As we gird ourselves for the final phase of the presidential campaign ’16, it’s fair to say that we’re all going to need a stiff drink. And, with the harvest of local Gravensteins underway in the west county, why not make it a refreshing quaff of hard cider, a traditional, American libation made from fermented apple juice?
“The history and culture of cider is so interesting, and ties into agricultural diversity and heritage fruit,” said Darlene Hayes, a cider aficionado from Sebastopol. “Farmers that can make a value-added product like cider can survive.”
Generally lower in alcohol than wine (1 to 12 percent) and extremely refreshing, hard cider has been especially popular among Millennials looking for something new and different, as well as folks looking for a lighter alternative to beer.
Here in Wine Country, several wineries have jumped on board the cider wagon, including Dutton Wine Estate and Horse & Plow, which will pour their craft ciders this weekend at the Gravenstein Apple Fair.
At Horse & Plow, which just opened a new tasting room on Highway 116, winemakers Suzanne Hagin and Chris Condos treat their ciders like wine, fermenting varietals separately, then blending them together for balance.
“In their Farmhouse Cider, 12 varieties of apple are fermented separately,” said Hayes, who is putting together the fair’s cider tasting. “I think that shows in the complexity.”
Hayes recently wrote and self-published “Cider Cocktails: Another Bite of the Apple.” She moved to Sebastopol in 2009 and built a house in an old apple orchard. Since then, she has chronicled the rise of hard cider production all over the North Bay in magazines and on her blog, allintocider.com.
Hayes has rounded up an astonishing number of local, hand-crafted hard ciders for the 43rd Gravenstein Apple Fair, which will be held Saturday and Sunday at Ragle Ranch Park in Sebastopol. Her job has gotten easier with the recent expansion of the industry.
“In 2011, the only cider was Tilted Shed in a corner of the wine tent,” she said. “Now I’ll have 11 cider makers in the cider tent, and we’ve expanded it to (include ciders from) Marin and Mendocino.”
Sonoma County’s most venerable cider maker is Ace Ciders, Hayes said. It was started in 1993 by Jeffrey House, a native of the U.K., which boasts the world’s highest per capital consumption of cider. Ace Ciders now makes nine different ciders and will be pouring the BlackJack 21, made from all local Gravenstein apples.
In addition, several local producers who source apples locally will pour their ciders in the newly launched Artisan Tasting Lounge. (Entry to the lounge requires a separate ticket).
“You get a logo glass and meet the cider maker,” Hayes said of the Artisan Lounge, which also will feature a few wine, cheese, olive oil, vegetable and fruit producers.
Dutton Estate Winery in Sebastopol, which released its first cider last month, also will be pouring in the Artisan Lounge. According to Tracy Dutton, the company’s president, the handcrafted cider came about almost by accident.
She and her husband, Joe Dutton, decided to juice some apples for a friend, then threw in some of their own apples. Joe grew up picking apples at his family’s ranch and still grows about 150 acres of apples at Dutton Ranch, along with 1,150 acres of grapes.