Comparing apples to apples is never easy, but its always worth the effort. The abundance of great cider available these days is the natural offshoot of a modern craft beer movement that began at the dawn of the current millenium. But in spite of all the savvy cider drinkers now roaming the aisles of beverage outlets, or warming the barstools of local cider houses, far too many Americans still associate cider with a sweet, slightly fizzy fermented beverage.
While most mass-marketed hard ciders (especially those imported from China, the world’s largest apple producer), are made with apple concentrate and added sugars to boost the alcohol content during fermentation, many of todays smaller craft cider producers are now creating dry and subtle ciders that are as unique as the heirloom apples from which they are sourced.
A traditional New World beverage long associated with independence and self-sovereignty, cider was all the rage in colonial America. At a time when it was often hard to find potable water, nearly everyone kept a barrel or two of hard cider in the cellar. With today’s concerns for food-sovereignty, keeping a few cases of hard cider in one’s pantry seems as farsighted today as ever.
California’s Sonoma County has long been home to some of the world’s best apples, so it is no surprise that some of the best cider in the United States is produced in this region. The fog that rolls in every night here helps keep the apples crisp and ripen slowly. As with wine, slow-ripening fruit is a key to flavor complexity. The slow-ripening process, especially in a cool climate, allows the fruits acids and compounds in the fruit to develop the subtle flavor notes which then reappear in the finished fermented beverage.
Ironically, during the last century, untold acres of Sonoma County’s apple orchards were uprooted to make way for the more lucrative grape harvest. Today, with the market for high-end ciders booming, the area’s orchards are once again being planted to apples.
Some Sonoma County cider makers actually produce fruit from trees older than the state of California itself. Over six generations, Gowan’s Heirloom Orchards, have gone from delivering apples by horse and wagon to growing and selling more than 80 types of apples.
This spring marked the family’s 142nd apple-growing season on the family’s 240-acre property in the Anderson Valley on Northern California’s Mendocino Coast. Two of their ciders were recognized as 2020 Finalists for the Good Food Awards that acknowledges among other things, biodiversity stewardship through the cultivation of pesticide-free produce free of genetically modified ingredients. Other fine Sonoma County cider producers include Ethic Ciders, Thistle Meats, Bellwether Farms, SHED, and Spiritworks Distillery.
Another notable Northern California cider from Sebastapol’s Devoto Gardens is Apple Sauced. This single-varietal cider, produced from dry-farmed Gravenstein apples, is made with champagne yeast and quick-fermented to preserve the zesty, tangy flavor of the fruit.