MOUNT VERNON — The clock ticked down as Geoffrey Burton filled a small graduated cylinder with a precise mixture of pear and apple juice concentrate for his group’s hard cider blend.
For the final exercise of the fourth day in an intensive hard cider course, Burton and his small team were tasked with blending various ingredients into what instructor and cider expert Peter Mitchell classified as “an easy-drinking cider for a summer barbecue.”
As cider explodes in popularity across the country and around the Northwest, cider production classes organized by the Mount Vernon-based Northwest Agriculture Business Center have helped hobby cider makers from around the world launch a business and refine products.
Practicing one of the last steps in the cider-making process, the 24 students carefully combined sour-tasting base ciders — simple fermented apple juice from either dessert or cider-specific apples — with sugar, juice concentrates, water, honey, spices and acid to complete the assignment.
They had less than an hour, and results were judged.
“It’s not something I can stand up and tell them what to do. It’s fairly simple. You just mix stuff together to figure out what tastes good, right?” said Mitchell, who flew in from the United Kingdom to teach the weeklong course at the Washington State University Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon.
Mitchell said the “principles and practices” course is designed to give students a complete overview of cider production.
Students initially covered cider’s history, the current market for hard cider and a lot of taste-testing to develop student palettes.
“We do a lot of taste-testing to get people to experience a whole range of ciders and perry, which is made from pears,” Mitchell said. “It’s one of the most important skills they have to develop.”
Then Mitchell leads students through the production process, from apple selection to processing, pressing, fermentation, blending and packaging.
“From apple to glass, as they say,” Mitchell said.
Between 2005 and 2012, hard cider production in the U.S. tripled to 688,000 barrels, according to Mitchell. He said in 2014, production is already 70 percent greater than in 2013.
“It’s growing hugely across the U.S.,” Mitchell said. He has taught the class locally for 12 years, before the center started organizing it in 2006.
Karen Mauden, the center’s account executive, said the “principles and practices” class has been expanded from two to four courses a year since the business center took over organization in 2006 and still has months-long wait lists to get in.
“It’s the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage in the U.S.,” Mauden said.
A Business of Hard Cider course focused on state tax laws, licensing requirements and operations drew in 50 students on Dec. 13, Mauden said.
She said one of the only restraints on the industry — a lack of available cider-specific apples — is being addressed in an orchard management course.
“There are not enough bittersweet, bitter-sharp and heirloom apples to support the artisan part of the industry,” Mitchell said.
Marc Dowd, 39, came from his small family-owned orchard in Yakima to take part in both the business course and the weeklong production class.
He wanted to learn more about the cider industry before changing up to half of his orchard of dessert apples to cider-specific varieties and opening his own cidery, he said.
“I wanted more of a well-rounded understanding of how to make cider. What does it take to move from hobby to business?” Dowd said. “It’s given me a framework to look ahead. I can now go back and do the legwork that’s needed. It’s very helpful.”