Oregon is widely recognized as the haven where beer drinkers go to ‘find themselves’. The brewing craft and culture is integrated so well into Portland life that it’s hard to go a day without passing that new IPA you want to try, or noticing the label of a brewery you’ve been dying to visit proudly displayed on someone’s fix gear. One thing that’s becoming increasingly popular on local tap lists is cider and we haven’t met anyone as passionate about cider as the Reverend Nat West. He approaches his cider making with the traditional mindset of a craft brewer, experimenting with yeasts, spices, hops and fruits. The Reverend toils away, making crisp, delicious ciders in a NE warehouse near the Rose Quarter.
So tell us the story of Rev Nat’s Hard Cider.
It started about 12 years ago. Almost exactly 12 years ago. I was a new dad and my wife was working full time I was working part time and being a stay at home dad. My daughter and I used to pick apples. We started because a neighbor of mine had an apple tree in his backyard that was huge and produced a lot of apples. We made apple pies, apple sauce, we dried apples, there was just too many apples. At the time I had never had apple cider before. I knew there was a thing called cider because I was a 20-something dude in Portland and of course I drank a lot of beer. The first cider I ever had was my own. I looked up how to make a juice press and put that together real quick. How to ferment it and sort of fudged my way through that. I made more and more every year. I did it all in my basement/garage and it was a lot of cider! Also, my wife and I had these Wednesday potlucks going every week for 5 years! They became so popular that people I didn’t even know would show up. So I was able to share my cider with a lot of people that didn’t necessarily know me, and they were able to critique it somewhat blindly. It took on this life of its own because I wanted to have a new job. I hated my job. At the time I was working IT and I was totally done with it. The cider industry was booming and I was getting pretty comfortable making it. People said it was pretty good. So there I was with 0 savings and lots of credit card debt. Perfect time to start a business! And now here I am 5 years later. We’ve got 16 employees and we’re in 4 states, plus British Columbia and Japan. It’s absolutely taken off.
We read on your site that you have a passion for creative flavor combinations.
I love to cook! I cook a lot and I often times think about the ciders we’re making from a chef’s perspective. Brewers and chefs, they’re basically the same thing. Wine people are in a whole other world where they grow this perfect fruit and they pray to the gods to give them sun and rain at the right time. They have to set up their business 20 years in advance, buy the right piece of property with the right slope, right soil, and then they just cross their fingers. If the wine they make is bad. they blame it on the grapes but if the dish a chef makes is bad, you can’t blame it on the ingredients. You chose those ingredients. The same goes for brewers. All brewers in America essentially have access to the same ingredients. It’s because those businesses, (chefs and brewers), they have access to ingredients and they apply their craft in order for it to come out the way they envision it coming out. So, I’ve never brewed beer to this day, but most all of my recipes and experiments are derived from a combination to cooking ingredients and drinking beer. I know beer well. Sometimes, I’ll hear about something and I’ll be like ‘ahh that’s great!’ I want to see how that would work in cider.
You think you’ll ever get on the beer brewing bandwagon?
Y’know I don’t distill. I don’t garden much anymore. I don’t fix cars. Maybe one day if I get really, really bored of making cider, then yeah I’ll start making beer. But there is still so much to learn here! The list of ciders we want to make is far too long.
What is your creative process like?
A lot of my process involves having an idea. Whether I’m just laying in bed or in the shower, talking with someone, eating or drinking something, looking at a menu… an idea just sticks with me. I’m not concerned about whether it will sell well. I’m more concerned with ‘is this the best thing that I think I can make?’ I care that it is what I imagined it to be.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
It’s mostly food and beer. Maybe a little from cocktails and wine as well. For instance I was just hanging out here at the bar on a Saturday and this woman sitting next to me runs the Random Order coffeehouse and bakery on Alberta. They make the best pies in portland as far as I’m concerned. I as like ‘Wow, we should do a collaboration!’ So she came over the next day and dropped off three strawberry rhubarb pies and we’re going to throw them in a bucket, fill it with cider, and see what happens. Has anybody ever aged cider on pie? I don’t think so. Maybe after we taste it we’ll realize this was a terrible idea, but I’m going to find out.
What do you think it means to be a creative in Portland today?
You have to be willing to fail. So you have to have the type of personality that will let you fail and not feel terrible about yourself when you screw up. But it also works really well if you have people that stand by you. With me, they’ll try something I’ve made and if it’s not perfect, they won’t write you off completely. It also helps to be collaborative. We do a lot of collaborations with breweries, and we have a collaboration right now with a start-up soda company. They’re making like, ‘real’ cola and ‘real’ root beer with actual spices and herbs. We took their root beer recipe and made a batch here with their oversight and then blended it into a cherry cider. So it came out as this cherry root beer cider. It’s really great that there’s this creative and crafty culture in Portland.
What sets portland apart as a city?
It’s the perfect size. I’ve lived here for 15 years and prior to that I lived in San Diego. Everyone says Portland is a fantastic ‘big town’. But that’s not just because of the size or the number of people we have. There’s a certain vibe. The way the streets are laid out, and the way the neighborhoods are organized. I live in the Alberta arts district and I could stay there my whole life and never leave. There’s a certain amount of friendly community spirit.
What do you love most about your work?
The variety. 4 years ago I was in my garage. I was filling every bottle myself by hand and I was delivering everything myself. I know as time goes by, there will be other problems to solve. There’s no book on how to start a cider company for dummies.
Maybe you’ll author it?
Maybe i will! Everyday I wake up and do something different. Yesterday I was working on spreadsheets all day, and today I haven’t even unpacked my computer. It’s that variety that I like most about the job. And it certainly is a job, the best one I’ve ever had.
Last question Rev. Are you ordained?
Of course! I got ordained to marry some friends years ago. They started calling me Reverend Nat as a joke and the name sort of stuck. As I was starting to make a lot of cider in my basement, I wanted some kind of label on the bottles. So i just whipped together this ‘Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider’ label and that’s what it became. It wasn’t some New York agency that came up with it. The name works. Knowing what I know now, I would definitely do it all the same way.