Station: How do you like them apples?

Merridale Cidery was one of Cowichan
Merridale Cidery was one of Cowichan's first businesses to operate under a winery license.
— image credit: Andrew Leong

Let’s get something straight right off the hop: cider is cider and juice is juice.

There are no soft and hard ciders, at least not this side of the border, said Rick Pipes who, with wife Janet Docherty, owns Merridale Estate Cidery in Cobble Hill.

“It’s the Americans who made the distinction between soft and hard cider,” said the former Victoria-area lawyer.

“It came from the days of prohibition when cider had alcohol and they weren’t allowed to sell it anymore.”

Thirsty, enterprising folks purchased fresh-pressed apple juice and then took it home where they would ferment it, usually in the basement.

“When alcohol became legal again, cider stayed as fresh-pressed apple juice and hard cider was fermented,” said Pipes.

“In Europe and all the rest of the world, cider meant alcohol and juice is juice.”

When a guy makes much of his living squeezing apples, well, you just gotta believe him. And he and Docherty have been doing it for some time now.

They bought the 20-acre spread — a full 13 ½ of those are devoted to apple orchards — in 1999 and set out to make Merridale a destination spot in the Cowichan Valley.

Although the business deals specifically in apples, it doesn’t operate under the auspices of a farm.

“It was one of the first businesses in the valley to start under a winery licence,” said Docherty.

Merridale has branched out a bit on the libations side with the introduction of spirits, including apple brandy, the culmination of a nearly seven-year battle to get it to market.

“We were one of the first ones to start a distillery in B.C.,” said Docherty.

While the various liquids are what Merridale is best known for, the business is also blossoming in the love department with more and more couples deciding to tie the knot at the cidery. Earlier this year, Huffington Post recognized the estate as one the best places to get married on Vancouver Island.

“The weddings are great and are going over really well — we did 34 of them last year,” Docherty said.

“In the summer we don’t open on Friday or Saturday evenings, we just focus on doing the weddings.”

Cider and weddings aside, Merridale’s is also known for its food, served daily at La Pommerie Bistro where cider pairings and seasonal menu items are inspired by local food.

“Everything is scratch-made,” said Bistro chef Ian Blom, who, along with chef Benni Kelly, keeps things tasty.

And when Blom says everything is made at the Bistro, he’s not kidding.

In addition to breads and cured meats, even the condiments — ketchup, mustard et al. — are produced in-house.

And the chefs delight in pairing their food creations with the various Merridale ciders on hand.

“We like to utilize them as you would wine,” said Blom, who still has that fresh dad glow because of the birth of his first child, David, born in late January.

Family is something important to Docherty and Pipes as well.

“We don’t just support our community; we want to be part of it,” said Pipes. “We live here, we raise our children here and we like it here.”

That’s why it stung, and still stings, when they remember they were accused of umbral practises.

The cidery used to — as in past tense — charge a nominal fee for tasting.

Some places likewise charge for tastings, some don’t.

“Yet we’ve been slammed by Trip Advisor and others who said other places don’t charge,” said Docherty.

What most don’t know is the tasting money didn’t go to Merridale’s bottom line.

“We don’t keep those fees,” said Pipes. “We give them to local organizations.”

Organizations such as the Vancouver Canucks Autism Network — a charity Merridale helped raise $140,000 for last year — Providence Farm, food banks and others.

But the less-than-kind comments left a sour taste in the mouths of Pipes and Docherty, who have since stopped charging for tastings.

“So, we’ll leave it open to donations,” said Docherty.

Oh, there’s one more thing about Merridale — it has yurts! Two of ‘em!

A yurt, as defined by Wikipedia, is a portable, bent dwelling structure traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia as their home.

They are also the coolest dwellings in the valley and are available for very reasonable rent.

Now, how do you like them apples?

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