The five-acre legacy orchard of John and Josephine Riley nestled on Mt. Gardner’s south slope is Bowen legend. The jungle-esque property has hundreds of neatly labelled heirloom apple trees growing at 26-inch intervals – the trees carefully collected and nurtured over nearly 30 years.
But John Riley’s collecting branched well beyond apples – fruits and plants are tucked throughout the orchard: pears and quince, figs and grapes, even medlar. Then there are the specialty rhododendrons in the upper part of the property.
“He just couldn’t help himself with the collecting,” says Christine Hardie. “There’s just so many things shoved in.” (She credits his excellent record keeping to John’s professional career as an accountant.)
Hardie and husband, Rob Purdy, who too has an accounting background, and their two young sons bought the property a couple of years ago, following the Rileys’ retirement. As a means of preserving the exceptional orchard (Bowen’s mayor has likened it to a national treasure), the couple opened Riley’s Cidery last month.
Hardie is a nurse by trade but took a year off to study sustainable agriculture a few years back. She and Purdy were living just down the road from the Rileys at the time and ended up helping out for a couple of years, “just because I was really interested in what [John] was doing here,” explains Hardie. Finding that was a lot of excess fruit, Hardie and Purdy started making cider. In 2018, Hardie did a cider-making course in the U.K. “I got a lot better,” she says. “It’s part science but a lot of it is an art...tuning your palate into the different flavours.”
When the Rileys were ready to move a couple of years ago, the younger couple felt ready to take over the property.
Hardie still talks with John once a week, going through the apple varieties (two years in, they’ve reached “S.”)
“Every one of these [apple varieties] has a story,” says Hardie. “Some are really well documented, others are harder to find. But they all came from somebody saying this is great for [something].” There are varieties that have been grafted for more than 600 years, others that were a king’s favourite apple.
Preserving the diversity is paramount.
“When anything’s solely commercial based, it doesn’t make sense to have 1,000 different varieties,” says Isaac Knowles-Gruft. He used to visit the orchard as a child but has returned as a brewer.
“When you talk to commercial apple growers, they’re like – what are you doing,” says Hardie. “Apples now are basically grown for how they look and how they store. So we’ve lost so much.
“A place like this, I just feel like it’s so important to preserve, but also to connect people to it.”
She and Purdy have already made use of the gene bank and familiarity with what does well in the orchard’s climate to select traditional cider varieties to grow for more cider production. (They have 150 to 200 cider-specific varieties – “spitters” – that are higher in tannins but aren’t so good for eating.) “We’ll be getting a lot of really cool cider varieties that you won’t really find anywhere else,” says Hardie. It’ll be at least another five years before the new crew of trees reaches top production. That being said, the young trees have already faced this summer’s drought and survived. While the young trees have had some drip irrigation help, the established apple trees are hardier. “Most of those, we have irrigation but we don’t use it,” says Hardie.
Riley’ Cidery has two ciders available now: they’ve partnered with a Similkameen organic MacIntosh orchard to produce a fruity, fresh cider – a very different flavour from the cidery’s other tannin-heavy blend of up to 500 apple varieties.
Knowles-Gruft is working on blending their third cider – adding hard-to-press but all-too-tasty orchard-harvested quince. “I have to keep telling myself it’s not beer,” he laughs.
The cider itself doesn’t take water, just a few pounds of apples.
Controversy over the cidery arose earlier this year when Hardie and Purdy applied for a temporary use permit from the municipality. Some neighbours had concerns of increased tourism and traffic to the property – seven kilometres from the ferry dock – and feared effects on a nearby equestrian business, neighbourhood character and water use. (Other neighbours were in support.) “That was really challenging,” says Hardie. “I genuinely feel though, that it’s just such a happy, welcoming environment and I think a lot of people have really enjoyed coming.
“It’s just such a nice place to have on Bowen and I really am passionate about connecting people to that biodiversity.”
Bowen council unanimously issued the three-year TUP in March. Some neighbours have subsequently filed for a judicial review of the TUP in the BC Supreme Court – a case that's set to be heard later this fall.
The cidery opened at the beginning of July. “It’s been so fun to share the space with everybody,” says Hardie.
A familiar face behind the tasting room counter adds to the cidery jovial atmosphere. Frank Patt (of the Soup Fairy) walked into the refurbished tractor shed opening day – “I was like, tell me the story. Take my money. I want to try the cider,” he gushes. “I walked through that top gate and didn’t even feel like I was on Bowen anymore.”
Soon enough, Patt was offering his help and Purdy and Hardie were quick to hire the well-known islander.
July marked the beginning of stage three of the COVID-19 restart plan, so the newly opened cidery got to be a place of reunion. “We were getting to see people see each other and hold each other for the first time in a really long time, and experience something that Bowen’s been anticipating for a long time,” says Patt. “This is like the happiest place on Bowen for me.”
“All of the people laughing and having such a great time – it’s awesome,” says Knowles-Gruft.
“I don’t think you could have a bad day here,” says Patt.
The cidery with its picnic area and tasting area is open 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday to Sunday. They encourage customers to bring back their bottles so that the glass can be reused.
Editor's note: This story has been amended from its August 26 print version 'Old apples, new cidery' to add note of the legal suit.