Tilted Shed co-owner’s cancer fight inspires new nonalcoholic cider

“These nonalcoholic ciders make me feel excited about our business again,” Tilted Shed’s Ellen Cavalli said.|

When Ellen Cavalli was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, she made a firm decision not to panic — even though she was out celebrating her 20th wedding anniversary when she received the news.

Cavelli’s older sister is an eight-year cancer survivor, while their younger sister is currently battling cervical cancer. It’s been an unfortunate stroke of bad luck for the siblings, who have no history of the disease in their extended family.

“Neither of our parents had cancer, but given the fact your risk doubles when an immediate family member (like a sister) is diagnosed, I knew my chance of developing it was very high,” said Cavelli, co-owner of Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Windsor. “So I had emotionally and intellectually prepared myself. I’m not saying it wasn’t hard, but I’ve always been good in emergency situations.”

Cavalli felt fortunate to have caught the cancer early, especially during the pandemic when many people were forgoing routine health exams, like annual mammograms.

Surgery successfully removed the tumor and Cavalli is now in remission. But she can’t help but wonder whether she did something to cause the cancer in the first place, perhaps because of her long career in the alcoholic beverage industry.

“Clinical evidence has shown that drinking alcohol can increase certain hormones in women, and the type of cancer I had is fed by these same hormones,” Cavalli said. “Studies also show drinking alcohol can put you at greater risk of your cancer returning. The recommendation was that I have no more than one drink per week.”

A world without cider

As the cofounder of Tilted Shed Ciderworks, an artisan hard cider producer in Sonoma County, Cavalli didn’t even know what “one drink per week” would look like.

“Cider is such a part of my identity because I’ve worked in the industry for so long. But now it could potentially kill me,” said Cavalli, who founded Tilted Shed with her husband, Scott Heath, in 2011. “Not drinking cider was very disorienting. It was hard to feel connected to the business. How was I supposed to run a cider business and not drink alcohol?”

So to satisfy her thirst for hard cider, Cavalli began making low-alcohol shrub spritzers, drinks of sparkling water and fruit-infused vinegar syrup. They were delicious, but sadly, not cider. So she tried to find a dry, nonalcoholic cider on the market.

“I was surprised to discover there were none,” she said. “So Scott and I decided to figure out how to make a nonalcoholic cider that still tastes like hard cider. In the beginning, I just wanted to make the cider for myself. But I’ve been talking to many people trying to cut back on alcohol, especially after the pandemic. So I’m hoping more people can enjoy it.”

The art of preserving complexity

When developing the recipe for their nonalcoholic cider, Cavalli and Heath wanted to ensure the finished product had complexities similar to those in a cider that has undergone the fermentation process.

“Some apple varieties develop new aromas and flavors under fermentation,” Cavalli explained. “Gravenstein apple juice can get hints of stone fruit, like apricot, while Kingston Black (apples) develops notes of baking spice, like cloves. We wanted to make sure these nuances weren’t lost.”

For that, they turned to turned to BevZero, a Santa Rosa-based company that provides de-alcoholization services for the wine, beer and cider industries.

But they also had to figure out which apple varieties would work best for nonalcoholic cider.

“We quickly learned some of the more tannic cider apples don’t work at all because the de-alcoholization process can accentuate acid and tannin,” Cavalli said. “Heirloom varieties like Gravenstein and Wickson do very well.”

This March, Tilted Shed released their first two versions of Ellie’s Non-Alcoholic Cider. The first (a 750-milliliter bottle sells for $20) is produced with dry-farmed, organic Gravenstein apples and Wickson crab apples from Sonoma County. Bright and sparkling, it’s full-bodied and wonderfully complex, with notes of golden apple and clementine.

The second version (two 375-milliliter cans sell for $13) is made with organic dry-farmed Jonathan apples from Nana Mae’s Organics in Sebastopol. It’s wild-fermented then blended with freshly pressed Gala and Honeycrisp apple juice from Apple-A-Day in Sebastopol. It’s entirely delicious.

“These nonalcoholic ciders make me feel excited about our business again,” Cavalli said. “It’s made me realize I want our business to be more inclusive for drinkers of all kinds. Now people can drink our cider without alcohol and it tastes the same, it’s still organic and it’s still made with care and our commitment to the environment. That makes me so happy.”

To purchase Ellie’s Non-Alcoholic Cider or Tilted Shed’s other small-batch ciders, pét-nat, co-ferments and other goodies, visit tiltedshed.com or stop by the Tilted Shed tasting room: 7761 Bell Road, Windsor; 707-657-7796.

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @whiskymuse.

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