Why cider, right now? Appropriately for a harvest festival, it's local, made from a wide variety of apples grown and gleaned around Sebastopol, an area that put Sonoma on the map as an apple-growing region before gaining fame for its grapes. In celebrating this uniquely American holiday, it always seems particularly appropriate to go all-American from plate to glass. Save the French champagne (or French ciders) for New Year's; for Thanksgiving, let's toast with what America has to offer. Already planned your sit-down dinner's wines? Well, nothing goes better with the weekend's turkey-and-cranberry sandwiches than a tangy quaff of lightly chilled cider.
And cider, particularly hard cider, has a long but mostly forgotten history as a favorite American beverage, especially during the Colonial era. Settling in the Northeast, where apples, both wild and planted, grew readily, British-born colonists--especially those from the southwest of England, renowned for its ciders--lost no time in pressing and fermenting the juice of the fruit they found, especially since the often bitter and tannic wild apples made the best hard cider. Generally fairly low in alcohol, cider was an everyday drink, made at home and served at taverns.
It wasn't until large-scale grain farming took over the Midwest, along with a influx of beer-drinking German immigrant farmers--that beer nudged out cider as the American drink of choice.
But lately, cider's been having a revival in the Bay Area. There's San Francisco's recently opened Upcider, a cider-focused gastropub in Polk Gulch. At organic heirloom apple farm Devoto Gardens, family member Jolie Devoto just launched Apple Sauced, a hard cider pressed from their own Gravenstein apples.
And Tilted Shed, which started bottling professionally in 2011, now has three varieties in its product line: Lost Orchard Dry Cider, January Barbecue Smoked Cider, and Graviva! Semidry Cider, made from Gravensteins. This past harvest season, they pressed over 1000 gallons of cider, a three-fold increase over the previous year. In early 2013, they'll be releasing 2012's January Barbecue Smoked Cider; the remaining three varieties, including a new, as-yet-unnamed blend, will be released throughout the year.
So, how did Heath and Cavalli end up as artisanal cider makers, tracking down the fruit of abandoned orchards like treasure hunters diving around a sunken Spanish galleon? Blame it on the pickles, the homesteaders' gateway ferment.
Born in Northern California, Heath and Cavalli started homesteading in rural New Mexico, doing some small market farming, always on the lookout for new projects. "We liked making our own food," noted Cavalli, and after pickling and making sauerkraut, making a small batch of hard cider from a mixed batch of local apples seemed like a fun next step. Much to their surprise, their first, casual effort was good. Much better than they expected, in fact, and they quickly "became obsessed" with cider-making.
When they thought about moving back to California, they knew it would have to be somewhere with apple-growing potential, which led them to a several-acre property near Forestville, good land but affordable because the rundown house was barely habitable. Undaunted, they moved in and starting the renovation themselves. The house is comfortable now, surrounded by both spreading oaks and wandering chickens, with a vegetable garden and spindly rows of newly grafted and planted apple trees, the hopes of the future Tilted Shed cider orchard.
One afternoon last month, Scott and Ellen took a moment between apple pick-ups to share some of last year's batch of cider, serving it with cheese made by their friends Joel and Carleen Weirauch, nearby Petaluma ranchers and cheesemakers who trade their cheese for culled apples and pomace to feed to their pasture-raised sheep. On the table are apples of all sizes and shapes, every taste from pleasantly sweet-tart to mouth-puckeringly bitter. There was Porter's Perfection and Kingston Black, bittersweet English cider apples popular in Victorian times; Kidd's Orange Red, an early-20th century New Zealand-bred cross between Cox's Orange Pippin, a classic English dessert apple, and the original American Delicious, first bred in 1870; and Nehou, an early-20th century French cider apple.
The trickiest part of cider-making, says Heath, was sourcing the fruit. It will take several years, at least, before their own trees start bearing enough fruit to supply all their cider-making needs. The challenge, until then, is that the best cider apples--typically bitter, dense-fleshed, and astringently tannic, with many heirloom varieties dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries--have all but disappeared from commercial orchards and nurseries, replaced by sweeter, juicier varieties bred for out-of-hand eating. Pleasant cider can, of course, be made from sweet apples, but, just as wine needs tannic grapes to give it structure, so Heath tries to use a mixture of bitter, bittersweet, sharp, and sweet apples to give his slow-aged cider the desired complexity and depth.
"It's a treasure hunt," said Heath. "We talk to everyone," starting with local nursery Trees of Antiquity, originally the Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery, a longtime resource for professionals and hobbyists alike seeking out romantically named, hard-to-find varieties like Ashmead's Kernel, Coe's Golden Drop, Maiden Blush, Pink Pearl, and Belle de Boskoop.
It helped, too, that they'd moved to a region with a history of apple growing, where disused and abandoned orchards still lingered, untended but stubbornly fruiting in overgrown pastures and forgotten lots, and where local farmers had sharp eyes and long memories for what might have been planted and where. There's also the legacy of Luther Burbank, the agricultural pioneer and prolific plant breeder, who established his Gold Ridge Experimental Farm in Sebastopol in 1885.
It's no coincidence that most hard cider in the US comes from apples grown in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and the drier, chillier parts of the Pacific Northwest. To thrive, many apple tree varieties need the dormancy period provided by a long, cold winter, longer and colder than what the California coast can provide. Discovering what varieties could grow, and grow well, in Sonoma's mild climate became just as important as figuring out the finer details of aging, blending, and fermenting the final juice.
Like all good treasure-hunting foragers, Heath and Cavalli show me photos but won't reveal the exact location of the place that inspired their Lost Orchard Dry Cider, except to speculate that it must have been planted by a would-be cidermaker whose dream never quite came to fruition. Almost hidden by weeds and brush along the Russian River, the unpruned, unloved trees were nevertheless a treasure trove of elegantly pedigreed varieties: Roxbury Russet, Nehou, Muscat de Bernay, and more.
Other apples came from Stan Devoto, himself a devotee of old, obscure and delicious apple varieties. In his orchards grow dozens of heirloom varieties like Arkansas Black, Black Twig, Hudson Golden Gem, and Esopus Spitzenburg, all once reknowned for their complex flavors, now pushed aside in the greater marketplace in favor of the sugary, juicebox-sweet pleasures of Fuji and Gala.
And plenty of practical advice came from Tim and Karen Bates of the Apple Farm in Philo, near Mendocino. Just as Peggy Smith and Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery are the go-to sources for so many fledging North Bay cheesemakers, so the Bates have become gurus for local cidermakers, generous in sharing the knowledge they've gleaned over 25 years as small-scale, hands-on apple farmers and cider makers. (For more on their cider, read this Bay Area Bites post from 2008.)
The local cider-making community is still a small one, especially in the North Bay and Wine Country, where wine and craft beers dominate. This means there's plenty of room for newcomers: Heath will be joining Jolie Devoto and Tim Bates in a panel discussion of Hard Cider: Revival of a Nearly Lost Art at the 2013 EcoFarm Conference on Jan 25, 2013, at 10:30AM.
During Sonoma's apple season--from mid August to late October--Heath and Cavalli process and press whenever a big enough load of apples comes in. It's not always easy, given their numerous other commitments: raising a young son, continuing the renovations on their house, grafting and planting more trees in their two-acre orchard, tending a small flock of babydoll sheep (who will, in future, munch down the weeds between the trees), and meeting the deadlines of their bill-paying work--Cavalli as a book editor, copyeditor, and proofreader, Heath as an artist and printmaker. (The bottle labels' exuberant woodcuts and lettering are Heath's work, while Cavalli handles Tilted Shed's marketing and communications).
Still, the harvest doesn't wait, and so, as soon as boxes of apples arrived, whether scavenged, foraged, or bought from local farms, so begins the days-long process of washing, culling, grinding, pressing, and finally fermenting. It helps that the commercial facility they rent is just minutes from their house in Forestville. Even better, the 700-foot space, once a winery, came with a county use permit for making up to 1200 gallons of cider for sale. "The stars aligned," said Cavalli, who discovered the listing on Craigslist.
Stripped down, the process goes something like this: First, the apples are poured into big black rubber tubs and washed, then spread out on tables to be sorted and culled, removing any rotten or overly bruised fruit.
The apples are shredded in a commercial grinder with a .5 horsepower motor, filling 5-gallon buckets with "a nice fine pomace."
Thick piles of shredded fruit are wrapped in heavy cloth, then each wrapped bundle is stacked one above the other on hand-built racks in the hydraulic press.
Hooked up to a compressor, the cloth-wrapped bundles are slowly squeezed down, amber juice running out. Fermentation, blending and aging follows, stretched out through the end of autumn into the following spring.
For their January Barbecue Smoked Cider, a few apples are sliced and smoked gently over pear wood, then added to the cider as it ages. The result is "the only bottled smoked cider in the U.S.," according to Heath, a tangy, aromatic pour with a hint of smoke to it, just enough of a whiff to inspire a pairing with a good grilled sausage or juicy burger.
Graviva!, a semi-dry cider made with Sebastopol's locally celebrated Gravenstein apple, is a perfect aperitif or dessert sparkler, just lightly off-dry, effervescent and lively.
My everyday cider, however, would have to be the Lost Orchard, complex and fragrant, with a depth of flavor usually saved for wine-priced French ciders from Normandy, home of Calvados, a potent apple brandy.
So happy Thanksgiving, and whether you're smoking or brining, enjoying turkey or tofurkey, raise a glass to drinking locally.