Meet Your Neighbours – Kristen Needham: A Masterclass in Cider

by Jamila Douhaibi | photos by Leah Gray – 

When Kristen saw the 10-acre plot – with its beautiful forest sloping down towards the water, overlooking James Island across Haro Straight to the San Juan Islands and the distant snowy tip of Mount Baker – she didn’t notice the view as much as see a canvas for her to create a heritage apple farm that would become the home of some of the most delicious cider in the province.

Sea Cider, founded and owned by Kristen Needham, boasts over 1,300 apple trees that make up over 50 varieties of heirloom apples. And though Kristen has travelled the world for school and her work in international development and food security, as a sixth-generation farmer, cider was always in the back of her mind. Born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Kristen won a scholarship to a United World College in Wales when she was 17. The purpose of the school was to “engender international understanding,” which was a springboard to her undergraduate degree in economics at McGill, grad school in environmental management and international relations at Yale, and working on food security in Ethiopia.

Having grown up surrounded by apple orchards, Kristen has long understood the hard work that farming involves. One of her fondest, though most challenging, memories was when the family’s 1977 Kabota tractor got stuck in the mud one November. With thousands of pounds of chicken manure that needed to be blended into the soil before planting apple trees, Kristen says “one by one I pushed 1,000 wheelbarrows up the hill.” In comparison, she believes that everything else has been easy!

Moving to Victoria in 1997, Kristen was finding that her career in foreign affairs and international development didn’t sync with having kids and new family obligations. This was part of the catalyst that led her to buying the farmland on Mt St Michael Road in 2004. Celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, Kristen says what started as a modest, “small amount of very good cider,” catapulted after receiving the attention of a cider connoisseur.

A certified organic farm that homes a small-scale cidery with a far reach, Kristen says “we punch higher than our weight category,” selling cider across Western North America, including Alberta, Alaska, and Mexico. Kristen says it “took years to find a blank slate great for growing apples,” but the micro-climate that the Peninsula offers is perfect for this purpose.

“The vision was to change the way people thought about cider,” says Kristen. Moving in the opposite direction to what was once thought of as just a college drink, she is proud that she has created an upscale cidery that doesn’t take shortcuts and sources fruit from Vancouver Island and B.C. farms. Her continued dedication to food security and the environment can be seen in the way she creates her different cider varieties. She designed the Invasion Series to raise awareness about invasive species, with partial proceeds going to support organizations like the Nature Conservancy, Habitat Acquisition Trust and other local organizations working on environmental management and protection. Her newest venture has been the Temperance Series (a non-alcoholic offering), with proceeds going to support organizations involved in mental health and wellness.

To Kristen, cider is more than just apples, it’s also a “platform and voice to engage people” and raise awareness. She has been able to “respect many traditional cider styles with a West Coast twist,” providing cider that has been influenced from the past but also evolves with the future.

Not only community-minded, Kristen has also created a space that focuses on family and teamwork. Kristen’s daughter is the pastry chef and her son works on crop protection in the orchard. Many of the three dozen year-round employees have worked at the cidery for years, and Kristen says that providing staff opportunities for professional development is something she values. Though life on a cider farm is never easy, with the support of the local community and everyone she has worked with, for 20 years Kristen has felt lucky to continually become a greater part of the fabric of the Saanich Peninsula, making cider that she and her community can be proud of.

Shopping Cart