Many people choose to get married at Sea Cider, and understandably so — the location is breathtaking. Even on a cloudy day. The Vancouver Island cidery rests in the surroundings of a tranquil, coastal forest with more than 1,300 cider apple trees at the forefront. Sweeping, panoramic views of the Haro Strait charm visitors from the tasting room front deck.
Sea Cider’s founder and owner, Kristen Needham, grew up in rural Alberta. Her family maintained deep, historical roots in Canada’s ranching, grain farming and dairy industries. They knew agriculture and were quite successful at it.
“This was influential because the family had established itself as community-minded,” Needham reflects. “There’s a little bit of pressure to succeed, but a lot of pride.”
Needham was 18 years old when she inherited the family orchard in British Columbia, but the farm wasn’t exactly on her radar at the time. “Farming, orcharding and ranching was the last thing on my mind. I was attending boarding school as a high school student in Wales,” she recalls. “I didn’t want anything to do with the family business.”
But the boarding school experience was a turning point in Needham’s life. It was in the United Kingdom that she was first introduced to authentic, English ciders.
“Having had that taste of cider in Wales,” she says, “and the exposure to a culture of food and beverage that was so different than what I was used to growing up in rural Alberta.” Needham continued her studies in international relations and environmental management, even working in food security projects in Ethiopia before her return home to pursue Sea Cider.
Sea Cider didn’t happen overnight. The process of opening the cidery was more of an inspired, calculated marathon with high expectations and lessons at every turn. In 2003, Needham studied cider and fermentation at Washington State University, and the family orchard was quickly replanted with English bittersweets and bittersharps. She purchased her current Saanich Peninsula location in 2004, just minutes outside of the bustle of Victoria, BC.
It wasn’t until 2007, however, that she sold her first bottle of Sea Cider. Since then, Sea Cider has been producing at least 7,000 cases a year of traditional heirloom, barrel-aged and dessert-style ciders. Take special notice on the “Canadian Invasion Series” — this lineup speaks to native, local ingredients, and proceeds from these ciders help combat invasive species to the surrounding island.
As a whole, the cider lineup executes a traditional “Welsh idea with a Canadian twist.” She notes, “Since there is a significant British heritage here, the understanding of cider in this province more reflects that heritage.”
Sustainability is a core value at Sea Cider, but the definition from Needham is multifaceted. According to her vision, sustainability is “a profitable, family-owned farming business,” “a safe and fulfilling work environment for our staff,” and providing “an exceptional cider experience.” Each aspect speaks to the cidery’s core values. But the most important element is being plugged into the community. “We wanted to be an asset to the community, meaning we value and support initiatives or associations to build our community around us,” says Needham.
A perfect example of this community involvement can be found in Kings and Spies — a crowd-sourced heirloom cider driven by King apples, Northern Spies or other varieties grown on the island. Earnings from the award-winning cider go back into community programs, including Growing Chefs, a nonprofit that teaches British Columbia youth about growing their own sustainable food.
“We never in a million years thought we’d be selling our cider across western North America,” Needham muses. “We thought we’d stay to Vancouver Island.” Sea Cider primarily boasts the most exposure in Western Canada, but maintains a strong presence in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
It was just one instance in a Welsh pub that drove Needham to build Sea Cider to where it is today. “That experience was profound,” she says. “I wanted to create a business that was rooted in farming but gave guests an experience in cider. We wanted it to be exceptional.”
What’s next for Sea Cider? In addition to maintaining its reputation as a notable agritourism attraction on Vancouver Island and exploring a “farmed-and-foraged element” within their on-site forest, Needham says Sea Cider plans on “continuing the slow pace of careful growth.”