Cider Country: Hard Cider Makes a Comeback
When it comes to San Luis Obispo County, the drink of choice is usually wine or beer. But a new band of cider makers has emerged from the fray with a strong argument for locally sourced hard apple cider.
“It goes with everything,” says Jac Jacobs, winemaker and cider maker at Kelsey See Canyon. “Just like sparkling wine, cider pairs with everything from steak to sushi, hamburgers to Mexican food. And, it’s sparkling, so it’s always festive.”
Not quite wine and not quite beer, hard cider is tough for many Americans to figure out. Even the word cider is confusing. To some, it connotes the unfermented, unpasteurized juice of apples sold by the plastic gallon jug. To others, it invokes images of something like a wine cooler from the 1980s: saccharin sweet, cheap and weak. But every one of the ciders I tasted from across the county contained below 1% residual sugar. In other words, they’re drier than much of California Chardonnay.
Despite being grossly misunderstood in the United States today, cider was once our nation’s most popular libation. The Pilgrims who came to settle the New World brought apples and saved the seeds for planting. But apples aren’t like people; an apple’s seeds don’t represent the same genetic material the way a child takes after its mother and father. The seeds from the European “parent” apples grew trees that bore unpalatable fruit, too tart for eating or cooking.
These apples were, however, perfect for pressing juice and fermenting into cider. Over time, this grew very valuable to colonists. Into such a culture was Johnny Appleseed born, the 18th century missionary credited with generously planting orchards of cider apples across early America.
Several factors conspired to weaken cider’s popularity in the U.S., including less localized beverage production and Prohibition. But in much of the world, cider remains hugely popular, particularly in the UK, Spain, France and Australia.
“I worked a harvest in Tasmania making sparkling wine,” says Mikey Giugni, owner and cider maker for the brand Scar of the Sea, whose first vintage was 2012. “You know the old saying, ‘It takes a lot of beer to make good wine?’ Well, in Tasmania, it was good cider! Because that’s what everyone drank after a long day. When I came back to the States, I couldn’t find anything like it, so I decided to make my own.”
Necessity was also the impetus for Neil Collins, owner of Bristols Cider. Named after his hometown in the West Country of England, Bristols pays homage to a style of cider that Neil couldn’t find anywhere in California. So in 1994, he began experimenting with small batches of cider until he hit upon the style that reminded him most of home. Since then, he and Assistant Cider Maker Connor Meznarich have created a series of ciders (each named after a real pirate who made port at Bristol) that sell out, year after year. In fact, production has increased a whopping 600% in just two years, all due to consumer demand.
Demand is also strong for cider at Kelsey See Canyon Winery, where, after just a few vintages, Jac Jacobs had to purchase juice from outside the area to make enough cider to keep customers happy. “Our goal is, obviously, to use only local ingredients,” he says. By local ingredients, of course, Jacobs means See Canyon apples.
Long considered the gold standard for apples in San Luis Obispo County, See Canyon fruit is used by all three cider makers I interviewed, specifically Gopher Glen apples. Growing several dozen varieties of heirloom apples with terrifically eclectic names like Lady Williams, Limbertwig and Winesap Stayman, the folks at Gopher Glen Apple Farm have a true passion for their craft that shows in the ciders that these producers make. Giugni’s Scar of the Sea brand has also recently hooked up with Ed Evenson of Creekside Farm, whose orchard includes a corner just for cider apples more commonly grown in Spain and Normandy.
So how do these ciders actually taste? The answer is crisp, clean and only very slightly reminiscent of the fruit from which they originate. They’re also, as Jacobs says, very versatile. While the flavor profile varies from producer to producer, every cider I tasted would be just as appropriate for a summer backyard barbecue with fish tacos or salads as they would at a wintry fireside supper with slow-roasted pork or a fine aged cheddar.
Clearly, that feeling is catching on, as each of these local ciders is extremely popular—and somewhat scarce. See Canyon cider is only available direct from the winery, and Scar of the Sea cider is only had through mail order. Bristols, while the most widely available, is still only found at a handful of venues including 15c in Templeton and Sidecar in San Luis Obispo.
“I think we’re on the upside of a major trend,” says Meznarich. “When we pour at craft beer events, people start out intrigued and walk away feeling like they’ve tried something they really like that’s really refreshing.”
SCAR OF THE SEA
•7% ABV, blend of Gopher Glen apples, barrel-fermented and barrel-aged, left on lees for six months. Strong fruit char-
acter, reminiscent of French cidre.
KELSEY SEE CANYON WINERY CIDER
•10.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), made from a blend of Gopher Glen apples, fermented in stainless steel with oak staves. Similar to a white wine in character.
•Original: 7.5% ABV, made from a blend of local apples, fermented with 100% native yeast. English-style cider.
•Calico Jack: 7.5% ABV, made from Granny Smith apples, dry-hopped with English-style hops.
•Anne Bonny: 7.5% ABV, made from Granny Smith apples, aged in bourbon barrels.
•Black Bart: 7.5% ABV, 100% Granny Smith, dry-hopped and bottle-conditioned with saison yeast. Reminiscent of a classic pils or lager.
•Black Beard: 13% ABV, 100% Arkansas Black apple, fermented and aged in bourbon barrels for 14 months, then bottle-conditioned with a blend of Champagne yeast and Brettanomyces. Complex and multi-faceted.