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The cider sensation

Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli are in the second year of production of their Tilted Shed Ciderworks, north of Sebastopol.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/PD
Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 10:13 p.m.

What goes around might indeed come around, but in the case of hard cider, things are spinning a little fast. Interest in this drink, popular in colonial times, created a 70 percent jump in sales just last year, according to figures from the Nielsen rating company.

Though the process of making it from orchard fruit is similar to wine, it's not quite a wine — nor is it quite a beer. It has a lower alcohol level than many wines and less heft than most craft beers.

Produced for centuries in England and France, cider is typically made by pressing and mashing just-picked apples into juice and then adding yeast to start a wine-like slow, cool fermentation. The fermented apple juice is then aged, sometimes in wood barrels, which can add subtle notes of spice and vanilla, just as in wine.

In the United States, hard cider was consumed in great quantities all the way up to the Prohibition era, which drove many cider-apple farmers to plant sweeter apples for eating. Now, it's resurfacing.

The Spinster Sisters restaurant in Santa Rosa carries locally made Ace Cider from the California Cider Company in Sebastopol, and plans to add more ciders to its drinks menu soon.

“Ciders complement a lot of our dishes and patrons particularly enjoy it with our Tea Smoked Pork Belly as well as with the Grilled Korean Short Ribs,” said partner and general manager Giovanni Cerrone. “Ciders are so versatile, we love them.”

The Boonville Cider House in Anderson Valley is another local producer. It uses Pippin and Jonathan apples, as well as Gravensteins, which make up its signature cider, Bite Hard. For the moment, Boonville cider can be bought and tasted in the Boonville Hotel.

In West Sonoma County, the husband-and-wife team of Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli is making high-quality cider at their Tilted Shed Ciderworks. They got the idea after experimenting with cider-making on a farm in New Mexico, but it didn't take long for their journey to veer here. Finding a neglected 5-acre plot near Forestville convinced them this was the ideal home for an orchard and cidery.

“We wanted to elevate the apple to greatness,” Cavalli said. “We were on a search to sustain ourselves through the land and do something really cool, to grow our own drink.”

They now have about 2 acres of cider and heirloom apple varieties planted, with an emphasis on what are termed bittersweets (high tannins, high sugar, low acidity) and bittersharps (high tannins, high sugar, high acidity).

Some of Tilted Shed's favorite types include Muscat de Bernay, a bittersweet from Normandy, and Roxbury Russet, an ancient American cider apple that's sweet yet complex. They also like to use Gravensteins, which were first planted in Sonoma in 1811.

Tilted Shed's goal is to make dry, tannic and complex ciders with just a subtle jolt of fizz. Inspired by the ciders traditionally made in France's Normandy region as well as England's West Country, they also have a New-World twist. Because they are fermented to dryness, Tilted Shed's ciders are often more full-bodied than others.

After their first harvest in 2011, Tilted Shed released three ciders: Lost Orchard Dry Cider, a tannic, very dry cider made from traditional cider apples, delicious with food; Graviva! semi-dry cider, a crisp, off-dry, slightly fizzy cider made from a blend of seven heirloom and cider apples, all organically grown in Sonoma County, and easy to sip on its own; and January Barbecue Smoked Cider, which is made by wood-smoking some of the apples before fermentation — like “drinking Champagne next to a bonfire,” as Cavalli and Heath like to say.

The smoked cider goes particularly well with oysters, crab and other seafood, aged cheeses, sausages, braised meats and grilled burgers.

In 2012, having quadrupled the amount of juice they pressed just one year before, Titled Shed added a Barred Rock New England-Style Cider to the lineup, a more robust cider blended from organic heirloom apples, then barrel-fermented in a once-traditional New England method with brown sugar, molasses and raisins.

Tilted Shed ciders hover around 7% to 8% alcohol (most wines average about 14%) and cost under $15 for a 750 ml bottle; they also offer smaller 375 ml size bottles.

The first of their ciders were released last year at shops such as Andy's and Berkeley Bowl and restaurants like San Francisco's St. Vincent, Backyard in Forestville and the Barley and Hops Tavern in Occidental.

Titled Shed ciders are also poured in San Francisco at Upcider (1160 Polk St., 2nd Floor, upcidersf.com), a good place to try a wide range of more than 40 ciders, including a huckleberry cider from Two Rivers Cider Company in Sacramento.

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com.

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