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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.

“The cider varietal apples are really like a spice rack for us,” said Lawton, who also operates a preschool in San Francisco.

He is bullish on Sonoma County because of its rich history of apple-growing; in the 1930s and 1940s it was a mainstay crop, with about 15,000 acres devoted to the fruit. In 2015, there were 2,229 acres of orchards, a figure that has remained constant in recent years.

The cider sector should learn from the now dominant wine industry in Sonoma County, Lawton said, and focus on different varietals as well as the regions and microclimates where the apples grow best, to lure tourists here.

“It’s the connection to terroir. We need to make it like the wine guys do,” Lawton said. “It’s the ability to connect to people. I want to have them come to Ned’s farm and make that connection.”

His long-term plan is to have a tasting room on his orchard, similar to the way many wineries have wine tasting rooms on their vineyard property.

While the cidermaking process may be similar to winemaking, local producers are selling the drink more like beer, with taprooms becoming more common.

At Golden State Cider in Sebastopol, co-owner Jolie Devoto-Wade said about 30 percent of her company’s sales come from on-premise accounts at bars and restaurants, as more and more establishments make room for cider taps next to the beer handles. In San Francisco, there is even one pub, the Upcider, that has three pages devoted to hard cider on its drink menu.

“There is a large interest in taprooms and tasting rooms,” said Devoto-Wade. “With a lot more Northwest cideries selling products in California, it’s a lot more saturated market than it was a year or two ago.”

Her company, which now has 15 employees as it enters its fifth year in business, expanded into the Los Angeles market last year and has found a receptive customer base. Even with that expansion, Golden State hopes to open up a tasting room locally in the future, especially as its customers become more familiar with its ciders, some of which are dry hopped and barrel aged.

It would join Ace, Horse and Plow in Sebastopol and Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Windsor, all of which serve their ciders on-site.

“I keep drawing the conclusion that cider is where the beer industry was 15 years ago,” Devoto-Wade said.

While the growth has been welcome, it hasn’t come without some challenges, most notably and recently from regulators. The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has a new interpretation of the definition of hard cider that has caused some consternation.

The new regulation states that if cider includes honey, hops, spices and pumpkin, it will continue to be taxed at the current rate of 22.6 cents per gallon. But if fruit juices — with the exception of pears — are added, the cider will be taxed as fruit wine, at $1.07 per gallon.

That change had enormous consequences for Ace Cider and its parent company, California Cider. Its pineapple brand has become a top seller and now accounts for about 50 percent of the company’s sales, said Jeffrey House, founder and president.

The federal agency wanted House to pay $1.7 million in back taxes from three previous years, but he was able to agree to a settlement earlier this year to pay $450,000. From now on, he must allocate $100,000 a month to pay additional taxes he previously didn’t pay. He is lobbying for a change at the federal level, specifically for a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, that would provide tax relief for smaller craft producers of various alcoholic beverages.

“If this category wants to grow, you will have to have some reduction in cider taxation,” House said. “How can you put pineapple in a beer, like Ballast Point does, but they don’t pay?”

Regardless of the tax dispute, House said his brand is growing at a volume rate of 30 percent annually and saw about $12 million in sales in 2016.

Overall, the change in cider’s definition will be most visible in taprooms like Sonoma Cider, which is one of only a few that also has a kitchen and serves food.

At Sonoma Cider’s new Healdsburg taproom, the drink menu features a wider variety than its offerings available for retail: apple, pear, bourbon and sarsaparilla vanilla. A recent offering included “Bananaweizen,” consisting of apple juice fermented with bananas and the yeast used in hefeweizen beer; and the “Jax,” inspired by the Apple Jacks breakfast cereal of Robert Cordtz’s youth with buckwheat, cinnamon and honey added.

“It’s sort of something you are not allowed to do with wine,” Robert Cordtz said.

Another selection, called the “Westcider,” features apple varieties such as bitter Pink Permain and sweet Winter Banana in a blend from orchards at Porque Ranch in the Russian River Valley.

Like brewpubs, it offers a sampler tray. It also has started serving apple brandy cocktails, based on such classics as a Moscow mule and the sidecar.

The food on the menu has been selected to help pair with the various ciders and range from macaroni and cheese to a pork banh mi sandwich, salads and a charcuterie plate.

“The inspiration for the foods are taken from the great cider regions of the world, like Spain and Normandy. It’s all real simple stuff. It’s not pub grub. It’s Healdsburg version,” David Cordtz said.

Sonoma Cider also is launching a limited-bottle series, only for California residents, that will include such unique offerings as “The Imperial,” which is aged in Jack Daniels whiskey barrels with dark honey and comes with a potent 10.2 percent alcohol content.

The strategy is borrowed from craft beer brewers, many of whom, like Healdsburg’s Bear Republic Brewing Co., market elite “club” offerings.

“It’s made like wine, but is marketed and sold like beer,” said Robert Cordtz.

But the duo is also eyeing wine tourists, especially given the taproom’s Healdsburg location just south of the traffic circle, and they figure such visitors will be looking for something different for their taste buds.

“With the millions of people who come for wine every year, some of them are going to wander in here,” Robert Cordtz said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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