The sad story of Sebastopol’s Gravenstein apple, twisting in the wind on its short, stubby stem as the crop has dwindled for the past 30 years, has taken a dramatic turn thanks to the rise of the hard cider industry.
Now, instead of tearing apple orchards out for grapes, farmers are planting more apple trees to meet the growing demands of local cider makers who need a steady supply of the acidic and aromatic apples to make the refreshing, low-alcohol ciders beloved by many European countries and newly loved here.
“There’s a revival in the county with the value-added products, which is hard cider primarily,” said Carmen Snyder, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Trails, a nonprofit that cultivates community through farmer-to-farmer and farmer-to-public educational forums. “There are Gravensteins that are being planted right now at Dutton Ranch, Manzana (Products Co.), Devoto (Orchards), and others. So that’s exciting.”
This weekend, Farm Trails will host the 42nd annual Gravenstein Apple Fair at Ragle Ranch Park in Sebastopol. If you’ve stopped by the folksy fair the past few years, you’ll know this ain’t your grandma’s apple fair anymore.
Returning to its agricultural roots, the fair now offers a “Life on the Farm” activity every half hour; a Do-It-Yourself Arena where you can learn how to make your own cheese, kimchi and beer; an array of farm-to-table culinary demonstrations in the Chef’s Tent; entertainment by local hipsters like the Hubbub Club band; and an Artisan Cheese Lounge where, for an extra fee of $25, you can enjoy pairings of local cheeses with local wines, beers and hard ciders.
New this year is the Craft Cider Tent, where the new generation of cider makers will offer tastes of 10 to 20 local ciders made from the Gravenstein apple, as well as ciders made from other varieties. The cool, refreshing ciders are the perfect anecdote to a hot August afternoon.
“People love the cider because it’s versatile,” said Jolie Devoto-Wade of Devoto Orchards Cider and Golden State Cider in Sebastopol. “You can drink it wherever, whenever, and it’s refreshing. It has that nice, crisp acidity.”
Devoto-Wade has been making hard cider with her husband, Hunter Wade, since 2012 from the apples her father, Stan Devoto, has been growing in the west county since 1976. The hard cider company now has 250 accounts in the Bay Area, with 50 percent going to bars or restaurants and 50 percent sold at retail outlets.
The growing cadre of hard cider consumers tends to be young craft-beer drinkers looking for another beverage with a hand-crafted pedigree.
“Eighty percent of the cider market is millennials, 21 to 35,” Devoto-Wade said. “About 50 percent are females and 50 percent are males.”
The couple uses the Gravenstein apples and other high-tannin apples like Arkansas Black, Pippin and Braeburn for their high-end line of Devoto Cider, which sources from Devoto Orchards and other neighbors on the ridge west of Sebastopol. It is bottled in a 750-mililliter wine bottle and goes for $12 to $14 a bottle.
“We use whatever interesting apple we can get our hands on, and it’s a huge blend,” she said. “We wanted to pay tribute to the farm where we live and where we grew up.”
The couple created a more affordable line of Golden State Cider from apples sourced from Devoto Orchards as well as other farmers in California, Oregon and Washington, so that they can produce a cider year-round. It’s made from “dessert” apple varieties such as Golden Delicious, Pink Lady and Fuji. The cider is packaged in cans, and a four-pack retails for about $12.