The founder of Eugene, Oregon’s latest cider company, Cyderish, aptly sees himself as a brewer-ish. “I consider myself more of a bartender,” said Ryan Werthwein, “but I know enough to be dangerous about brewing.” The Texan-turned-Oregonian experiments with wily flavors and eclectic ingredients in order to both please drinkers and embark on the next chapter of his life. After just one year of operation, that includes canning and opening a tasting room
His lessons learned in corporate business, the tart apples grown in his backyard, dear friends in the wine business, skill as a mixologist, and his love for hip hop all informed his choices and translated into dry and playfully flavored Cyderish concoctions.
The biggest news for the one-year-old company is that local beer powerhouse Ninkasi will be helping can a cucumber-infused gin and lime cider called Compton Cucumber, which should hit shelves mid-summer. And this release will only be the warm up for an early fall opening of a tasting location just a stone’s throw away from where Werthwein first set roots when he moved to Eugene.
But first he has to cut the “ish” from the cyder.
Werthwein moved into a house five years ago that had an apple tree in the backyard. A couple years into living there, he decided to make cider, but the apples were boring and the brew wasn’t great.
“Super tart. Low sugar. Doesn’t make the best cider on its own,” he said of the homegrown fruit. Werthwein decided to add honey into the recipe, “and that’s when it became more enjoyable.”
The problem is that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the federal body that regulates alcohol, doesn’t consider fermented honey and apple juice to be cider. It’s cyser. But he also currently ferments on elderberries with champagne yeast and fortifies with 190-proof brandy. The TTB thinks this should be called “carbonated honey apple wine.” That’s not a product known for its commercial popularity, and at least a part of Cyderish’s purpose is to help Werthwein make a living.
However, the blossoming company was also born out of an inspiration to regroup and follow a passion.
In August 2017, Werthwein was camping with family after he had recently lost a job he had just begun. “I had been let go from a tech job that I literally just started and it broke my heart over the summer. I just spent so much time soul searching on where I wanted to take my life,” he said.
Out in nature, and with a homebrewed cyser in hand, Werthwein thought maybe the next step could be a business in the beverage industry. He was considering the undersaturated cider market in Eugene — he is family friends with the local cider barons Wildcraft Cider Works. Wildcraft had been quite successful locally, and perhaps there was room for another craft cidery.
As Werthwein was looking for space and equipment to start an industrial, albeit small, brewery, friends from the past were waiting to help him.
About 10 years ago, while Werthwein was bartending at a P.F. Changs, entrepreneur and wino Bruce Biehl was starting B Squared Wine Bar. Werthwein helped start the bar and spent five to six years there learning about wine and the industry. As Werthwein moved on to other jobs, Biehl was already the president of Eugene Wine Cellars, which by 2017 had a warehouse full of space and brewing equipment.
A man named Greg Sothras is the winemaker at the Wine Cellars, and told Werthwein that they do custom crush, a deal where Werthwein could pay a per gallon fee for the Wine Cellars to basically do all the brewing for him — although he ultimately uses the space and does the brewing on his own.
Werthwein had the idea, the passion, the space and the equipment. All he needed was a brand, bottles, juice, an interesting recipe, distribution, vendors to sell his cyser and ample customers to buy the product. Not a problem for Werthwein: He spent the years after B Squared Wine Bar learning about corporate business and supply chains working at Symantec, a technology-centric consulting firm.
From ordering industrial amounts of apple juice to beautiful slender glass bottles, and on to designing and printing his modern gold-embossed labels, almost every part of the business was outsourced. When it came time to keg and sell the cyser, his competition was his best friend.
The Eugene beer and cider scene is full of camaraderie. An ethos of “small-business first” permeates the city and everyone seems willing to support newcomers. “They do it because they were in this position. They know the struggles,” Wethwein said.
Some of the breweries were hesitant at first to give Cyderish a tap, for one reason because they were already selling Wildcraft and didn’t want to ruin any allegiances or business deals. “Some of them took a decent amount of selling and follow up sales so that they could see I had the capability to deliver, but after months of hard work and my flavors showing through and them selling well, a lot of them have kind of just given me a tap handle,” he said. “There’s nothing better for a small company like mine to start than saying, ‘Hey we’re always gonna have you on.’”
Some of his earliest flavors were bold and exciting, such as the 10% abv pineapple habeñero. It wasn’t a mass market hit, but it showed ingenuity. The next was a 7.4% abv raspberry, serrano and basil cyser.
“I understand that pepper, mainly from living in texas,” he said of the serrano addition. “But knowing that it’s a very earthy pepper — there’s a lot of mineral to it — people don’t use it in salsas because of that. I was like, when I hear mineral and earthy, I think wine, and I think characteristics that are unusual and I wanted to figure out a way to blend that.” To balance out its character, he first added raspberry for fruity balance, but it needed something else. He tried lemongrass, but it was a no go. Then on to basil, and Werthwein decided that was it.
“What I want to be in charge of is the bartender aspects: flavor profiles, making flavors pop. Not being the Lacroix of cider. I want my flavors to shine and not have people guess.”
It was his cucumber-infused gin and lime cyser that won him his first award: best cider at Eugene’s annual KLCC Brew Fest. It’s no surprise that this will be Cyderish’s next release, this time in cans rather than glass bottles. Using Ninkasi’s canning equipment to package his own cider — he’s removing the honey so it can be labeled as such — Werthwein expects to release the Compton Cucumber in early to mid-summer.
“I am still the sole proprietor of Cyderish,” he said. “I will be co-packaging at both Ninkasi and Eugene Wine Cellars. Ninkasi happens to be very interested in uplifting my business as well as others — it’s their MO.”
And this is where his love for old school hip hop comes in.
“Gin and juice is where we came up with that: My artist helped develop the Compton Cucumber aspect. I was leaning toward something kind of gangster but it’s a straight pull off of Snoop Dogg’s Gin and Juice. Very West Coast attitude,” Werthwein said.
After the can release, Sept. 15 is the next big day. Werthwein said Cyderish will have a new tasting location in the Whiteaker. The previous tenant will move its business to a cart outside, letting Cyderish operate the tasting room.
“We are just gonna have an epicenter of gluten free, good-for-you products, some vegan stuff — now that my cider is going to be considered vegan,” Werthwein said.
Next up flavor-wise for Cyderish is a blend of honey crisp apple juice, wildflower honey and pinot gris, fermented on apricot puree using champagne yeast. And this mix is currently sitting in rum barrels found on St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. When it’s done, Werthwein plans on adding rum spices, including coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg and maybe a little anise.
“No brandy. Just straight rum punch concoction.”
As for the future of Cyderish Werthwein is hiring his first employee to help staff the tasting location and what’s next is unknown. His passion is likely not to change and his pursuit, likewise. Seeing the rum punch and Compton Cucumber lead the way, its obvious bold flavors are a harbinger of what is to come.
Braedon Kwiecien is a writer and outdoors-person. He's fanatical for coffee, beer and great food. He has spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest, but is in search of adventure in the states and abroad.