Montana Woman Magazine | March/April Issue, 2020
When Kira Bassingthwaighte, head cider maker at Western Cider in Missoula, Montana, was presented the Peter Mitchell Award for Educational Excellence at an international cider conference early this February, it was a surprise to her but not to anyone else.
Bassingthwaighte is one of those people who, when asked what she does, could answer a lot of ways. She’s been playing cello since she was five years old and is part of a popular band, West Fork. She runs trail races and plays ice hockey on two different teams. She has a mean palate for scotch and a culinary degree from the highly regarded Culinary Institute of America.
Bassingthwaighte throws herself with energy and enthusiasm into just about everything she does. And for the last two and a half years, that’s been learning the subtle craft of hard cider making.
Bassingthwaighte may be only 28 years old, but her path to becoming head cider maker at Western was a windy one.
Bassingthwaighte moved to Missoula, Montana when she was just five months old, and grew up playing public school sports and spending summers at her family cabin outside Glacier National Park. As a kid, Bassingthwaighte says, her all-time goal was to be a professional basketball player. She topped out at 5’2’’, that didn’t exactly work out.
Her next idea, this one in fifth grade, was to open a coffee shop.
“I guess I’ve always been obsessed with beverages,” Bassingthwaighte jokes.
This dream lasted longer, the idea of food and beverage work striking a chord in her that held. At 17, Bassingthwaighte applied and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America, a prestigious cooking college based in upstate New York. She didn’t want to leave Montana, but she did want the skills to pursue her dreams. So she traded the Rockies for the Adirondacks, the west for the east. She never doubted she’d come back.
Once in New York, Bassingthwaighte quickly discovered she was only the third Montanan ever to attend the Institute.
“I had a lot Montana pride,” Bassingthwaighte says. She never forgot where she came from.
Bassingthwaighte attended culinary school for two years and eventually got a job working in, then managing for a bakery and café. She moved quickly into managing the bakery’s booths at farmers markets across New York City, sometimes over fifty booths in one week. The bakery also sourced fresh produce from farmers at the markets, so she found herself growing connections to farmers and orchardists from all over the state.
Bassingthwaighte loved the hustle of the city— the access to the diversity of food, people, and culture. But she also loved her time meeting farmers. She says she remembers walking through old apple orchards and looking up at the trees. She wonders now what varietals she might have been looking at then, without knowing it.
“I think now about what cool varietals, types of cider apples, I was seeing,” Bassingthwaighte says. “But I had no idea at the time.”
Despite the draws of the job, two years after finishing school, Bassingthwaighte found herself quickly becoming burnt out on the food scene. Despite her dreams of working in the industry, things were not going as well as she’d hoped. She missed Montana and found herself at a crossroads. Get in deeper, or walk away. She needed time to decide.
Through a connection in the food world she now knew so well, Bassingthwaighte got a job in South Africa, volunteering at a bakery outside Johannesburg. And here came the answer she’d been waiting for, albeit not at all in the form she’d expected.
It was hot, she was working long days and she’d just turned 21. So she started drinking cider. Savannah Dry, to be exact. And something in her clicked.
“I remember emailing my boyfriend at the time,” Bassingthwaighte says, “I told him, I think I want to make cider.”
The middle school version of Bassingthwaighte who was obsessed with beverages was back and this time, she wasn’t interested in starting a coffee shop. She wanted to work in the cider world.
After South Africa, Bassingthwaighte moved back to New York but now she knew what she wanted. Her background in culinary helped, but she still had no immediate experience with making alcohol. She started looking into more school, considered a bachelors in fermentation science. But she wanted to move back to Montana.
The answer arrived in beverages of course, though once again not how she’d expected.
There was no cidery in Missoula at the time, but she found a distillery and emailed them, begging for a job. She offered to work at first for free— anything to get her foot in the door. The answer she got back was encouraging. Yes, they’d give her work. And yes, they’d even pay her. Bassingthwaighte booked it back to Montana, eventually becoming assistant distiller at the award winning Montgomery Distillery for the next four years.
At Montgomery, she learned the patience it takes to make high quality alcohol. She says that difference is part of what she’s grown to love about both distilling and fermenting over the years. The food industry, Bassingthwaighte says, is all instant gratification. But alcohol production is more patient.
“You do everything you can to make the best product possible, and then you wait,” Bassingthwaighte says. “I kind of love that.”
She learned, working at Montgomery, that she was correct in thinking she’d enjoy working in alcohol production and fermentation science more than she did in food. Through her work, she developed a good palate and eventually started leading distillery tours sponsored by Montgomery throughout Scotland. She didn’t forget her interest in cider. She heard rumors about Michael Billingsley, who had planted a cider apple orchard down valley from Missoula. She heard he and two friends were planning to open a cidery. Bassingthwaighte kept her ears open but continued on with her work, helping with the distilling process of gin, vodka, aquavit, and whiskey at Montgomery.
When Western first started making cider, Bassingthwaighte applied but didn’t get the job. She’d never worked in cider. She had the enthusiasm and the passion, but her experience couldn’t compete with other applicants.
She stayed in distilling but was realizing that once again she needed a change. It wasn’t until 2017, about fifteen months after she’d first applied, that Michael Billingsley, orchard owner, co-owner, and head of production at Western, got in touch. Bassingthwaighte had just given notice at the distillery. She was planning to move to Scotland, apply to play cello in the Glasgow Conservatoire, and continue in her explorations of the scotch distilling world.
Billingsley suggested a different plan. Come to Western, learn about fermenting cider, and work for them.
Bassingthwaighte didn’t hesitate.
“They took a leap in hiring me,” Bassingthwaighte says. “I was familiar with the equipment, coming from the distilling world, but I learned a lot on the job,”
When she applied the first time, Bassingthwaighte says she told Matthew LaRubbio, Jon Clarenbach, and Billingsley, the three co-owners at Western Cider, that what she lacked in direct experience with cider, she would make up for in her hard work and enthusiasm for learning. If the high quality of cider coming out Western these days and the award Bassingthwaighte received in Oakland last month at CiderCon mean anything, she was right.
The award, called the Peter Mitchell Award for Educational Excellence, is given each year to one cider maker in the industry who is showing particular commitment to professional development, training, engagement with the industry, and leadership. It was presented at CiderCon, the 10th annual conference of its type, which this year hosted over 1000 attendees representing 35 states and eleven countries.
Clarenbach, co-owner of Western Cider, says that even if Bassingthwaighte was surprised by receiving the award, no one else was surprised she got it.
“The award recognized Kira’s thirst for knowledge, enthusiasm, and interest in cider making,” Clarenbach says. “Our success at CiderCon this year really showcased her talent, as well as what we’re doing here in Montana at an international level. We [at Western] got a collective pat on the back this year, which felt really good.”
Bassingthwaighte has been at Western two and a half years now, and her passion for the work is palpable. With Billingsley as her mentor, a growing crew of talented cider makers and access to a variety of high quality apples, Western, Bassingthwaighte says, is something special.
Western is well known around the state for its “easy going” cider, but Bassingthwaighte says what she likes best, beyond the great people she gets to work with, is the variability of her work. Whether it’s tinkering with a piece of equipment, experimenting with a new batch of apples, or checking in on a ferment, Bassingthwaighte says she’s learning every day, which is how she likes it.
“We’re so lucky,” Bassingthwaighte says, “that we have access to Michael’s orchard. Most cideries in the country don’t have access to something like that. It lets us dream big and be patient with our goals. It’ll be cool to see what happens in the next five years, with some new varietals Michael’s planting.”
Bassingthwaighte’s favorite projects at Western so far are the specialty, small-batch ciders that Western is known for, often made with apples sourced from Billingsley’s own orchard.
“We have something for everyone though,” Bassingthwaighte adds. “From our larger batch, commercial ciders to the more traditional, specialty stuff we make.”
When Bassingthwaighte isn’t fermenting cider, you might find her on the local ice hockey rink or cruising the distilleries in search of a good scotch. Perhaps you’ll see her playing cello at a show with her band, West Fork. They’re working on a debut album, coming out soon.
At least five days a week though, at least eight hours a day, you’ll find Bassingthwaighte in the production area of Western, working away on the cider that consumers around the west are growing to love. She might be checking a ferment or moving a barrel, but she’ll be there. Worn Carhartts, weathered sweatshirt, and safety goggles on.
Kitty Galloway is a writer and environmental educator from Missoula, Montana. When she isn’t writing or teaching outside, she can be found slinging cider at Western or finishing up her master’s degree at University of Montana. She’s currently working on a book-length manuscript about healing and walking, and her stories can be found in places like Bitterroot Magazine, Camas Magazine and NRS’s Duct Tape Diaries.