A Most Fruitful Venture

The somewhat inevitable story of how alumnus Marcus Robert became one of the nation’s top cider makers.

A Most Fruitful Venture

The somewhat inevitable story of how alumnus Marcus Robert became one of the nation’s top cider makers.

By Charles E. Reineke


Every morning during Washington’s annual apple harvest, an army of pickers descend upon the vast orchards surrounding the city of Yakima. Working through the day, they skillfully traverse the seemingly endless lines of trees, plucking ripe fruit and filling industrial-size bins with apples. Lots of apples. Literally tons of apples.

Last year, according to the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, growers in the Yakima Valley produced an estimated 134 million 40-pound boxes. Each of these boxes, depending on the size of the fruit they hold, contains around 80 pieces. For those of you keeping score, that’s an astonishing 10.7 billion apples.

Most of this apple abundance ends up on grocery store shelves, both here in the United States and around the world, where — if not munched straight away — it makes its way into pies and tarts, cobblers and crisps, muffins and cakes. Some of it goes to commercial processors, who turn their own slice of the harvest into jams and jellies, sauces and spreads, even extracts and essences.

None of this is news to EWU alumnus Marcus Robert ’03, a man for whom no aspect of the apple experience is unfamiliar. Robert comes from a family of orchard keepers, and he was raised atop the loess and alluvial soils that — along with its sunny, temperate climate — make the Yakima environs so fruit-friendly. Since 2008, he’s used this knowledge to become a leader in the movement to popularize yet another way of enjoying apples’ healthful bounty, a product that demonstrates that everything old can, in fact, be new again.


In this case, the “old” is hard apple cider, that slightly fizzy, mildly alcoholic beverage that has been around, in one form or another, since antiquity. Here in North America, cider was once ubiquitous, as newly arrived Europeans grew apples, fermented juice and drank it in abundance. In fact, according to a history published by Washington State University Extension, cider was so widely consumed in Colonial America that even children drank it in diluted form.

While undoubtedly enjoyable, our ancestors had practical reasons for hitting the hard (cider) stuff. Because water was often not safe to drink, pressing and fermenting apple juice allowed families to make and store a healthy alternative to H2O. Making cider could also contribute to a household’s bottom line. Demand was so robust that taxes, wages and tithes were often paid with it.

Hard cider’s popularity began to wane in the middle of the 19th century, as industrialization and urban living provided alternatives to rural folkways. By 1900, an oft-cited report from Connecticut lamented, “… not one family in ten has even one single barrel on tap as a beverage.” Nineteen years later, Prohibition almost killed off cider completely.

Which brings us back to Marcus Robert.

Robert is the cider maker and co-owner of Tieton Cider Works, a Yakima-based cidery that takes its name from the small town where the company’s first few barrels of artisan cider were produced. Those early Tieton (pronounced tie-uh-ton) products, crafted from apples harvested at Craig and Sharon Campbell’s Harmony Orchards, were of the homespun, value-added type of offerings. But their potential was undeniable.

“They didn’t really have a fermentation background,” Robert says of those early days. “But they had a building, a few tanks and some high-quality apples. And so we kind of just started from there.”


Those early Tieton (pronounced tie-uh-ton) products, crafted from apples harvested at Craig and Sharon Campbell’s Harmony Orchards, were of the homespun, value-added type of offerings. But their potential was undeniable.


“Basically,” he continues, “they were farmers who wanted to diversify. Most of the apple crop that you grow there goes directly into a retail channel — to supermarkets. The Campbells were interested in adding something different, in their case cider making, and so they invested about five acres in producing fruit for the project.”

After bringing Robert on board, they leveraged his experience as a grower to introduce some 40 different types of cider-friendly, heirloom apples — varietals with evocative names such as Golden Russets, Winesaps, Gravensteins and Newtown Pippins — on those five acres. The goal at the time, as Robert remembers it, “was just to see how they did in the Yakima Valley.”

This was well before today’s international cider boom, and Robert recalls that he and the Campbells felt like they were flying blind. “No one was growing them then,” he says. “There was no research, nothing. You know, we tried to talk to WSU about them, but they didn’t really have any good information about these varieties that are specifically grown to make cider.”


And yet the experiment was a success. The trees thrived, and soon Robert and the Campbells were bottling (no canning in those days) hard cider made from their fruit. Trial and error, along with Robert’s unerring nose and sensitive palate, led them to heirlooms — and some more common “dessert apples” — with just the right flavors, aromas and textures for making higher-end cider.

“You know, I’m a grower,” Robert says. “I know everything from the dirt to the bottle. So it just kind of made sense for me to be there. We had maybe a thousand cases that first year, 2008. It was before Angry Orchard, the ad blitzes and the boom in national sales. There were, I think, only 12 cideries at that time in the whole of the Pacific Northwest. All of them were very small, making a thousand, maybe a couple of thousand cases each year.

“At Tieton, we thought that if we could make and sell maybe 1,000 cases, that would be pretty good. But we eclipsed that number right away, and that was just selling in local markets in Seattle and Portland.”

These days, the Tieton Cider Works is located in a 30,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art facility just north of downtown Yakima. When running at full capacity, Robert and his team produce some 9,000 gallons of cider each week. Their canning line, in total, cranks out more than 250,000 cases each year. They’ve also got a well-appointed tasting room with an outdoor patio that attracts both casual visitors and hard cider aficionados from across the nation.


Robert on the canning line at the Tieton Cider Works

During a recent visit to the production side of the building, 900-pound bins of plump Pink Lady apples were lined up to begin their juicing journey, a trip which will include sorting, washing and “milling” into mash for pressing. The resulting juice will then be tanked, fed yeast, fermented, then “racked” or filtered to remove the accumulated sediments or “lees.”

“We’ll press about 500 to 600 gallons an hour, and we run about four days each week,” Robert says over the rumble of the machinery. Some of the juice goes into blending tanks, where different varieties of apple juice are commingled to make some of Tieton’s best-selling ciders. Other juices stand alone as “single varietal” offerings, while still others get co-fermented or blended with other fruits, hops and flavors. Robert’s Lavender Honey Cider, for example, is a customer favorite and perennial award winner, including earning a double-platinum award from Cidercraft magazine in 2020.

“We’ve had to do a lot of research,” says Robert. “When we first started, as I said, we had a lot of trees growing that we didn’t know what the fruit was going to be like. Later, I did a lot of research on yeasts, racking regimes, cooling — all the different kinds of stuff you need to think about to produce a good cider. At the end of the day, as a wine maker or cider maker, to make the best product you need to have the least amount of inputs. So that’s what we do now. We press juice, we add yeast and then, eight-to-ten days later, we’ll have a fresh, dry cider that we can use to make our blends.”


Robert, who graduated from EWU with a biology degree, didn’t always think he’d find his calling turning apples into cider. As both a talented athlete (he spent his first year at Eastern as an Eagle running back) and serious science student, he imagined he’d one day become a physician specializing in sports medicine.

But as fate would have it, a summertime gig fighting fires, led, after graduation, to a full-time career as a wildland firefighter. The job involved long hours in challenging conditions, but Robert loved that it was important, fulfilling work. It also offered up, when fire season slowed, sustained periods of downtime. Among other activities, the seldom-idle Robert used these respites to continue a fascination with fermentation, especially beer brewing, that he’d developed as an undergraduate living in Dressler Hall. [Reporter: “I’m assuming the beer making was happening outside of the dormitory?” Robert: “Uh, sure. Let’s say that.”]

While he still appreciates a quality brew, it was the vinification side of the fermentation arts that later became a passion — which the quality of his finished wine bottles soon reflected. As word of his winemaking prowess got around, he started crafting vino for friends in Yakima, typically from grapes grown on small side plots on their farms.

Meanwhile, in his Spokane-based day job, Robert rose to the level of fire-crew captain, eventually spending more than a decade fighting wildfires across the PNW. As the years went by, however, he and his wife, Amy, a Yakima native and fellow Eastern graduate whose family boasts deep ties to the university, began thinking about returning back home. Perhaps, they thought, they could make wine professionally. Having their first child helped accelerate the process.


So we looked at the property — it was just around the corner from where Marcus grew up — and we were like, ‘Well, it does have a really cool old building. But what would we do with it?’” For his part, Robert recalls, he wasn’t at first convinced there was anything to be done with it.


“My parents lived there,” says Robert. “Amy’s parents lived there. It was just like, a no-brainer. We wanted our kids to grow up around their families.” So when Amy ’03 heard about a listing for an historic, picturesque apple-packing warehouse near where they’d grown up, she and Robert were intrigued.

“In the process of our moving back,” Amy says, “my dad’s friend approached him and said, ‘Well, there’s this piece of property that’s been for sale before, and now it’s kind of in limbo. But I think the bank would be interested in getting rid of it.’ So we looked at the property — it was just around the corner from where Marcus grew up — and we were like, ‘Well, it does have a really cool old building. But what would we do with it?’”

For his part, Robert recalls, he wasn’t at first convinced there was anything to be done with it.

“The windows were shot out, probably because I shot them out when I was a kid,” he says with a laugh. “And it was full of trash and everything else. But we made an offer on it, and got the land, the building and everything with it.”

Today the apple warehouse is beautifully restored and home to the Robert’s Fontaine Estates Winery, a boutique production facility and event space. Robert still makes wine for the Fontaine label, while Amy manages events. Due to the vagaries of fine wine making and, especially, the burdens of distributing and marketing retail wines, it is now the event side of the business that predominates.

“We were booking stuff and were otherwise about as busy as I wanted us to be,” says Amy. “So we decided that maybe we were at that place where the event part of it was the thing to focus on, rather than trying to do the wine tastings and getting people out here to buy wine. So we shifted that focus and really dug into the events, primarily weddings.”


Which makes good sense, given the size, scope and growth of Tieton Cider Works. And as the business has grown, so has Robert’s reputation.

Over the past decade, in fact, Robert has established himself as a key player in a national cohort of cider makers who have captured the imagination and allegiance of America’s next-generation imbibers, especially younger adults aiming to expand their food-friendly drinking options.

The Robert family, from left: Elise, Amy, Genevieve, Marcus and Marceil.

Last year, according to statistics compiled by Beverage Industry magazine, retail U.S. hard cider sales topped $474 million, with more than 10 million cases consumed by thirsty consumers. Much of the energy in the “cider segment,” the magazine said, was driven by the type of creative flavor offerings — ciders featuring blends with apricot, peach, raspberry and other fruits — that have long driven Tieton’s selections.

Robert doesn’t take credit for inventing these creative infusions. But his early, and successful, embrace of expanding cider’s boundaries has made him something of an inspiration to many of his fellow cider makers. You might even say he’s a celebrity in cider circles. 

“He really has just learned and grown and amassed this huge knowledge base on cider,” says Amy Robert. “I think it was in 2014 that we went back East to a big cider festival with Craig and Sharon. It was just crazy. There were all these people there who knew exactly who Marcus was, all because of the things he was doing at Tieton.”

As a current board member of the American Cider Association, Robert is still working to extend cider’s reach, says Michelle McGrath, the council’s CEO.

The ACA was founded in 2013, McGrath says, with the straightforward goal of growing and protecting the cider industry. “Like most associations,” McGrath says, “we’re really focused on education and advocacy… We are working really hard to help the hospitality and wholesaler industries learn more about cider, so that they will embrace the category with open arms and understanding.”

Robert came on board in 2016, just after McGrath became its leader. As someone with a background in promoting value-added options for farmers, she says, she immediately recognized Robert as a uniquely positioned asset: “For a long time, Marcus was one of the sole grower voices on the board. And definitely he’s the largest orchardist on the board. So Marcus is in an interesting position, because he represents the grower-maker, but he also runs a retail-driven cidery that is doing very well in the regional market.”

“He’s been especially helpful in thinking about how to create value for the association and for our members,” she adds. That value, she continues, is centered around helping cider — that ancient, once almost forgotten beverage — further establish itself among a young, diverse set of consumers.

“Flavorful, fruit-forward, bubbly, convenient, fun, non-pretentious, health conscious: These are all things that are driving the beverage trends these days,” says McGrath. “Cider checks all of those boxes, with the additional box that none of the other categories have: It’s made from natural whole ingredients, and it has an agricultural story.”

An agricultural story: The land, the soil, the climate. These are the things, says Robert, that make the Yakima Valley unique, and make Tieton cider so special. It’s also why he always knew, somehow, that he’d be coming back to the orchards.

“I grew up here,” Robert says. “Up the road in Naches. I’m a fourth-generation orchardist. I was raised on an orchard, and I still own and operate that orchard. About 60, maybe 70 acres of apples and pears and peaches. That’s something you inherit from your parents, these places, these ties to the land.”


— Want to visit Tieton Cider Works? Their child and pet-friendly tasting room is located at 619 West J Street in Yakima. It is open on Fridays and Saturdays from noon – 8 p.m., on Sundays from noon – 5 p.m.