OSU alums rule the ciderhouse

Three men standing in a room of cider barrels

From left, Dave Takush, Lee Larsen and Aaron Sarnoff-Wood co-founded the new hard cider business, 2 Towns Cider. Takush and Larsen are OSU alums, and all depend on OSU expertise as they expand their business. Date: Nov. 20, 2012 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Two rows of gleaming tanks line a space known colloquially as Tank Alley, with dimpled wine fermentation tanks on one side, and smooth-sided beer tanks on the other. In between, men dart back and forth, moving hoses, checking levers, pausing only to have intense discussions with one another.

Inside those tanks, something rather miraculous is happening – not only the fermentation of locally-harvested fruit into cider, but the beginnings of a new, booming micro industry. What started as a passion for home-brewing has become something of an Oregon phenomenon, and a group of former Oregon State University students is at the heart of a booming micro industry. 2 Towns Ciderhouse in Corvallis is the creation of a group of OSU and UO graduates who share a longtime friendship and a love of making great, locally-sourced hard cider.

While the Pacific Northwest is currently known for its abundance of craft beers, a revival of another traditional alcoholic beverage is currently underway. Hard cider is a fermented beverage traditionally made from apples, but which can be made with many types of fruit. Previous to Prohibition, hard cider was often known as a working man’s drink, but fell out of favor in the later part of the 20th century.

Now it’s coming back in a big way, and is currently one of the fastest growing sectors of the alcoholic beverage industry. It is brewed like a fruit wine, but carbonated and bottled like a beer, making the process complicated but ultimately rewarding.

What’s particularly appealing about hard cider, said co-owner Lee Larsen (finance ’08) is both its great taste and its unpretentiousness.

“It’s an everyday luxury, and you can’t make an everyday luxury with your nose in the air,” he said.

Close up of barrels

Different barrels are used to age different types and flavors of cider at 2 Towns Ciderhouse. Date: Nov. 20, 2012 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Larsen and friends Dave Takush (fermentation ‘09) and Aaron Sarnoff-Wood (University of Oregon) were all passionate home brewers of hard cider, but it wasn’t until they made some cider for a relative’s wedding that the idea of producing hard cider professionally began to take root. Sarnoff-Wood, a graphic designer, had been looking for employment and at first had toyed with the idea of a brew pub, but after Larsen ran the numbers, it didn’t seem like a good investment.

So when Larsen got married, they decided to put their hard cider idea to the test. They prepared a batch and presented it during the reception.

“We went through three kegs in 15 minutes,” Larsen said with a laugh. And with that, 2 Towns Ciderhouse was born.

Takush was working in the wine industry after graduation, but quickly came on board as 2 Towns Ciderhouse began to form. With Takush’s fermentation background, Larsen’s business savvy, Sarnoff-Wood’s design skills, and soon, OSU alum Scott Bugni’s marketing expertise, 2 Towns possessed the perfect blend of skills to make amazing hard ciders.  With a combination of savings, loans and a little help from family, they were beginning to put their product into stores by January 2011.

“We pretty much live here,” Takush said. “There are a lot of 36 hour shifts. It’s been a crazy amount of work. But sometimes, when we’re here at 11:30 at night, we look at each other and say, ‘If we were home, we’d be doing this anyway.’”

Glass jugs with cider inside

Before new ciders are introduced to customers, they’re tested in small batches in the barrel room at 2 Towns Ciderhouse. Date: Nov. 20, 2012 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

The artisan craft ciders include “The Incider,” a semi-sweet apple cider, “Bad Apple,” which is dry and aged in brandy cured Oregon White Oak, and Pearadise, a hard pear cider. They also make seasonal batches. This summer’s “Made  Marion” included Marionberries from Stahlbush Island Farms. The meadowfoam honey in “The Incider” comes from a friend’s bees.

“We source local whenever we can,” Takush said.

They started out very modestly, in a closet-like space not much bigger than a two-car garage, at the back of the Eastgate Business Center on Highway 34. When they first set up shop, Larsen estimated they’d get enough business to run out of capacity in two years. They met that goal in two months, and two months later doubled it again. They soon realized that their tiny space wasn’t going to cut it for much longer.

As their ciders started appearing in markets and restaurants around the state, they set their sights on a new building, standing just a few steps from their tiny, cramped quarters. About ten times the size of their fledgling distillery cidery, the new space has a spacious tasting room, an enormous warehouse-like space for their production facility, and a temperature-controlled barrel room filled with a variety of their craft ciders. They moved into the space in late summer, and held their grand opening in early October. More than 1,200 people showed up to celebrate.

“Our limiting factor is not demand,” Larsen said. “It’s our ability to produce enough.”

Some of 2 Towns’ distinct ciders

The Incider (7.5% ABV): A light and refreshing semi-sweet with a crisp apple finish.

The Bad Apple (10.5% ABV): Rich and bold semi-dry cider with notes of fruit and vanilla. This complex cider is aged in brandy-cured Oregon White Oak.

Pearadise (7.5% ABV): A semi-sweet pear cider. Sweet and subtle hints of juicy pear and a light body make this a delectable treat.

Seasonal: Nice & Naughty (10.5% ABV): Crammed full of cheerful winter flavors like nutmeg and cloves, this cider is described as “Apple pie in a bottle.”

They’ve instantly doubled capacity with room to grow. The trick to handling their rapid expansion, Takush said, is to keep true to the artisanal roots, as the best microbreweries have done.

“Deschutes, Ninkasi, they’ve been able to grow while maintaining a craft production,” Takush said. And that’s exactly how they 2 Towns plans on maintaining their own unique, and incredibly popular, line of artisanal ciders. Since moving to the new facility they’ve already expanded their sales as far north as Seattle and south to Medford. Next, they’re setting their sites on places further east.

With the success of their main line of hard ciders growing rapidly, they’ve now branched into a sister line of products called Traditions Ciderworks, based on very traditional ciders made with English and French cider fruit. The fruit used tends to be very tannic and astringent, rather than sweet, making for a complex and bone dry cider that pairs well with food.

Owner standing among distillery tanks

OSU alum Lee Larsen talks to employees at 2 Towns Ciderhouse in ‘tank alley.’ Date: Nov. 20, 2012 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

In addition to buying fruit from local orchards, the team is now in the early stages of planting their own organic orchard, which is located on the banks of the Willamette in Corvallis. They will eventually have 2,100 dwarf cider fruit trees growing in the orchard, to supply their Traditions line.

“Scott Robbins from the OSU Lewis Brown test farm has been incredible in getting us set up,” said Takush. “We based our orchard off of his.”

Robbins isn’t the only OSU expert helping 2 Towns succeed. Takush frequently consults with OSU Extension enologist James Osborne, as well as fermentation experts Jeff Clawson and Tom Shellhammer. They often interact with other OSU alums as they source products and equipment, and they continue to draw on the resources of the university as they expand their business. The team eventually hopes to add a group of interns from the fermentation program to their crew.

“They’ve got a lot of really talented young people in the program,” said Sarnoff-Wood.

They’re also hosting class visits and see their facility as a way to teach the community about the craft of hard cider brewing.

Owner standing in barrel room.

Dave Takush, an OSU alum, talks about the aging process in the barrel room of 2 Towns Ciderhouse. Date: Nov. 20, 2012 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

“If you’re interested in cider making and brewing, come on down,” Sarnoff-Wood said.

With the expansion comes a price, as an increase in productivity means an increase in time and dedication. They’ve been able to hire nine new employees in the past year, thanks to their rapid success, and look forward to what the future brings.

“It makes us really happy, seeing the acceptance of craft hard cider in the beer community,” Takush said. “It’s an old traditional product that’s been missing from the beverage scene for years.”

For more information on 2 Towns Ciderhouse, go to www.2townsciderhouse.com or follow them on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/2townscider or facebook at www.facebook.com/2townsciderhouse.

~ Theresa Hogue

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