First vintage of LO's Finnegan Cider released this spring
Josh Johnson has the art of making cider down to a science.
He and his wife, Colleen, own Finnegan Cider, which they ferment and bottle in the detached garage at their home in the Forest Highlands neighborhood. They released their first vintage, 2010, this spring - just in time to join the artisan cider movement taking off across Oregon.
Today's ciders aren't the mass-produced alcoholic apple juice on store shelves in the past. Modern cider makers like Johnson carefully craft their beverages, from pressing and fermentation to bottling.
For Johnson, the business began as a hobby.
He's a neurologist and Colleen is a physician. Knowing his father made cider - and wine - in small batches when Johnson was growing up, Colleen bought him a fruit press for his birthday about seven years ago.
Since then, he said, 'I've experimented with different approaches to making cider.'
The result: A style entirely his own.
Johnson uses the typical cider ingredients - apples and yeast - but he slows down fermentation by undernourishing the yeast and keeping it cooler. He bottles it when there's still some residual sugar in the liquid and lets it condition - that's when it becomes bubbly - within individual bottles.
'I think it gives it better taste,' Johnson said. 'That slow fermentation creates a unique sort of complexity.'
And in a region dominated by dessert apples - and where most local cider is made with those apples - Finnegan stands out because it uses traditional cider varieties. Cider apples are smaller and more bitter than the sweet types common in the Pacific Northwest. Johnson's cider is also higher in alcohol content than many others now on the market.
'The cider apples just aren't as tasty (to eat); they have more tannin,' he said. 'That's what makes this cider better.'
He describes the beverage's flavor as 'rich and bold.'
'We think of Finnegan Cider as the Guinness of cider.'
As for the name, Finnegan is Colleen's maiden name.
'I wanted to name a son Finnegan, but we had girls (the twins are now 5 years old),' Johnson said. 'Also, the name is Irish, and friendly, and it seems to go well with cider.
'We both come from Irish stock, and since the Celts were some of the first cider makers, we thought the name was a good choice.'
The drink has caught on fast.
At first, Finnegan Cider was only available at Bushwhacker Cider in Southeast Portland. Now you can also find it at Maher's Pub in downtown Lake Oswego, New Seasons Markets at Mountain Park and at Progress Ridge, and at Belmont Station in Portland.
Johnson has been invited to 'Meet the Maker' events at Bushwhacker and is scheduled for another in mid-September.
Now, the only thing holding the business back is the region's shortage of true cider apples.
'The Northwest is known for having lots of apples, but it's mostly geared toward dessert varieties,' Johnson said.
Looking ahead to the future, he worked with a Hood River farm this year to graft 1,000 more cider apple trees. He already works with a farm in Sherwood. He's also considering a partnership with a Washington state orchard and cidery.
And he doesn't mind the idea of having his own apple orchard one day: 'That way you have full control of the process.'
'We do hope to expand,' Johnson said. 'We have some ways to increase production, but it takes awhile.'