The new hot taproom in Healdsburg looks like one of the many brewpubs in Sonoma County, with industrial warehouse decor and a hand-written list of drink selections that displays ingredients and their alcohol content over the bar.
But it’s apples, not hops and malts, on the menu at Sonoma Cider’s taproom and restaurant, which opened in the fall.
“We really never had a face to our brand and this is the face of Sonoma Cider,” said David Cordtz, chief executive officer, who founded the cidery in 2013 with his son, Robert, who serves as the cidermaker.
“We wanted to do this from Day 1 to have a taproom, but we just weren’t able to get there because we were building our brand,” said Cordtz.
The new taproom is just one more example of an industry that’s burgeoning in Sonoma County, which now has about 10 cideries. That’s a remarkable figure given there are only an estimated 50 in the whole state.
Local businesses range from young upstarts like Ethic Ciders to Ace Cider, which has been around for more than 20 years, is now sold in 45 states and stands as the seventh-largest producer in the country in terms of domestic volume.
“I think the runway for cider is five times greater than it currently is,” said Bruce Nissen, co-founder of LDB Beverage in Stevenson, Washington, and a board member of the United States Association of Cider Makers.
“Sonoma County has a real high-end ag mindset and vibe to it … Cider’s runway there is certainly longer,” said Nissen, who grew up in Sonoma County.
While the local sector is growing, the overall $1.3 billion national industry is facing stagnant overall growth as sales by the dominant manufacturers in the market have gone flat, according to analysts.
These national brands, such as Angry Orchard — which has more than 50 percent share of the major supermarket shelves, according to market research firm IRI — along with Woodchuck, are primarily known for their soda-like sweetness and carbonation. They’re very different from the more artisanal local offerings, which are made from a wide variety of apples, including the beloved Gravenstein and have a semi-sweet or dry taste almost like a wine.
“If you sort of dissect the market and take out Angry Orchard and some of the bigger providers, then the long tail is small but healthy and growing really well,” said Danny Brager, senior vice president for Nielsen’s beverage alcohol practice.
There are parallels to the beer industry, where large manufacturers such as AB InBev and MillerCoors are struggling as craft beermakers continue to grow their market share.
“Almost like craft beer, they (small cidermakers) need to get their message out and expand their distribution, then they can take on the big guys,” Brager added.
In Sonoma County, many are working on it. For the last two years, Ned Lawton has worked on turning his almost 6-acre apple farm in Sebastopol into a source for his Ethic Ciders. He’s pulling out half of his older-aged orchard and replanting newer cider varietals such as Newtown Pippins, Golden Russets and some bittersweet species from Europe.
He is in the process of producing almost 3,000 gallons at a commercial space in Petaluma.