By TOM BENDER

For The Union Democrat

Late last month I attended the Sunset Magazine’s annual “Savor the Central Coast” wine and food event near Paso Robles.

Staged outdoors on the historic Santa Margarita Ranch property, the informative event featured a number of local wine producers, chefs and regional food producers along with a series of demos on several stages. The number of wineries in San Luis Obispo County has exploded over the past decade, and while my focus was on connecting with some new properties along with checking on developments at long-time favorites, one of the more fascinating venues was a panel discussion and tasting on apple ciders. I am not talking about fresh squeezed cider you can share with your kids but rather the fast growing fermented cider that has taken the country by storm.

“Hard cider” is not new to American culture. It was a staple of early settlers in the British colonies. It is reported that, in the 1670s, some New England villages with apple orchards were producing upward of 500 barrels or about 25,000 to 30,000 gallons of cider a year for their community! Even children drank hard cider with breakfast and dinner.

Fifty years later in the early 1720s, it is estimated that several villages in New England reported cider production of over 3000 barrels a year. Cider consumption at the time was not without serious consequences, as whole families suffered from alcohol-related deaths and problems. These problems led to a growth in the temperance movement.

The early 1800s was probably the peak for hard cider, and it is not fully understood as to why its popularity virtually disappeared in the United States by the start of the 20th century. Higher-alcohol-level beverages, such as rum and brandy, were equally faced with consumption problems but did not disappear like cider did. Apples were still an important crop in the U.S., and prohibition eventually became a factor, but it never regained its widespread interest until just recently.

Some think that the immigration of a large number of Germans in the mid 1840s along with French and Italian winemakers here for the California Gold Rush and East Coast expansion lead to the interest in other fermentation processes. Beer consumption skyrocketed in the 1850s, and hard cider sales declined in this country. One might think that improvements in available clean water access also contributed.

Fast forward to this decade and the rapid interest in hard apple cider.

“All one has to do is watch cider commercials to see how the large beer manufacturers are getting involved in its production and want to tap into the growing market. Their promotion (of cider) actually helps everyone in the business,” observed Jack Watkins, owner and cider maker of Sonora’s Indigeny Reserve, our local premium hard cider producer. “We see production doubling at our facility over the next year, and visitation to our tasting room and picnic grounds has also grown two fold over the past year.”

Harvesting more than 300,000 pounds of apples this past year, Indigeny produces three styles of cider. The “Extra Crisp,” their most popular style, is clean, refreshing and sweet, while the certified “organic cider” is less sweet and falls into the drier style that is gaining momentum.

“The recent addition of a blackberry cider has been a big hit, and we are gradually making it available at restaurants to serve by the tap along with our flagship Crisp cider,” shares Jack, who is busy with several other projects too. They also produce brandy and, later this winter, will introduce their line of infused vodkas.

Back to my tasting panel experience.

“Cider is the fastest growing alcohol beverage in the world right now” according to Neil Collins, brewer at Bristols Cider. “Worldwide sales were up 39 percent over last year.”

Collins is from England where cider has never really lost its popularity. He started making small batches in the mid-1990s and now produces a limited line of commercial ciders at his Lone Madronne Winery property that he shares with his wife and sister near Paso Robles.

All his ciders are fermented on the native yeasts and are 100 percent apple juice. He shared a tasting of his most popular cider, a dry example at 7 percent alcohol. He continues to experiment with different fermentation ideas, including producing it in retired bourbon barrels which he sampled that afternoon at the Sunset Central Coast event. He is truly a maverick with that example.

In addition to being bourbon-barrel aged for 10 months, he also introduces brettanomyces to its fermentation. Brett, as it is commonly called, is a key component of “sour” beers and an unwanted bacterium in wines. Think earthy and a bit horsey. This cider is actually bottle fermented, slightly cloudy, and displays less carbonation. With a golden color it is rich, slightly sour and a full bodied 13 percent alcohol.

The panel also included Brendon Cosgrove, a beer brewer at Toro Brewing Company near San Luis Obispo, along with Doug Martin of Einhorn Beer Company, who also represents Common Cider, one of Northern California’s premium cider producers. The three craftsmen discussed various developments and trends in brewing beer and cider.

We sampled Apple Saison from Common Cider, which displayed clean apple fruitiness, slight sweetness but had crispness to balance out the fruity apple character and 6.5 percent alcohol. With 8 grams of sugar per serving, it is less than the large commercial producers, which have upward of 24 grams of sugar per serving and have “natural” apple flavors added in most cases.

While the craft beer movement continues to grow, it would not be surprising to see the craft cider interest grow equally as fast. Experimentation and purity of product will yield some very special ciders.

Sonora-area resident Tom Bender has taught classes on wine in Columbia College’s Culinary Arts program since 1979. He managed the Columbia City Hotel, and its award-winning wine cellar, for many years and now manages a wine bar at a Modesto specialty market. He is also a wine maker. Contact him at wineguy@goldrush.com.

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