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It's a local 'white-hot' cider

Growing apples to make cider for the past decade, the owners of Thompson Creek Organics had to take a hard look at their business model.

The result was a different style of cider — the hard stuff — fermented for 10 to 15 days, filtered, carbonated, then bottled like beer. After working with a Salem ciderhouse on the first batch of Apple Bandit, Thompson Creek is gearing up for production from its Applegate property, with plans to release two more flavors over the next couple of months.

"It's just really gaining momentum," says Thompson Creek co-owner Blair Smith. "Cider is white-hot right now."

Widely consumed in parts of Europe, fermented cider enjoyed centuries as an American staple before Prohibition. The alcoholic beverage that Smith says is "kind of like wine and kind of like beer" has again found favor, following the nationwide craze for craft brewing. Oregon has cideries in and around Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Eugene and Bend, but Apple Bandit is the only one in Southern Oregon, says Smith.

"We actually drink cider all the time now," says Smith, 45. "I prefer it to beer."

That preference arose from Smith's forays into home-brewing cider with wife, Marcey Kelley, 50. The couple already had been pressing and selling raw juice from their certified-organic apples for about five years. In fall, Thompson Creek has fresh apples for sale at local farmers markets. But the operation was "just barely making it," says Smith.

So the orchardists applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a "value-added" product for Thompson Creek. Matching funds helped Smith and Kelley develop the Apple Bandit brand and website with assistance from a local marketing company.

The raccoon mascot is a nod to the real animals that forage around Thompson Creek's 7-acre orchard, says Smith, and the critter's personification as a masked fugitive was rendered in hopes that the brand would be "wanted in every state," says Smith.

"People really seem to like it."

The original recipe, with a bit of sweet juice added back to the finished fermentation, soon will have a complement in Apple Bandit "Rabid," a dry style. By summertime, there will be a third Apple Bandit flavor, "Ginger Bite," accented with juice from organic, Peruvian yellow ginger, extracted in Thompson Creek's apple press, says Smith.

Since securing a winery license from the state, Thompson Creek is set to produce about 1,000 gallons of hard cider in-house at least once a month. Wandering Aengus Ciderworks in Salem custom-crushed the first batch late last year. Approximately 1,200 to 1,300 pounds of apples go into a batch of 1,000 gallons, says Smith.

Apple Bandit has been sold in 22-ounce bottles, usually for $6.99, at about 15 retailers and several restaurants exclusively in the Rogue Valley, but it will be available in kegs starting this week, says Smith.

Cartwright's Valley Meat Co., which has a station for filling growler jugs at its Grants Pass store, was the first to place an order, says Smith. Eventually, the Apple Bandit label could expand to seasonal ciders for the holidays and limited releases on tap.

"They can vary greatly," says Smith of cider styles, explaining that some carry a hint of bourbon-laced oak barrels, while others are more vinegary in the Spanish style. Unlike most beers, cider is gluten-free but can be fermented with hops for that familiar flavor. Or it can mimic sparkling wine, adds Smith.

"You can kind of play both those angles with it," he says. "It can be still; it can be sparkling."

Cider-specific apple varieties play a role. Smith and Kelley started planting their orchard with cider in mind several years ago. Wickson, Yarlington Mill, Nehou and Belle de Boskoop trees joined more than 1,000 others, from commercial mainstays Red Delicious and Granny Smith to unknown heirloom varieties.

"It's kind of snowballed, obviously, from there," says Smith.

Thompson Creek's popular McIntosh apples lend themselves to cider, which allows the fruit's aromatic qualities to really come through, says Smith. But he's kept busy in the orchard grafting 150 cider varieties and planting another 50 trees for the business' new focus.

For more information and to find a retailer of Apple Bandit hard cider, see www.applebandit.com.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

A bottle of Apple Bandit hard cider rests on a branch of an apple tree in Thompson Creek Organicsí orchard Tuesday in Applegate. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore