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Bella Coola Valley apples source for new hard cider

Great Bear Cider was made by Lillooet Cider Company
Great Bear Cider features art work created by Bella Coola artist Tahirih Goffic featuring a famous local grizzly bear named Bent Ear. (Photo submitted)

A new hard cider made from apples picked in the Bella Coola Valley will be ready for local residents later in June 2024.

Rae Kokeš, executive director of the Bella Coola Foodshed Alliance, said Great Bear Cider is made from apples collected through the alliance’s community gleaning program.

“I’ve tried it, it’s really good,” Kokeš said of the cider. “It is really crisp and not too sweet. It’s a lovely craft cider. We’ve had a couple of cider connoisseurs try it and they said it is pretty fantastic.”

Since at least 2018, the Bella Coola Foodshed Alliance has arranged with fruit tree owners to have a team of pickers come to their property to help glean the fruit.

The tree owners keep a third, another third is shared with community partners such as schools, day cares, transition house and food bank, while the remaining third goes to the alliance.

In previous years, the alliance has sold the fruit at the Bella Coola Valley Farmers Market.

There are 33 different varieties of apples growing in the valley and five varieties of pears.

“Last year we decided we wanted to try a new social enterprise model to see if we could put a bit of a cash flow into our gleaning program,” Kokeš said, adding they struggle every year to keep the program afloat.

They had a good harvest in 2023 with a mix of heritage apples and pears which they sold to Lillooet Cider Company.

“Tweedsmuir Park Lodge works with that company and matched the price amount so we earned $2,000 from the sale of fruit,” Kokeš explained.

Lillooet Cider in return made a deal to make cider for the alliance to sell.

“We are going to receive the product in a few days and will be selling it at the Farmers Market on June 23,” she said, adding they will have 1,000 bottles in total for this being the pilot year.

“We hope it can be an annual thing and all the proceeds will, obviously, go back into the gleaning program.”

Bella Coola Foodshed Alliance board member Katherine Phillips works at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge and connected the alliance with Seth Jex, owner of Lillooet Cider Company.

Jex said there were well over a dozen old-world heritage apples grown in the Bella Coola Valley used to make the cider.

“As far as I know this is a unique and first-of-its kind project, certainly within B.C.” he said. “I wanted to stylistically make the truest expression of terroir-focused cider.”

Terroir is a wine-making term for the uniqueness of a place, the climate, soil, heat and rain, he explained.

“These are heritage apples, they are from one source - one valley - and I wanted to reflect that back onto the product, rather than adding a flavouring or something.”

His company is working collaboratively with the gleaning project to reduce human-bear conflict and the end product reflects its origins, he added.

“The only cider making note would be that these were aged in french oak barrels. I’ve taken the heritage apples, pressed them, left them raw, there is no pasteurization. I have allowed a wild or natural ferment to initiate and then added my commercial yeast to ensure that they go dry because we want our ciders to be dry.”

Alcohol content of Great Bear Cider is 6.5 per cent, which Fex said sits in between the natural alcohol per cent of ciders - between six to seven per cent.

Apples naturally ferment at a minimum of five-and-a-half per cent, he confirmed.

Aside from his cider company, Jex is the assistant winemaker at Fort Berens Estate Winery in Lillooet.

Kokeš said Jex has a been a fantastic support and very excited about the product.

“He and I designed the label together. The image we have on the bottle is quite eye-catching,” she said, adding the artwork came from local artist Tahirih Goffic who created a painting of a local bear named Bent Ear, a big boar grizzly well-known in the valley,

“You would see him a lot on the Atnarko River, but I am not quite sure if he is still around,” Kokeš said of Bent Ear.

They also got hats, T-shirts, stickers and tank tops made with the same design for more fundraising.

This year the BCVFA is celebrating its 20th year anniversary and the cider launch is helping to augment their efforts.

Kokeš said they are looking at the cider pilot as a good opportunity to talk about food security and human-bear conflict.

The gleaning program has a huge benefit of reducing bear conflict and she said it’s well known there are a lot of bear conflicts in the Bella Coola Valley.

“Bears access food, garbage, smokehouses, but it is mostly fruit trees that are the single main conflict driver.”

To stop bears from trying to access fruit that is not ripe, the alliance also loans temporary electric fences to residents to wrap around a tree while the fruit ripens so it can be harvested.

“Some fruit tree owners we visit don’t use the fruit at all or just a fraction of it and cannot simply handle the harvest,” she said.

Picking usually begins the first of July and the alliance is hoping to hire more pickers.

On Sunday, June 24, BCVFA will hold its AGM and potluck at the Quosnet Hut, Lobelco Hall beginning at 6 p.m.

Anyone who is interested is invited to attend to learn how to become a member or join the board of directors.

READ MORE: Bella Coola Valley Foodshed Alliance celebrates 20th anniversary

READ MORE: Okanagan growers continue to squeeze fruit co-op for answers

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Bella Coola Foodshed Alliance director Katherine Phillips, left, Kourtney McCercher, general manager of Bella Coola Heli Sports, third from left and Em Main of Bella Coola (right) deliver apples from the Bella Coola Valley to Seth Jex of Lillooet Cider Company, second from left. (Photo submitted).
Apples picked through the Bella Coola Valley Foodshed Alliance gleaning progam are the main ingredient for a new hard cider which will be available to purchase in the valley beginning Sunday, June 23, at the Bella Coola Valley Farmers Market. See page 7 for more. (Photo submitted)

Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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