Hood River, Oregon, is the gateway from Portland to Mount Hood National Forest and all the summer adventures therein. But this small riverside city is a windsurfing, paddling, dining and drinking destination in its own right. As the weather gets warmer and more people get outside, stopping for dinner in Hood River on your way back to Portland can become less a relaxing break, and more of a crowded hassle.
Luckily, there’s an entire neighborhood up in the hills, away from Hood River’s crowded downtown and waterfront. Locals call the neighborhood the Heights, and one of the businesses that’s revitalizing this short strip on 12th Street is the taproom of Slopeswell Cider.
John Metta, Jeff Nichol and Chip Dickinson started this small cidery in 2015 after uniting their two cideries, Hawksong and Gorge Cider House. Last year, they opened their taproom in a space on 12th Street that was formerly a tortillaria. All three are residents, full-time or part-time, of Hood River, and committed to revitalizing the Heights. “We spent a year searching for a space in the Heights so we could be part of making it ‘downtown for the locals’,” Metta says.
Metta, Slopeswell’s cidermaker, produced around 3,000 gallons of food-oriented, Old World-inspired ciders last year and is on track to double that this year. Metta ferments Slopeswell’s cider onsite at the taproom, mostly with culinary Jonagold apples harvested in nearby Hood River County and other varieties as he finds them. But he is currently searching for more heirloom varieties such as Muscat de Bernay, Amere de Berthcort and Medaille d’Or, which are better suited for the dry, table-style ciders that he prefers.
Most of Slopeswell’s ciders, like the English-style Scrumpy, are made with wild yeast and fermented onsite in oak barrels. You can also order “nibbly bits” such as homemade empanadas and Italian meatballs to accompany your late afternoon stop for cider, if you opt to stay rather than fill a growler or purchase a bottle to go.
“There’s no European-style drinking culture here,” says Metta on a recent visit, as we tasted his ciders over a smoked salmon and cheese plate. “People aren’t as used to drinking with food.” Which is a shame, because Slopeswell’s cider, in particular, shines with food.
Indeed, Slopeswell’s Mystrale — a bottle-fermented, French-style cider that uses French white wine yeast that is banked and cultured at nearby Wyeast Laboratories — is dry and tart, pale straw in color. It’s entirely enjoyable on its own, but somehow makes the Brie taste even Brie-ier, if such a thing is possible, while remaining wholly itself. Two others — a blackcurrant cider that is subtly fruity in flavor, if not color, and Emperium, an IPA-style hopped cider that uses saison yeast — are much more conventional in style, more aligned with the sweeter, more flavored and hoppier ciders currently gaining popularity.
In keeping with their commitment to support local communities, Slopeswell has recently started a charity tap. The sale of every drink poured off the charity tap will go towards a charity of their choice. In mid-March, Slopeswell released its first charity cider, called Somos Uno, a cider made from local pears and sweetened with local honey. Profits from the sale will go towards a nonprofit called Somos Uno, which was started by a local organization of churches called the Gorge Ecumenical Ministries (GEM) to promote the rights and safety of immigrants.
“Given that our fruit here is such a big part of the economy, and that economy is based on (often exploited) immigrant labor, we wanted to make a statement with that fruit,” Metta says. “Even if it might lose us some customers or suppliers.”
But maybe that’s a lesson that we can all afford to learn from small-scale cidermakers: if you produce something truly distinctive, you can’t aim to please everyone. Just the people that matter.