by Catie Joyce-Bulay
Wildcraft Cider Works organically grew out of founder Sean Kelly’s woodworking business and passion for restoration and utilizing local natural resources.
“It’s kind of a subsidiary wildcraft,” said Kelly, who has worked with nonprofit land restoration groups in Oregon’s Willamette Valley since 2005 to channel their resources. Kelly works with the wood from cleared trees in restoration projects or connects the groups with other local craftspeople who can utilize the wood for their products.
He soon saw that many of the trees in the restoration areas he worked on produced an abundance of fruit. He founded Wildcraft Cider Works, which opened in 2014, to utilize this natural resource.
Kelly first noticed this potential after working at a local orchard as a teenager that was eventually abandoned when the owner retired. Over the next 20 years he slowly began mapping these abandoned fruit orchards all over the valley. He also knows the spraying maps of the region to avoid pesticide contamination in the fruits he harvests.
He said the old orchards come from two planting eras. The first from 1850 to 1910 was planted by early homesteaders first settling the region, mainly bittersweets. Another era from 1930 to 1950 saw more heirloom and pie varieties, such as Gravenstein, McIntosh, old Red Delicious, Empires, Melrose and Cortlands. By the 1980s many of these orchards were no longer farmed, yet continued to produce fruit in a wild state.
These are the apples Wildcraft harvests, the majority of which are gathered within a 30-mile radius of the Eugene-based cidery. This model produces an inconsistent supply. Last year, a poor production year for the wild apples, the cidery produced 60,000 gallons, on par with previous years by sourcing a supplemental supply of apples from local sustainable fruit growers. This year Kelly is targeting a production of 120,000 to 140,000 gallons.
Kelly recognizes the challenges of using wild orchards over commercial, noting it takes time to build relationships with landowners and have them feel comfortable about pickers coming onto their land. He educates them about sustaining property value and receiving agricultural tax benefits. In general, he said he is greeted with positive responses and support from landowners.
Wildcraft either pays a per pound price for the fruit, trades for land clearing and property restoration or trades for juice and cider. Some landowners enjoy getting involved in the harvest and clear access to the fruit themselves.
“It’s a really fun way of orchestrating a raw material,” said Kelly. “Just being able to have the community feel it’s a part of something, that it’s more of a currency, a flow, a real connected way of producing a product. I wouldn’t say it’s the easiest but it does produce a really high-quality cider.”
Wildcraft does an annual urban orchard community apple drive in town, which became a model for other cideries, according to Kelly. “All over town there’s just a plethora of trees,” said Kelly, who noted the project has become an opportunity for families and children to learn how cider is produced. Each year, a portion of sales from the Community Cider Series goes to McKenzie River Trust, which protects and restores the land and rivers of Western Oregon.
A yearly lilac drive produces their For the Love of Lilac Cider, made with 10 percent lilac wine. The production helps fund the School Garden Project, a local nonprofit organization that provides garden-based science lessons to Lane County children.
Kelly ferments his ciders with wild yeast strains from the orchards. “That’s one of the beautiful advantages of the foraged fruit,” he said. “The apples have been falling on the ground year after year for so many years. It’s kind of cultivated these dominant yeast strains and they’re just beautiful clean wild fermenters. The cleanliness of the apples is really there – they’re not sprayed, they’re not maintained. Spray is really harmful to dominant yeast culture’s survival.”
He keeps his yeast strains in cryofreeze at a lab at nearby University of Oregon. Kelly noted cryofreeze is the only type of freezing that works.
He collects more yeast as needed, using a variety of methods, including preserving blossoms, extracting from the apple’s core and pulling layers from actively fermenting batches of cider to isolate dominant strains.
For the blossom yeast, he will gather blossoms in the spring from orchards that he knows have been consistent for wild yeast strains. The blossoms are stored in dry sugar layers and then the sugar is slowly diluted to begin fermentation.
“Strangely a lot of the wild cultures that really work well in an apple are in the core,” Kelly said. “It really grows well around the core…the apple actually surrounds it and you have the developing of a hollow center.”
Besides apples and yeast, Wildcraft flavors their ciders with other foraged ingredients, and also makes perry from pears from abandoned orchards, which Kelly noted are one of the top two invasive trees in the valley, wiping out large populations of wildflowers.
The invasive plant poses a challenge to the city and county, who often fight it by cutting the trees down, grounding the stumps and then using chemicals to prevent them from growing back.
“What I’ve been trying to do is work with the city and the county to create access points to some of the more concentrated orchards that seem to be epicenters and so we go out and harvest them each year,” he said. Kelly said the fruits produce a perry reminiscent to the traditional European style. “It’s got tannin structure, good body and mouth feel, not high in sorbitol,” he said.
Kelly, who has worked as an Ayurvedic diet therapist and learned plant fermentation in Brazil, also flavors Wildcraft ciders with other foraged ingredients, such as spruce tips, hawthorn, nettles, elderflowers, the invasive sweet briar and sage from Southern Oregon and also sources from his garden and Eugene’s Mountain Rose Herbs. This line of flower wines is called their Witch’s Brew and uses seven different types of apples and seven herbal fermentations.
His woodworking and cider businesses meet in Wildcraft’s tap room, which opened this summer. All of the wood, including furniture, posts and beam framework were built from fir, ash and cherry woods gathered from the North Bottomland Restoration Project, coordinated through Friends of Buford Park and Mt. Pisgah to restore the area back to its native oak savannah.