The East Wenatchee cidery was started by two brothers, Kevin and Mark Van Reenen, who wanted to make something of their grandfather’s hobby orchard when the pears it produced were no longer profitable.
“About eight years ago, my little brother and I really wanted to try something new and different with the fruit. I mean, we were getting literally $175 a bin for the raw fruit. Prices were what they were,” Kevin Van Reenen said.
At that price, Van Reenen said they could hardly afford to spray the orchard. Besides, part of the orchard was torn out in 2004 — leaving only a dozen or so of the 75-year-old Bartlett trees and two of the Anjou trees, which are over 100 years old.
The idea for cider struck him during a trip to London.
“What I found over there was something I didn’t find anywhere here in the U.S., which was actual fermented pear,” Van Reenen said. “When you have pear cider here in the states, the definition is apple cider with pear flavoring. But they actually had perry over there, which made a supreme amount of sense to me, because I grew up in a pear orchard.”
Van Reenen is quick to differentiate perry from pear apple cider. Most “pear ciders” in the U.S. are apple ciders flavored or sweetened with pears. Actual perry, which is all Pear Up produces, uses pears in place of apples.
“There’s a few companies doing a perry here or there, but still today I’m the only company I’ve found that does just perrys in the U.S.,” he said.
After his London visit, he and his brother began experimenting with making pear cider at home. Kevin worked at Boeing for 11 years before leaving early to make cider full time. Mark worked at Alcoa, and was transferred to Pittsburgh when the Wenatchee Alcoa closed. They began hobby brewing in 2009, and produced and sold their first commercial keg of pear cider in 2014, for a Super Bowl party.
Their company now produces 20,000 gallons of perry per year and distributes in two states. Kevin Van Reenen said he’s in discussions with distributors in Montana, Idaho and Alaska, and expects to move into the Japanese market soon.
The entire operation is on his grandfather’s old property in East Wenatchee. It’s a family business he hopes to hand over to his daughters (the oldest is 3) someday.
But making pear cider, rather than traditional apple cider, has not been without challenges. When they began promoting their products they discovered that most people don’t know what perry is. And they still don’t.
“You’ll notice on pretty much everything that I have currently, I don’t have perry written on it … which is only because I am not gutsy enough to teach the country what a perry is,” Van Reenen said.
Instead Pear Up products are labeled as “hard pear cider.” Van Reenen said part of their job is an ongoing education about perry, its varieties and what makes it so different from apple cider.
“The way that I make perry and apple cider is the same. Pear is harder, I’ll be honest. It’s more finicky, way more delicate,” he said. “The differences for me are quite pronounced. You have a lot more margin for error with apples; they’re a lot more forgiving.”
Pears ferment differently from apples, and they can be more difficult to store, he said. But perhaps the biggest difference is the availability of the fruit.
“I fresh-crush everything I put into a bottle. The best year I had, I had 11 months availability. Some years it will be 10 and half months availability, which isn’t bad,” he said, “but apples, you can have those year round.”
In exchange for managing the difficulties of working with pears, Van Reenen said he benefits from putting out a product that no one else is.
“The reason I get to have a company with all these other cideries out there, the reason I have 85 people in a line at cider fests in Seattle … is the characteristics of the pear,” he said. “The finishing characteristics are so unique, that’s what gives me my market niche, that’s what allows me to have the growth I’ve had.”
That unique flavor and drinking experience differentiates Pear Up ciders from other pear-flavored apple ciders.
“I’m not this genius cidermaker. I picked the right fruit and other people aren’t catching on yet,” he said. “I’ll give myself a little credit; I mean I haven’t screwed it up, and there are ways to screw up pear.”
Van Reenen said that part of their success and growth can be attributed to listening to their customers. An example is the many new flavors Pear Up has introduced based on customer recommendations: ginger, vanilla, pumpkin, raspberry, caramel, blood orange, pineapple and hops, to name a few. But the award-winner and most popular is the “mortgage-paying” watermelon flavor.
“I do the cider making because I get to see people drinking it. And a lot of what we’ve done is because people have enjoyed ciders with me and let me know what they like,” he said. “It’s kind of an interactive company. I’ve gotten where I am today because of other people’s feedback and participation.”
Article by Holly Thorpe, Foothills Magazine