon-6 pm Friday-Saturday, Noon-5 pm Sunday