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MESA, Wash. — About 650 miles northwest of Salt Lake City, in the farming town of Mesa, Washington, just outside of the Tri-Cities, is Empey Brothers Farms. The Empey family is originally from Idaho, where they raised cattle, but they moved to Mesa in 1961.
“It’s a long story,” said Nolan Empey, the oldest of four children, “but it happened very fast, and my parents bought the farm. In fact, when we first moved here, my dad hadn’t planned on doing commercial apples; I remember him telling us, ‘Kids, you can do the orchard and sell the apples on the side of the road.’”
However, commercial apples are just what Jarl and Shirley Empey got into soon after they realized they’d bought a farm with 7,000 apple trees.
When I walked into Nolan Empey’s home, Nolan, his daughter Rachael Cutler and her husband, Brady Cutler, all greeted me with a handshake and a smile and handed me a glass bottle of their “Double Black” — a premium sparkling cider made from Arkansas Black and Blacktwig specialty apple varieties. It’s delicious, tart and a little sour but with a very sweet smell and aftertaste; it tastes a little bit like apple candy. I felt right at home as my son played with Nolan’s granddaughters, and I could have spent the afternoon listening to them tell me stories about their family farm.
Though he was in the commercial apple business — primarily Red Delicious Washington apples — Jarl Empey always had a passion for pressing apple cider. His children, Nolan, Kim, Lance and Laurie Ann, remember looking forward to “press day,” when Jarl Empey would invite the family and neighbors to come and he would press fresh cider for them. Everybody would go home with a jug of cider.
Nolan Empey and his two brothers grew up on the farm and later left to serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nolan served in the Netherlands Amsterdam Mission, Kim served in the Philippines and Lance served in England. When Nolan Empey returned from his mission and started his studies at Brigham Young University, he realized that he already had an opportunity back home as a Washington commercial apple grower and he’s been growing apples every since.
In 1977, Nolan Empey started planting his orchards, and Jarl retired shortly after — and Jarl and his wife, Shirley, decided to serve an an LDS mission — leaving the farm to Nolan and his brothers. The Empey Brothers currently grow 14 commercial apple varieties and 40 cider apple varieties as well as cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches, apriums (a mix of apricots and plums), alfalfa, wheat, corn and beans. They also run a nursery operation on their 840-acre farm. They manage 20 full-time employees and up to 500 seasonal employees in a given year. They also ship approximately 44 million apples all over the world.
The farm is located at 4665 Sheffield Road in Mesa. The land is flat and rolling, and there are no mountains or forests to block or obstruct the view. Farm country stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions, with a gorgeous Columbia Basin blue sky overhead. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin, especially a nonfarmer.
In addition to selling fruit, Nolan Empey wanted to do something unique.
“I saw the wineries here, and I got tired of not having an alternative to alcohol besides water or some cheesy lemonade,” he said.
His son-in-law Brady Cutler, who oversees cider production, added that people who abstain from alcohol “enjoy their food, not their drinks; they just enjoy their meal and wash it down with water or a soda.”
The two decided to create a special cider that nondrinkers could enjoy, and in 2004, Sheffield Cider was born.
Nolan and Brady collaborate on what trees to grow and which apple varieties to graft in to produce the best nonalcoholic cider available. Their Bramley seedling, for example, is from the U.K. and dates back to 1809. Their produce is 93 percent certified organic, they said, and their cider is intended to be enjoyed along with a nice meal. It can also be a special nonalcoholic stand-in for a celebratory drink for achievements, milestones or holidays.
Cider apples are different from commercial apples. They are small and usually blotchy, similar to crab apples in appearance. The flavor is bitter, sour and highly concentrated — which is what makes them ideal for producing cider. Each tree is “cloned” or grafted through a process called propagation where branches are grafted onto the root stock, which is kept at only 12 feet tall, so the tree can produce flavorful fruit. It’s a seven-year process from start to finish.
The Empeys began operating their first commercial press in 2009. Cutler, the Empey brothers and their families held “tasting parties” where they would taste the cider and decide which flavors to incorporate; “Harvest Crush” came about because they harvest the apples and crush the grapes to produce a sweet apple-grape flavor.
“Our orchards are located along Sheffield Road, and so that’s how we came to call it Sheffield Cider,” Nolan Empey said. Other varieties in that first press included “Classic Sweet,” which carries a traditional apple cider flavor; “Vintage Dry,” which uses apples from earlier in the season to produce a more tart flavor; and “Apple Cherry” — a personal favorite.
Cider apple production makes up only about 1 percent of Empey Brothers Farms, but it is growing and had a production run of 50,000 bottles in 2015, according to an article on tricitiesbusinessnews.com.
“Each batch of cider is different and has its own story — even the dirt it is grown in makes a difference,” said Rachael Cutler, who is also the marketing director for Sheffield Cider. “If there’s a particularly good batch that year, our customers will buy up crates of it because they know that next season, it will be different.”
Between 7 and 9 apples go into every bottle of Sheffield Cider.
Brady Cutler said the only difference between hard cider and nonalcoholic cider is age and fermentation. Sheffield Cider is fresh; it is pressed fresh, pasteurized and kept cold, and all the apples are hand-picked. It can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to two years.
Sheffield Cider is sold in retail stores all over the Pacific Northwest and at sheffieldcider.com, and each 25.4-ounce bottle costs $8-$14.
Alicia Walters is hopelessly in love with her Mr. Darcy and their four children, including identical twins. She is the author of the memoir “Motherhood, or the Widening Gap Between Showers.” Her website is at aliciawaltersblog.com.
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