By Emily Hamann
When you imagine the preferred drink of rockstars, cider probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But Bellingham’s newest cider company could change that.
Herb’s Cider opened its tasting room in Bellingham this fall and began production out of its own facility around the same time.
Herb’s Cider is owned by Tim Alexander and his wife Shama.
Tim Alexander, better known as Herb to his fans, is the drummer of the alt-rock band Primus. The names of the ciders, which include things like Single Stroke, Double Stroke, Triplet and Pear-a-Diddle, are named after the essential rudiments in drumming.
The couple started making cider in their garage one year after an especially good summer left them with an excess of apples from their backyard orchard.
“We couldn’t give them away.” Shama Alexander said. “The food bank wouldn’t take them, nobody would take them because everybody had too many apples.”
So they rented an apple press and attempted to make cider.
“We just started pressing and fumbling through the art of cider making in our garage,” she said.
To their surprise, it turned out tasting good. Really good. As good as some of the commercial ciders they enjoyed.
They had been looking into starting a business anyway, and had already done some research into the beverage industry. So they started looking at going into production.
“At that point I didn’t want to dump a bunch of money into assets without knowing whether or not it would be a thing,” Shama Alexander said. “So that’s why we took the route of let’s have someone else make it for us, we’ll develop the product, and we’ll market it.”
They partnered with Finnriver Farm and Cidery near Port Townsend to start making their first batches of cider.
“They resonate a lot of the same values we have, the organic, family values, everything’s very close to home, local,” Shama Alexander said.
They worked with Finnriver to develop Single Stroke, their flagship cider. Pretty quickly after they released it, they realized they needed to go into production for themselves.
They found a warehouse off of Marine Drive. At 8,600 square feet, they have plenty of room to expand, if need be.
“I remember reading in the beginning when we were putting this together, a lot of cider companies ended up getting in leases and then they would outgrow their space,” Tim Alexander said. “It was the biggest problem most cider companies had. So we kind of took the chance getting a space big enough to grow into.”
They brought on Chris Weir as head cider maker. Weir had been helping them out with the process of developing their cider, and got them connected with Finnriver in the first place.
“He was the very first person I talked to about it,” Tim Alexander said. “He’s been working on this, unknowing that he would be a part of it, for two years.”
Weir started his career making cider, then studied winemaking in California and beer brewing back in Washington before he joined Herb’s Cider.
“He’s kind of a savant,” Shama Alexander said. “He knows everything about the history of cider. He knows everything about the history of cider making. He’s extraordinarily talented. We got really lucky.”
Herb’s Cider is made in the traditional way, with no sugars, additives or flavoring added after the cider is fermented.
It’s less like brewing beer, more like making wine.
“You don’t add temperature to manipulate the flavor of the drink,” Shama Alexander said. “You have to allow the fruit to do what it’s going to do and that can change all the time, depending on the outside temperature, depending on the fruit.”
That means the cider needs consistent monitoring, to make sure the temperature, sugar, malic acid and other levels don’t swing out of balance.
“Chris will sleep here some nights,” Shama Alexander said. “He babysits his tanks.”
As the company embraced the traditional method, it also embraced the sustainable method.
Shama Alexander has 20 years of experience working in sustainability and business. Most recently, she worked as director of sustainability for North American operations for Lush Cosmetics.
Tim and Shama Alexander originally moved to Bellingham to be close to Lush’s Vancouver, B.C. headquarters.
Shama Alexander puts her experience to work at Herb’s Cider.
“We built this business a sustainable business,” she said. “It makes things a little harder for my crew because they have to work a little harder to get things done.” That includes recycling everything they can and buying local — they purchase yeast from the U.S. instead of China. They get all their fruit from the Pacific Northwest. Even their merchandise and tap handles are local.
“It’s just sort of organically how the company grew, keeping those values in place,” she said.
They’re using that community focus to help draw cider fans to Bellingham.
They’re on the committee for Washington Cider Week, a series of events celebrating cider held in the Seattle area every fall.
“We’re going to be able to start pulling people up north and kind of create more of a cider location up here,” Shama Alexander said.
There’s a lot for cider drinkers to enjoy here. The Bellingham cider scene is growing quickly. For a long time, Honey Moon was the only local cider producer. Then last year Bellingham Cider Company and Lost Giants Cider opened. Herb’s Cider brings the number of craft cider makers in Bellingham to four.
They are well-poised to succeed, Alan Shapiro, founder and producer of the Cider Summit festivals, said.
“They, I think, were very smart to get their own cider maker on hand, and work closely with an established, very good producer in Finnriver, and really come out of the gate with an extremely credible, well-made product,” Shapiro said.
The Herb’s Cider branding is also smart, Shapiro said.
“Tim, his unique background, naming styles, fermenting really does help set the brand apart from a marketplace that has hundreds more offerings than it did a decade ago,” he said.
Cider is currently experiencing something of a renaissance in the U.S. While it has long been popular in Europe and especially England, American craft cider is following a similar path that craft beer did a few decades ago.
Shapiro produces the Cider Summit every year, which began in Seattle and is part of Washington Cider Week. Now attendance has grown and around 12,000 people each year attend summits in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Chicago, each one with 150-200 different cider offerings.
Overall, Shapiro said, cider is a growing part of the overall market.
“In a lot of ways it mirrored what happened in the wine category in the ’70s and ’80s and the craft beer category in the ’80s and ’90s,” he said.
Cider had its first wave of popularity in the ’90s, Shapiro said, thanks to imports from Europe. Then some American companies sprung up.
“At that point they were maybe a little more now what would be referred to as alcopop brands,” Shapiro said. “Kind of the next generation of wine coolers.”
Those faded away, and it wasn’t until 10 years ago that the U.S. began to see the beginnings of this current wave of high-end, artisanally made ciders.
One of the major epicenters of the cider scene is the Pacific Northwest, particularly Washington — the apple-growing capital of the country. Just like the state was quick to embrace craft beer and the made local movement, Shapiro said it is now poised as one of the major craft cider areas in the country.
“We are big on local wines, we are big on craft beer, and this is the apple state,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro said he doesn’t see any reason why cider won’t follow the craft beer trend, which just a few decades ago made up 4 percent of the total beer market, and now makes up more than 60 percent.
That bodes well for companies like Herb’s Cider, which has set up solid foundations and planned for the future.
“I think that they just want to make sure they’re doing things right before they try to conquer the world,” Shapiro said. “Which I think is a thoughtful, smart approach.”