For the first time in its 17-year history, the Sebastopol company that makes Ace Cider is about to bring its production, bottling and warehouse operations all under one roof.
The California Cider Company is installing a $250,000 bottling line in one of the metal warehouses that once comprised the old Vacu-Dry apple processing complex at the north end of Sebastopol.
The company previously moved its processing and warehouse there after leaving its former home outside Graton in 2009.
Sales of the company's apple-based hard ciders grew 48 percent in the fiscal year ending June 30. In 2011, sales will reach $4.3 million, said Jeffrey House, the company's president and owner.
It is growing even as the Sonoma County apple industry continues a long, steady decline. In 2010, his company used the juice from 40,000 tons of apples, which is 14,000 tons greater than the county's entire crop last year.
"This is no longer apple country," House said Tuesday. "It's more like Russian River pinot country."
Even so, he said, the area holds onto its apple processing heritage. And House, who buys apple juice from as far away as Michigan and Washington, is considering a special cider made from local Gravenstein apples, similar to a Gravenstein brandy he now sells.
The company makes "hard cider," an alcoholic beverage fermented from apples. It flavors some of its fermented ciders with other types of fruits, including pears and berries. A bottle of hard cider has roughly the same amount of alcohol as a bottle of beer, House said.
First produced in 1994, Ace ciders are sold in 30 states, mostly in the south and southwest.
Locally, the brand can be found in such stores as Whole Foods and Beverages and More, as well as some local brew houses. The company also opens its own pub behind the warehouse at 2064 Gravenstein Highway North from 2 to 5 p.m. each Friday so patrons can fill their 64-ounce "growler" jugs or pick up a keg or case.
The company's Ace Perry, its most popular brand, last winter received a gold medal from the Beverage Testing Institute's World Beer Championships. The company's Ace Joker received a silver medal and its Ace Apple Honey won a bronze.
Sales today are greater in Texas than California, House said, "but that's rapidly changing."
Hard cider makes up less than 1 percent of U.S. alcoholic beverage sales, House said. But it's also the nation's fastest-growing beverage category.
House's company now has 10 workers. He plans to hire five more to run the bottling line. However, with the ability to fill and cap 400 bottles a minute, the line won't need to run every day.
Until the line is ready, cider will continue to be bottled by the Mendocino Brewing Company in Ukiah.
It takes about a month to turn apple juice into cider, House said. During that time, the liquid is filtered and tested for excess yeast four times.
For beer, wine and cider, "yeast is the magic ingredient," House said. But at the right time, it all must be removed from the cider.
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