After months of preparations and renovation, Dragon’s Head Cider has opened a tasting room in the center of Vashon, transforming the space that was last home to Green Ginger Chinese Restaurant into a stylish and comfortable new gathering place.
Of course, cider is nothing new, but in recent years the beverage has seen an uptick in popularity throughout the world. Cider today is found in many countries, but if one place can be said to represent the historical heartland of this beverage, it’s the West Country of England. In Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and neighboring counties, cider was the drink of the farm laborer and the working man. It came in flagons; it was cheap, strong and often cloudy.
Precisely because it was the fare of common folk, its history is not very well documented: a Roman account states that it was introduced to Europe from Britain by Julius Caesar’s army, who learned the making of it from the Celts. The word “cider” itself — the etymology of which derives from Latin and Hebrew words for “strong drink” — did not appear until the 1100s, but it was clearly being brewed and enjoyed centuries before that.
Laura and Wes Cherry, of Dragon’s Head Cider, are continuing this long tradition now on Vashon.
It all started as a hobby in their kitchen — in an interview, Laura noted that although “we made a lot of terrible cider in the beginning” — their skills gradually evolved, through training and experience, into an endeavor good enough to found a commercial enterprise.
After careers in IT and management in Seattle, they decided that they needed a change. “After living in the virtual world for so long,” Laura said, “we wanted something more tangible, something that tied us to the land and the seasons.”
Accordingly, they began searching for somewhere to establish an orchard. Wes mentioned Vashon, and Laura laughed as she recalled how she asked him, “Where’s that?”
But when they came here, they both realized it was a good fit for them, especially given its rural nature and agricultural history. So, in May 2010, they bought a plot of land, and the following winter planted some 400 trees. Their orchard has since grown to 2,700 trees on eight acres.
Dragon’s Head’s first production was made with apples purchased from the Mount Vernon Research Orchard. They pressed the fruit in 2011 and bottled their first cider the following year.
“It was just 125 cases,” said Laura, “and our very first customer was Vashon Thriftway.” A tasting room at the orchard followed in 2015.
Cider-making isn’t particularly complicated, Laura said: “The process is simple and the ingredients list is short.” Apples are harvested and fresh-pressed in the fall. Unlike many of the big commercial producers, they don’t use concentrate, and they don’t filter; the cider clarifies itself with time. The annual harvest varies, but Laura and Wes typically make 25-40,000 liters of cider a year.
Eventually, the plan is to move the off-site production facilities — tanks and the bottling line — into the uptown building that houses the tasting room.
Dragon’s Head’s focus is on the specific types of apples they use. This variety is reflected in their tasting menu, which includes more than a dozen different ciders and perries offering a wide range of flavors. Guests can pick from a menu, or sample via tastings of five, or flights of four.
Six of the ciders are on tap; these include Bittersweet Cider, a blend of twenty English and French apples that Laura calls “a picture of our orchard in a glass.” There’s also her favorite, Kingston Black, which she describes as “well-balanced, with a unique flavor profile.”
House-made non-alcoholic options include apple shrub, made with fruit grown in Dragon’s Head orchard, and lemon ginger soda.
Accompanying the cider is a tapas-style menu created by noted chef and islander, Jacob Wiegner, who met Laura through a mutual friend.
Wiegner, who trained in French cuisine and worked in restaurants in the UK, ran his own highly-regarded restaurant in West Seattle, Blackboard Bistro, until a few years ago. His menu will change regularly and is intended to pair with the ciders.
Because Dragon’s Head doesn’t have kitchen facilities, the idea is to design cold tapas that can be assembled by anyone. Current examples include white anchovies with Yukon gold potatoes, olive oil, currants and parsley; smoked duck breast with pickled figs and toasted walnuts; and a ham and gruyère cornichon dijonnaise, served on a homemade applesauce doughnut — lunch fare that pairs perfectly with cider.
Cider is delicious but unpretentious. Unlike wine, it has never been the subject of noble treatises by epicures, nor has it traditionally inspired writers of great literature. But there are exceptions, and none better than “Cider with Rosie,” the English poet Laurie Lee’s wonderfully poignant memoir of growing up in a rural English village after the Great War.
Towards the end, Lee describes his first taste of cider, drunk from a huge stone jar under a haystack, the preliminary to his first kiss, with a country girl named Rosie: “Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, of russet summer, of plump red apples and Rosie’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or tasted again.”
Dragon’s Head tasting room, currently licensed for ages 21 and older, is in the center of town at 9815 Bank Road SW. It is open Thursday through Monday from 11 to 5, although the owners plan on extending hours for First Friday and special events. Dragon’s Head Cider’s Orchard, located at 18201 107th Ave SW, is closed for the winter but will reopen next year for visits and picnics open to all ages.
Phil Clapham, a frequent contributor to The Beachcomber, knows a thing or two about cider — he hails from the West Country of England.