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The newest darling on the artisan beverage market is hard apple cider.
“Pale, dry, and lightly effervescent with complex notes of fruit, floral and lingering spice.” Though this description could apply to sparkling wine or even beer, it does, in fact describe attributes of the newest darling on the artisan beverage market: hard apple cider.
Though the word has often been used by Americans to connote a sweet-spiced juice, traditional cider is a spirit made from fermented apples. It’s a unique beverage—similar to beer in alcohol content but akin to wine in its processing and high fruit composition.
The recent rise of cider popularity in the United States is a phenomenon that wouldn’t surprise Europeans, who’ve consumed it for centuries. The beverage first arrived in this country in the 1600s, introduced by British colonists (who were also responsible for planting the first cider orchards on the East Coast). In those days, cider was a staple drink at all daily meals. Some estimates put average consumption as high as 32 gallons per person, per year. But the drink fell out of fashion at the turn of the 20th century after German immigrants introduced beer, and it fizzled completely when Prohibition passed in 1919.
Recently, cider has enjoyed an unprecedented comeback, fueled in part by consumer-driven interest in small-batch artisan beverages, as well as its “gender-neutral” appeal to both women and men. Cider is also gluten-free, which makes it accessible to those with sensitivity to wheat (a primary ingredient in beer).
Industry reports estimate about 5.6 million cases of hard cider were sold in the United States in 2011, bringing in around $90 million (up 31 percent from 2010), and that figure jumped a whopping 70 percent nationwide in 2012. Statistics indicate this trajectory outpaces reported growth of both the wine and craft beer markets during that same timespan.
Such figures have attracted the attention of commercial beverage producers like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, which recently launched their own cider brands. In the North Bay, 15-year-old veteran Ace Cider
, produced by the California Cider Company in Sebastopol, has won numerous awards and is the largest family-owned cidery in the country.
Thanks to its success, Ace has paved the way for other North Bay cidermakers to take the leap. These smaller craft producers are distinguishing themselves as true beverage artisans by turning their locally grown bushels into barrels of fermented deliciousness and reviving this region’s rich apple heritage in the process.
Apple Sauced Cider
It’s really not surprising that Jolie Devoto Wade knows a lot about apples. She grew up roaming the organic orchards of Devoto Gardens
, her family’s 20-acre farm situated in prime apple growing territory near Sebastopol. In this idyllic rural setting, she and her two sisters learned the family business from the ground up, spending countless hours in the field picking apples and packing fruit while listening to their father talk about the nuances of different apple varieties.
For the past 37 years, Devoto Gardens has flourished—partly because the region’s acidic terroir and foggy coastal climate are perfect for producing the farm’s apples, specialty cut flowers and Pinot Noir grapes—and partly because patriarch Stan Devoto has cultivated more than 50 unique and rare heirloom apple varieties there.
From the beginning, the family farm and orchards resonated with middle daughter Jolie, who felt like she was living in paradise. “In the back of my mind, I think I always knew I’d come back here one day,” she says.
She attended college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, majoring in agritourism and minoring in wine. At the time, the Central Coast was blossoming into California’s newest Wine Country, and Devoto got a job working weekends at family-owned Thacher Winery in Paso Robles. There, vintner Sherman Thacher first encouraged her to consider brewing hard cider from her family’s organic apples. The notion intrigued Devoto, but it wasn’t until after college, when she returned to the Bay Area and met husband-to-be Hunter Wade, that the idea began to take shape.
Wade hailed from Maryland, where he grew up on a grass-fed beef ranch. He’d just moved to San Francisco after spending two years teaching English in Spain. While there he had discovered that country’s rich cider culture. Five months after they met, he persuaded Devoto to return to Europe with him for an internship at a biodynamic winery in Tuscany.
With cider in mind, the couple eventually found their way to Spain’s rural Asturias province, where a thriving cider culture has existed for centuries. The region’s farmers grow thousands of unique apple varieties—many virtually unknown in the United States—that are perfect for cidermaking.
“Spanish cider is incredible,” Devoto reflects, reliving the experience. “It’s still, cloudy and almost tastes like apple cider vinegar. You feel like you’re drinking a health remedy!”
In the city of Oviedo, which is world-renowned for cider, Devoto and Wade found thoroughfares lined with cideries, where townspeople gather at night to socialize over a glass of their beloved beverage. Sitting and sipping cider in one of these ancient establishments, the couple formed a plan to return to Sebastopol and start their own cidery. For the next three months, they immersed themselves in Spanish cider, learning the artistry of cidermaking from the resident masters.
Returning to the states, the couple married last fall at Devoto Gardens, during the height of the apple harvest, and immediately began living their dream of making small-batch craft cider from her family’s organic heirloom apples. Their initial release, Save the Gravenstein under the label Apple Sauced Cider
, received rave reviews while drawing attention to a local travesty.
Once known as a prolific apple-producing region, Sonoma County’s apple industry steeply declined over the years as established orchards were replaced by winegrapes. The local Gravenstein, an heirloom apple variety first planted here in 1811 by Russian fur traders, once occupied 13,000 to 16,000 orchard acres in its heyday. Now, those orchards have all but disappeared and today, only about 600 acres of Gravenstein trees remain in Sonoma County.
For Devoto and Wade, the slip of this beloved heirloom toward potential oblivion was reason to sound a battle cry. “We wanted to make a political statement with our first release,” says Devoto, who hopes to attract new audiences to the vanishing varietal. With this in mind, the couple turned 14.6 tons of organic Gravenstein apples from Devoto Gardens into 1,100 cases of hard cider.
“It was a big risk considering we didn’t know if there was a market for our product,” she reflects. “Some people thought we were crazy to make so much at the outset. But in hindsight, we wish we’d made 10 times more. People loved it!”
Loved it indeed. The first production sold out completely within weeks and earned the couple a bronze medal at GLINTCAP (Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition). Devoto credits the cider’s dry style, low carbonation and unfettered apple flavor with its success. “It’s lighter in alcohol and pairs really well with all kinds of food,” she shares with pride.
She likens the process of cider making to winemaking, but with a bottling process like beer. Each small batch is crafted by grinding, pressing, blending and fermenting the apples in cool, stainless steel barrels for three months to preserve the cider’s crisp, bright characteristics and dry-to-semidry finish. The result is a sweet-tart, lightly sparkling beverage with hints of honeydew melon, lingering spice and a taste that’s true to its raw apple origin.
Fueled by last year’s success, the couple has big plans to increase production and expand their product line this season. In addition to another release of Save the Gravenstein under their Apple Sauced Cider label, the pair is adding a mid-season cider called 1976, which blends 17 of the original heirloom varieties planted by Jolie’s parents almost 40 years ago. There’ll also be a bold, late-season Cidre Noir (“black cider”) made from a blend of five unique heirlooms (Black Jonathan, Arkansas Black, Black Twig, Black Oxford and Kingston Black apples). These last two releases will debut under the cidery’s new label, Devoto Orchards Cider. “We’re still experimenting and always will be,” Devoto says. “We want our product to be a really good representation of our apples.”
Starting their business hasn’t been without its obstacles. The exorbitant cost of obtaining onsite licensing and processing permits, along with other compliance requirements, puts the startup cost to produce cider in Sonoma County at around $100,000. Devoto and Wade are lucky in that her family already owns one of the last commercial apple farms in the area, which saves them the high cost of renting or buying land suitable for growing orchards to sustain their cidery.
Despite these challenges, Devoto says she hopes to see more producers entering the craft cider market. Come what may, they’re in for the long haul: “There’s definitely a customer base out there…and it’s growing!” she says enthusiastically. “I plan to stay here and buy this farm from my parents one day.”
AppleGarden Farm Cider
For Jan and Louis Lee, the road to becoming cidermakers is a story of reinvention in retirement.
The Lees spent more than 25 years as construction managers in the commercial construction industry, managing field-based projects in the Sacramento Valley and along the West Coast. The couple met on the job and discovered that, in addition to their careers, they shared rural farm upbringings and a mutual passion for growing things.
“We always knew we wanted to live in the country again,” Jan reflects, acknowledging that constant travel for work strengthened the desire to put down roots. “For us, this new phase was about seeking a simpler lifestyle, growing much of our own food and finding a way to make it all work.”
In 1989, the couple moved to the small West Marin coastal community of Dillon Beach. But they never lost sight of their dream of acreage and a farm property. Six years ago, they found the right property, purchasing 3.5 acres of bare farmland about three miles outside the nearby town of Tomales. Considering how to best use the space, the Lees finally settled on growing cider apples. “Everyone else was focused on grapes and we wanted to do something different,” Jan shares reflectively adding, “and we like apples!”
With cider’s star on the rise, they knew making a value added product would be far more profitable than selling market variety apples by the pound. With an eye toward managing production, they planted two acres of organic orchard with early, medium and late harvest “old cider” varietals, then patiently bided their time while the trees reached fruit-bearing maturity.
Before beginning initial production, Jan attended a two-week cidermaking workshop at the University of Washington to learn the process and alchemy for creating a successful product. The couple also invested in equipment, including a temperature-controlled storage unit and an old-fashioned Correll wood press used to crush and extract juice from the fruit.
As they’d hoped, the farm’s coastal microclimate proved perfect for growing apples. And after three years of experimentation to perfect the recipe, the Lees produced their first 75 cases of AppleGarden Farm
Hard Cider last year.
“We start harvesting in August and handpick in intervals until mid- to late October,” shares Jan, noting they do all their own processing onsite. Last year’s harvest tallied around 8,000 pounds of fruit, while this season’s yield is expected to come in between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds.
The Lee’s fermented cider matures for six months in stainless steel before it’s pasteurized and bottled. The resulting, pale gold cider has a lush, round mouthfeel. “It’s incredibly drinkable and beautifully compliments cheese, meat and BBQ oysters. But be careful,” Jan cautions with a smile, “It can sneak up on you!”
The couple’s heirloom trees now number in excess of 300 and include more than 30 unique cider varietals like Stayman Winesap, Roxbury Russet, Kingston Black, Tremlett’s Bitter, Nehou and Wickson, along with several types of crabapple trees. “We use a lot of high tannin crab apples and fewer sweet apples in our cider, which gives it delicious tart notes,” says Jan.
Marketed primarily as a “picnic beverage,” last year’s limited release sold at targeted local West Marin venues including the Marshall Store, Cowgirl Creamery
, Perry’s Inverness Grocery and the Tomales Store Delicatessen. This year’s release will be available at all the same retail locations plus the Marin French Cheese Company
and Olema Inn’s upscale new Sir & Star
Jan’s background as a project manager prepared her to deal with licensing and regulatory constraints that inhibit other hopeful farmstead producers. “We made our operation fit the regulations and not the other way around,” she explains.
This fall, the Lees plan to double production and release about 150 cases of their AppleGarden Farm Cider. True to their artisan concept, they aim to keep production small and locally focused. “We don’t plan to make more than 300 to 400 cases per year, max,” says Jan, raising a glass of her cider to examine the pale, amber liquid. “We do one product and we do it really well. For us, it’s all about quality, not quantity.”
Tilted Shed Ciderworks
Making craft cider is a long way from the frenetic world of publishing that Ellen Cavalli used to inhabit. But that’s just the path she and husband Scott Heath, both East Bay natives, chose when they started Tilted Shed Ciderworks on almost five-and-a-half acres along Gravenstein Highway outside Sebastopol.
Much of their 17-years together had been spent bouncing back and forth between the East Coast and New Mexico to pursue their careers—she a long-time book and magazine editor, he a master printer of fine art etchings. Despite their “nomadic” lifestyle, they dreamed of putting down roots, connecting with the land and growing their own food.
By 2005, both Cavalli and Heath had quit their jobs and the couple moved to New Mexico. In 2006, they settled in Dixon, N.M., a well-known apple-growing region, and began freelancing and growing organic vegetables for the local farmers’ market. The following year, Ellen gave birth to their son, Benny.
As fate would have it, the property had an apple orchard that produced a bumper crop that first fall. After eating and canning all they could, Scott came up with the idea of making cider to deal with the surplus. He got a good deal on a barrel press and, together, the pair set to work grinding and pressing the fruit, letting the juice ferment slowly in their barn during the cold winter months. The finished cider was unlike anything they’d ever tasted. “It was dry, lightly effervescent and not overly sweet,” Ellen recalls excitedly.
That was it. They were hooked.
They started educating themselves about cider and tasting examples wherever they could. Meanwhile, they continued experimenting as their hobby grew into an obsession. But it wasn’t until 2009, while visiting family in Napa, that the idea to start a business took hold. “We missed California and we wanted to be closer to our families,” says Ellen. “While on a visit to family in Napa, we drove past all the wineries and Scott said, ‘We should start a cidery!’”
Intrigued by the idea, they began looking at real estate and eventually found their dream property on the fringe of west Sonoma County, between Forestville and Sebastopol. “This region has the cool marine influence and loamy soil that’s perfect for growing apples,” she says, noting the ideal conditions for making both great Pinot Noir and cider exist here. They purchased the acreage, which came with a dilapidated farmhouse, several old chicken coops and a few apple trees, packed up their belongings and made the move in 2010, launching Tilted Shed Ciderworks
less than a year later.
First on the list of “to dos” was planting an orchard with more than 60 rare apple varieties, many developed in England and France expressly for cidermaking. “A lot of our apples have names that sound like characters from Downton Abbey,” Cavalli laughs, noting with pride that Tilted Shed uses 100 percent Sonoma County fruit, most of which is certified organic, in its product.
“Our cider has a sophistication, structure and taste that sets it apart,” she says. “That starts with our apples.” According to Cavalli, tannin content plays the most important role. “We use bittersweets and bittersharps, as well as crossover heirloom to create the different character notes we’re looking for in our finished ciders,” she says, pointing out that cider apples aren’t good for eating, but transform when fermented.
Blending is also key. “There’s an art and science to balancing the dryness, acidity and aromatic elements that make our finished product truly memorable,” she reflects. “Rarely does a superior cider come from using one single apple variety.”
Last summer, Tilted Shed introduced three blends, all from the 2011 harvest, at the Gravenstein Apple Fair in Sebastopol. The modest, 120-case release debuted at three Bay Area locations (two retail, one restaurant) and promptly sold out. Its January Barbecue Smoked Cider features pear-wood smoked heirloom apples. Graviva! Semidry Cider showcases a blend of local Gravensteins and heirloom varieties and won a silver medal at the 2013 Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition.
Its “super limited” batch, Lost Orchard Dry Cider, is described as exceptionally food-friendly and unexpectedly complex with a savory, funky finish. The year will culminate with the soon-to-be released Barred Rock Cider, which combines late-harvest heirlooms with bourbon-barrel aging to produce a plush, earthy beverage.
“Our ciders taste a little different every year,” Cavalli shares. “It’s not a formula product. The flavors depend on growing conditions, which affect acidity and tannin content in the apples.”
When all was said and done, Tilted Shed produced around 700 cases (in a mix of 375ml and 750ml bottles) of cider during 2012, nearly quadrupling production, and its retail accounts have grown from three to around 25.
Still, the couple plans to keep production small. “I like to say ‘human scale,’ which distinguishes it from a factory or industrial process” says Ellen. “This is a mom-and-pop operation. Our cider is a seasonal product, and the process involves intense, hands-on labor with no shortcuts.” Though they’ve upgraded to a hydraulic press, she and Scott still makeup the cidery’s entire workforce.
Three years into their new life, Cavalli and Heath are putting everything on the line. “Initially, we fell into this because we love cider,” says Ellen, “but we’re committed to building a vibrant culture here.”
As a member of the Sonoma County Beer, Cider and Spirits Conference
planning committee (organized by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board
), Cavalli is doing her part to overcome hurdles for industry growth. “Through the EDB conference, we’re working to brand Sonoma County as a destination for non-wine craft beverages. There’s a marketing component in addition to regulatory and financial issues,” she says.
By working to address current permitting and regulatory restrictions that present challenges to small producers, she hopes to attract more tourists and commerce to the county. On November 12, the county will host the first Sonoma County Beer, Cider and Spirits Conference, a forum designed to help craft producers prosper by connecting them with resources that offer financial incentives for small business.
“We believe cider can transform the apple growing industry in this region and put Sonoma County on the map along with its wineries.” says Cavalli. “Sonoma County has what it takes to become the premier region for cider production.”
Karen Pavone is a writer, photographer, blogger (www.farministasfeast.com) and passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture. She lives with her family in Novato, California.