By Liana Scarsella
Photo by Thor Radford
“All the apples are up here. Let’s do it where it grows.” We can’t deny the simple yet wise philosophy of Bruce Nissen, “chief jester,” cidermaker and founder of Jester & Judge cider in Stevenson, Washington.
Located on the Columbia River Gorge on the border between Washington and Oregon, the cidery—a newcomer of just this year—is well aware of its advantageous position. Close-proximity to a clean energy source provided by the river, prime location within apple country, the ability to establish and maintain relationships with local growers and certainly not to be forgotten, the years of experience Nissen has gained in the cidermaking industry.
You see, Jester & Judge may just be getting started, but Nissen is not. After years of cidermaking in California, he recently sold Fox Barrel and Crispin cider companies, which he co-founded and developed, to Miller Coors—arguably one of the largest sales in United States cider history. What could possibly incite that action?
Nissen explains that his passion for cider extends beyond the product, deep into the roots of it all: the environment. The crew at Jester & Judge is confident that building their carbon footprint is unnecessary to make a cider that will receive a positive feedback and fan base. Being in the heart of apple country means being able to locally source fruits and juices within what Nissen refers to as the “Cascadia” region—something he was unable to do in California.
Of course, Jester & Judge refuses to stop at just one fruit, taking on a new challenge: locally sourcing unexpected fruits such as cherries, peaches and pears.
Aside from American Apple, the cider has produced a cherry cider, Sharp Cherry, and is currently mastering a peach cider, Columbia Belle—“Bringing Southern hospitality to the Pacific Northwest,” as Nissen puts it. The cidermaker is determined to create a diverse array of ciders.
However, being on good terms with the environment is no easy feat. With each fruit possessing a distinct growing season, the cidery does not take its relationships with local growers lightly. “What we have to do is slow down and embrace the agriculture around us,” Nissen explains. “We make a commitment to our farmers.”
Nissen realizes there are additional challenges that accompany this commitment to nature. “The majority of casual consumers don’t really understand cider that well,” he says. “How do we make a cider that doesn’t use any colors or concentrates and still has a flavor profile that is interesting to the consumer?”
After years of success as a cidermaker and connoisseur, even Nissen has come to understand that perfection is a futile mission. According to the cider expert, it took 26 attempts to get Jester & Judge’s debut flavor, American Apple, right. According to him, there isn’t really right or wrong when it comes to cider, due to the subjective nature of the beverage industry. Makers can only create what feels right to them. This means starting from scratch, working with the flavors sourced from their backyard, and throwing it all together with a lot of love and little fermentation. Then, hoping for the best.
With a friendly philosophy backing the company and a resolution to accept these challenges as they present themselves, Jester & Judge is no doubt aspiring for just that. And, its in-the-works tasting room, which Nissen envisions will have a glass viewpoint looking out upon the stunning Columbia River Gorge, isn’t a painful perk either.
In other words, if 26 attempts are what this crew needs to create one hell of a cider—we’ll give ‘em to them.