Ellensburg cidery receives 2020 SBA Rural Business of the Year award

ELLENSBURG, Wash.—Wheel Line Cider, an Ellensburg-based cidery, has been named the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Seattle District Rural Small Business of the Year.

The public got its first taste of Wheel Line Cider at the Windfall Ciderfest in Ellensburg in 2018, but owner Susie Jensen has been planting rootstock, tending her expanding orchard on Upper Badger Pocket Road, and experimenting with cider making for nearly a decade.

Wheel Line Cider is available at more than two dozen locations across Central Washington, including farmers’ markets in Wenatchee and Ellensburg, and at their tasting room and cider garden adjacent to the cidery.

“It’s very peaceful,” Jensen says of the outdoor space she has created with panoramic views of the Kittitas Valley. “It’s a place to linger.”

The cider garden features oversized chairs made from apple crates and plump pink pillows, rebar garden sculptures draped in hops to provide shade on sunny afternoons, a bocce ball court, a play area for children, and tables for picnics and games. Jensen, a former art teacher who loves to garden and entertain, has worked to create a destination that will attract guests from across Central Washington and perhaps much further.

“Just as a wine enthusiast looks for a Tuscany wine or a Napa Valley wine, I think we can see in the future cider enthusiasts looking for Yakima Valley and Kittitas Valley cider and heirloom orchards,” she said.

Sarah Truglio, a business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) nominated Jensen for the SBA award. Not only does the business provide good-paying jobs in a rural community, she said, but it brings visitors to the region, showcases local agriculture and food products, is committed to environmental stewardship, and has a zero-waste production process. Truglio called it a “perfect rural business.”

Washington SBDC State Director Duane Fladland said entrepreneurs such as Jensen demonstrate the importance of a growth mindset. “Wheel Line Cider has faced one challenge after another, as most businesses do, and keeps moving forward,” he said. “Wheel Line Cider is a great example of rural America’s resiliency and ingenuity.”

Jensen’s family has been involved in agriculture for generations. Her father-in-law created a rolling wheel irrigation system (hence Wheel Line Cider) and her husband, Don Jensen, has been growing Timothy hay on the family’s 300-acre farm for more than 20 years. Jensen’s vision for Wheel Line Cider as a sustainable agribusiness with value-added potential did not start to blossom until after she retired from teaching in 2014.

In 2018 she entered the Enterprise Challenge, a business plan competition sponsored by the Yakima County Development Association and the Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce.

That’s where she met Sarah Truglio, a business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

The Washington SBDC is a network of more than 35 business advisors working in communities across the state to help small business owners and entrepreneurs start, grow, or buy/sell a business. Washington State University (WSU) is the statewide host of the Washington SBDC and, along with the SBA, provides administrative oversight of the program. Funding for SBDC services is provided by the SBA, WSU, and other institutions of higher education, economic development agencies, and civic and business organizations. The SBDC in Yakima is supported by the Yakima County Development Association.

Jensen originally reached out to Truglio for help with spreadsheets and financial statements for the competition, but they’ve continued working together as Jensen has expanded her business.

In a letter to Truglio, Jensen wrote that before entering the competition she didn’t have a business plan, a financial plan, or a mission statement and had been running the business by putting out one fire after another. The assistance she received from Truglio and others helped her develop all three and set up systems that have been a huge help in managing personnel and workflow.

“Each of our areas of expertise is now building upon each other,” she wrote, “and the flow of growing, harvesting, producing a product, and marketing it, now run more smoothly.”

Jensen hired cider maker Chris Sherry in 2017. Sherry has a degree in enology and learned much of his craft in England. Jensen’s daughter, Maryanna Schane, has a marketing degree from Fort Lewis College in Colorado and now handles sales, marketing, and social media.

Over the past year, Jensen has doubled the size of her orchard to more than 1,300 trees of English and French heirloom varietals with evocative names including Yarrington Mill, Somerset Redstreak, Stoke Red, Tremlett Bitter, Chisel Jersey, Muscat de Bernay, Amere de Berthecourt, Muscat De Peppe, Frequent Rouge, and Dabinett.

Despite being the great-granddaughter of Jacob Schmidt—founder of what was once the seventh-largest brewery in the country—Jensen says she has always preferred hard cider.

Her family started out making sweet cider from apples harvested from three old trees that came with the family home in Leavenworth, but her attempts at hard cider failed. “We made great vinegar,” she said, “but we never made hard cider.”

In 2014 she took a hard cider class offered by Washington State University Snohomish Extension and learned that her first problem was the apples. Hard cider is made from bittersweet apples, not traditional eating apples.

At that time, finding heirloom varietals for hard cider was difficult. She spent hours online researching vintage nurseries. A few years later she purchased 100 trees in four different varietals and planted them on several acres of unproductive land at Timoteo Ranch, the family farm outside Ellensburg.

As the trees began to mature and bear fruit, the barn at Timoteo got turned into a cidery with a small tasting room and Jensen purchased a 1970s-era Airstream that has been refurbished as a mobile tasting bar. None of it has been easy, Jensen said, from the drought that ruined a harvest, to untold hours spent getting the appropriate permits for the cidery and tasting room, to cost overruns on the renovation of the Airstream. And then came the pandemic.

But this 70-year-old entrepreneur and grandmother of five is not deterred.

Early in the pandemic she and her team started strategizing about how they could manage losses and build on opportunities. The closure or reduced capacity at restaurants, brew pubs, and tap rooms would mean decreased wholesale orders, so they pivoted to online sales.

Their business model always emphasized outdoor seating at their cider garden on Upper Badger Pocket Road, so they’ve made sure guests have plenty of room to maintain social distance and they’ve added live music on the weekends.

“We have a beautiful outdoor setting and have done everything possible to make it a safe destination,” she said. Even in a pandemic, especially in a pandemic, Jensen hopes guests will enjoy a relaxing respite at Wheel Line Cider. Wheel Line Cider’s 2020 hours of operation are Friday 3-6 p.m., Saturday 2-7 p.m., Sunday 2-5 p.m., and through the summer they plan to have live music on the weekends. For more information about Wheel Line Cider, go here.