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.
“This was just a fun thing because it worked well, and it goes great with our history,” Tracy said. “I honestly didn’t know it was going to be getting into the bottle. ... But once it was in the bottle, it tasted great.”
The refreshing Dutton Estate Cider, made from both Gravenstein and Golden Delicious apples, comes in a beer-sized bottle (500 ml) and is only available at the winery’s tasting room on Green Valley Road.
Just down the highway at Horse & Plow, hard cider makes up only about 20 percent of the winery’s business, yet nearly half of the sales at the new tasting room are coming from the couple’s hard ciders, Hagins said.
Most of the tasters are locals keenly interested in the potential of hard cider to keep the historic apple industry of Sebastopol alive. The couple started making the hard ciders three years ago as an experiment in diversity. The resulting beverages are available at the tasting room, and occasionally at Whole Foods and Andy’s Market in Sebastopol.
“Diversity is a big part of organics,” said Hagins, who sources only organically grown grapes. “One year we had an overflow of apples, and we decided to try cider.”
The couple treat the apples as they would wine, sourcing many old English heirloom varieties for a special Heirloom Cider from their neighbor, long-time apple farmer Dave Hale. They also planted 40 of their own cider apple trees.
“Some are totally bitter and tannic, and you can’t eat them,” she said. “But they are perfect as a component.”
For the apple fair, the couple will showcase the 2015 Horse & Plow “Hops and Honey,” made from six varieties of apples with a hint of floral citrus from the addition of Cascade hops, which are steeped in the cider for 10 days.
“At bottling, we add honey instead of sugar,” Hagins said. “The yeast eats the sugars in the honey and makes a very fine bubble.”
The couple believe that hard ciders can rival wines not only in their quality, but also their ability to pair with food.
“You can pair our ciders because they have good acidity and aren’t sweet,” Hagins said. “Cheeses are easy, and spicy food.”
Hayes, who has traveled all over Europe researching cider traditions, noted that northern Spain and France’s Normandy region have been making cider and cooking with it for nearly 2,000 years.
“There’s a lot of seafood steamed in cider,” she said. “I started using it in cooking because, with the acid, you get brighter flavors.”
The following cocktail is from Darlene Hayes’ “Cider Cocktails — Another Bite of the Apple,” available at amazon.com or allintocider.com. “The Stone Fence is simple and classic, dating back to pre-Revolutionary War New England,” she writes of the cocktail. “Historically, it was a mix of whatever cider and spirits were local. This is one of my favorite variations.”
The Stone Fence
Makes 1 serving
1 1/2 ounces SpiritWorks Sloe Gin
4-5 ounces Tilted Shed Ciderworks “Barred Rock”
Pour the sloe gin over some ice in an Old-Fashioned glass, then add the cider and stir gently to combine. Add a twist of lemon peel if you’re feeling fancy.
You can use 11/2 pounds of fresh artichokes for this appetizer, cleaned and cut into quarters. But it’s much quicker to use the frozen hearts.
Makes about 3 cups
8 ounces frozen artichoke hearts
1 large clove garlic, peeled
2 sprigs fresh parsley
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 lemon, cut into eighths
1 1/2 cups hard cider
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup good fruity olive oil
Thaw the artichokes, then put them in a pot with the garlic, herbs, lemon slices and cider. Simmer, covered, until the artichokes are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Uncover the pot, raise the heat, and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in salt, pepper and olive oil.
Chill, but serve closer to room temperature.
Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dianepete56.