While there is undoubtedly strength in numbers, sometimes just the power of two is enough to work magical things. From front/back of house pairings and designer duos to sibling set-ups and mom & pop alliances, this series of interviews looks to gain insight into what makes some of British Columbia’s more interesting partnerships tick.
Meet Matthew Vasilev and Katie Selbee of Twin Island Cider. Vasilev and Selbee live on Pender Island, where they make low-intervention apple and perry (pear) cider fermented using native yeasts. Some batches are even fermented in hand-built amphoras made by Selbee using clay harvested from a pond site near the cidery. After having tasted their newest release, From Here III (a blend of heirloom and bittersweet apples fermented in clay), we wanted to get to know the Twin Island duo behind the unique cider and find out how they balance cider making, orchard tending, and business running with such successful results…
Let’s start at the beginning; where/how did you meet? Katie: We met at UBC Farm over eight years ago–I was completing a Sustainable Farming Practicum there and Matthew was a new farm volunteer. We got paired off during a morning kale harvest and bonded over the topic of William Cronon’s essay “The Trouble with Wilderness”…it didn’t take long to discover we had a lot of shared values and a desire to live more off of the land.
How did Twin Island Cider begin? (when/where did the idea to get into cider first start as a shared dream? Matthew: A few months after we started dating, I invited Katie to visit my old family home on Pender Island to learn more about pruning from my aunt Pam, who’s been caretaking the old apple trees there for decades. Holding a pair of secateurs up a ladder, getting into a meditative work mode, I think that’s where the shared dream started. After a few more years of living in East Van, making lots of cider with friends (my brother and I even rented a garage in Kits to house our personal cidermaking operation), I took some cidermaking courses and Katie and I visited farm-based cideries in BC, Washington and the UK–we just knew we wanted this to be our life. So the timing of meeting Pender farmland owners Sandra and Noel in 2015 couldn’t have been better. We were introduced when getting permission to ‘scrump’ apples from an old orchard they own, but they quickly jumped on the idea of partnering with us to open a cidery on their property. In fact their ALR-zoned property was an ideal site.
In terms of the partnership, what are your official roles? Katie: We don’t really have official roles. When we first started the business, Matthew and I envisioned this nice binary–I was “the Orchardist” because I had training in organic farming, and Matthew was “the Cidermaker” because he had training in cidermaking. But we’re both insatiably curious people who love working with our hands, and few tasks in this line of work can be done alone…so we just fed into each other’s knowledge banks and gained experience working side-by-side in the ciderhouse and orchards. Happily our business partners were unphased when I announced I was going to be “the cidermaker” too around year three…since their past careers include running a startup together, perhaps they could see it coming! In daily business certain tasks do default to one or the other because our personalities have an extrovert/introvert lean–like Matthew acts as our sales rep when needed and leads tasting sessions with our helper, Gary…while things like label creation, marketing, and admin typically all to me. But in terms of the actual cidermaking work, we’re “co-cidermakers”.
What is the role of a cidermaker? And since there are two of you, does that role look different for each of you? Katie: Being land-based, we feel “the cidermaker” should be directly managing the crop–for us that means doing the work hands-on. We’re out in the tall, old apple trees around the island many times a year, picking and pruning with our crew of local helpers. Typically we’re also out testing the fruit together, deciding when to harvest. At harvest, both of us are at the mill sorting apples, tractoring bins, blending varieties at the press…deciding if we’re going to macerate, etc, dealing with the juice. Being low-intervention that might mean stirring the juice often to aerate the natural yeasts, or inoculating with a fermenting batch. And then guiding things along–smelling, measuring SG, racking, keeping notes. For these aspects we work interchangeably, but we always both have a good idea of where the batches are at. Because when working with over thirty-five small orchards and countless varieties of apples–plus pears and grapes–harvest is chaos. Our entire production is also natural bubbles, so part of our work is deciding which methods to use: what will be pét-nat, bottle conditioned, or traditional method. For each method, different steps must be taken early on–so amidst harvest we’ll sit down, pull out our ideas for the year and make decisions factoring in experience, logistics and the business goals we’ve mapped out with our cidery partners. But plans still may shift as we taste how batches develop. So it’s a cyclical, nonstop conversation. Our goal is to see both of our palates and technical knowledge reflected in the finished ciders. That’s definitely how our offerings manage to be so diverse without having to lean on conventional tactics like “flavouring” ciders. We’re inspired by different things: I like exploring traditional winemaking techniques to see how they may (or may not) apply to cider (hence our pét-nats and amphora project) and Matthew gets excited about the cider traditions of England and France (hence our keeved ciders and tannic perry).
What is the best thing about working together? Matthew: Sharing our passion about cider has always given us lots to talk about and explore together, and it’s great to be able to geek-out about the same topics as a couple. But that can easily be a negative thing, when we can’t get away from it or put boundaries around our work, so I should say it switches from a pro to a con depending on the day.
What has been the biggest challenge of working together? Katie: On our best days the cidermaking unfolds out of excited discussion…but when the exhaustion creeps in, it can devolve into argument. But that’s because we both have an equally-deep interest (and ego) in the quality of cider we’re making. As long as we give each other fair license to learn by trial-and-error, we both improve–and we can refer back to each other’s successes and failures each harvest season. So even though the work dynamic is more challenging, it does benefit our production quality because we are holding each other accountable and always challenging each other to do better.
What has been the most surprising skill you discovered about your partner by being in business together (something that you may not have appreciated or didn’t know about before you opened a business)?
Matthew: Our experience of running this business together has taught me that Katie is much more willing to take risks than I am!
Katie: Matthew’s “palate” memory has amazed me–he’ll say something like “hmm this wine reminds me of that stewed Italian plum and chicken dish so-and-so made for us three years ago”…I just don’t have such a detailed taste/aroma memory bank (and I don’t think most people do, to be honest).
What is one thing you can never agree on?
Matthew: How much people care about bottle/label aesthetics. I don’t give much thought to it, but Katie is a more visual person. [Editors note: the label aesthetics are stunning].
Katie: At home we totally differ on mealtime goals–Matthew’s a very creative cook so he puts a lot of energy into the finer points even if he’s just cooking for the two of us and our toddler. I’m the “just get some protein on the table” type.
You are parents together, correct? Do you think that cidermaking as a team has taught you anything about parenting as a team? Katie: In these last few years I’ve opted to be the primary parent, so right now it’s typically Matthew doing the daily orchard/bottling work with our helpers, and then he and I discuss and plan in the evenings. Often we’re on the phone to each other a few times a day–I’ll call to remind him of a task, or he’ll call to troubleshoot an issue. I hop in and out of the farm/cider work as my energy allows–and I handle other areas like admin, wholesale accounts and our 320+ person cider club on the side–but I’m “here” for the cidermaking, so we both put in extra effort to stay on the same page with all aspects of production. And we’ve learned to apply this in our parenting: to stay flexible in our roles, we both have to put in the effort to stay on the same page. Discussing how we’ll respond to difficult toddler behaviors in tune is as important as discussing how we’ll respond to, say, a stuck fermentation. It takes extra communication work but saves time and energy in other ways!
What about the other way around, is there anything from your partnership in parenting that you’ve been able to transfer into your business relationship? Matthew: I think it has helped teach us the important lessons like…don’t sweat the small stuff, and don’t respond reactively to problems that arise!
When personal lives and business relationships are so closely tied, it can be hard to see where one ends and another begins. Do you intentionally ‘turn off’ one world and ‘turn on’ another during your day, or is it just a continuation, constantly moving between worlds? Matthew: As I mentioned, it’s a struggle. Especially when you work with living things like plants and fermentation, there’s always something popping up and usually it’s time sensitive. Each year we get a bit better at prioritizing and carving out personal time.
Running a small business doesn’t come with a lot of spare time. It helps to deliberately make a plan to decompress before you crash. When you decompress together, what is your favourite thing to do? Katie: We live on a small island, and we work literally all over this island, so physically getting on the ferry or a boat and leaving it for a day feels like a break. We don’t usually have the time, though, so decompressing often just means getting out for some beach time with our tot.
What about as individuals, do you have any hobbies, projects or practices that you maintain outside of work?
Matthew: We have an array of homesteading projects depending on the season. Katie has been growing heirloom tomatoes for our local food market and home canning, and we both try to keep our home garden up and forage a bit so we can eat in a more self-sufficient way. When I get time it’s a real pleasure to just cook a challenging and interesting meal.
For me, some of the magic of good food and drink comes from knowing where the ingredients came from, who brought those ingredients together on the plate or in the bottle, how they brought them together. The way you produce cider means the story (and flavour profile) is always changing. What story do you see unfolding in the orchards and bottles this year Katie: It’s difficult to “see” and taste the full picture of what we do as we work with so many different growing sites and varieties. I can say that this past year we had more opportunities to collaborate with different people and explore more mixed fruit co-fermentations, like fermenting apples with a range of different wine grape varietals, fermenting perry blends and cider on grape skins, making a piquette/ciderkin hybrid…just getting a bit more fun and freaky, which we enjoyed. I’m actually surprised in retrospect, as we finish bottling our 2021 batches, how few “only apple” fermentations we have this year. Last year many of the old orchards were having a rest year following a bumper crop in 2020, so we improvised with other local fruits and it turned out to be a lot of fun.
Do you have advice for anyone looking to go into business together?
Matthew: I’ve heard many couples acknowledge the wisdom of taking couples’ counselling sessions before starting a business together. But I’ve also never heard of anyone heeding this advice. However, I think it still stands as a very good idea for any two people starting a business, whether life partners or not. In hindsight it would have saved us a few crashes and burns learning communication skills and work/life boundaries.