These days, Californians seem to be enjoying more and more apples by the bottle instead of by the bite. So, it’s no surprise that the Bay Area just hosted its first Cider Week, in conjunction with CiderCon, an annual conference of the American Cider Association for those in the industry that took place in Oakland last month. Still, despite its popularity, according to several East Bay cider makers and sellers, misperceptions abound about the fermented apple-based beverage, ranging from skepticism to outright sexism.
“In some ways, it’s still a very confused beverage.” — Adam Chinchiolo, Far West Cider
“In some ways, it’s still a very confused beverage,” said Adam Chinchiolo of Richmond’s Far West Cider. “I think quite often that people think of cider like beer, not thinking of how it pairs with food.”
Chinchiolo was an amateur beer brewer before he began making cider on his fourth generation family farm in San Joaquin County, so he gets the misunderstanding. But it’s not a tidy one-for-one swap. For starters, cider is a beverage made of fermented fruit. In other words, wine. And like wine, cider takes much longer to grow, gather, press and ferment than beer. Pilsner, for example, takes two weeks from grain to glass. For cider, it’s three to six months.
The misconception leads many to believe that cider should be served at beer volumes and sold at beer prices, when it is a much more time and labor intensive drink. The first step is to change that outlook, and change that expectation, by rethinking how it’s served.
“It’s certainly better to drink it in a wine glass than a pint glass,” said Chinchiolo, “otherwise it’s a bit like drinking a pint of champagne.”
Chinchiolo finds that people still need some guidance and assurance on cider. So in a bit of cider ambassadorship, last Thursday, Chinchiolo partnered with chef Melissa Axelrod of Oakland’s Mockingbird to host a cider-themed dinner of dishes and pairings.
At the dinner, Axelrod created a menu around Chinchiolo’s products. Her applewood smoked trout salad to go with his Proper Dry cider; braised pork and potato dumplings with Orchard Blend cider. And a Pink Lady apple charlotte (“with lots of butter, and then, well, lots of butter,” said Axelrod) paired with Far West’s Roze.
For someone who describes herself as “not a cider drinker,” Axelrod has been enthusiastic for Far West ciders, and Proper Dry in particular. The cider is a blend of Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Gold Rush apples, and Crimson Gold crabapples — all of which were featured in the evening’s menu. “It’s very food friendly,” said Axelrod.
The dinner was a one-night event, but Axelrod intends to carry two of the dishes forward to upcoming menus at Mockingbird, the braised pork and the Pink Lady apple charlotte. Ditto on one of Far West’s ciders.
Mockingbird has six draft taps, which previously dispensed four wines and two beers. For the dinner, Axelrod swapped out one of the wine taps for Proper Dry, and she intends to keep it that way. Axelrod noted how more people are looking for alternatives to beer, including those on a gluten-free diet. “So many people are gluten-free now,” she said. “Even beer drinkers are going gluten-free.”
At Far West, the entire chain of production, from bottle to apple, is under the gaze and guidance of the same family. Which is a point in common with the majority of cideries that have sprung up in California in the past few years. The majority are small, independent, mom-and-pops or family businesses.
“In many ways, cider production in California is where wine was in the late ’60s, early ’70s, before the Judgment of Paris,” said Chinchiolo, referencing the famous blind taste test in 1976, pitting some of the most famous French wines against then-unknown California wines.
The allusion is somewhat ironic, as the same event that brought the California wine industry into the world spotlight nearly tanked in-state apple production.
“Historically California has been a great region for growing apples,” said Olivia Maki of Redfield Cider Bar & Bottle Shop in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood. “Before wine was really known, apples were really what Sonoma was known for.”
California is in a bit of a cider renaissance, according to Maki. Small, dedicated and inventive cideries are adding co-ferments like stone fruits, herbs and hops to their batches. Maki cites Far West’s ‘You Guava Be Kidding Me’, a semi-dry cider infused with guava fruit, on tap at Redfield, as an example of the kind of experimentation cider makers are trying.
And around 100 new cideries have opened in state in the past two years, said Maki, quite a few of them in the East Bay, such as Blindwood in Hayward, Thomas Brothers in Berkeley and Menacing Fog in San Leandro. Not to mention Maki’s own shop, co-owned with husband Mike Reis, which recently celebrated its one year anniversary.
“It’s an exciting time to be in this industry,” she said. “There’s a growing interest in exploring what cider is.”
Further south, another cider shop also just celebrated its one year anniversary. Dana Bushouse opened Crooked City Cider Taphouse in Jack London Square in February last year, though she has been making cider for much longer, and has a few thoughts of her own about public misperception.
“People think of it like it’s a wine cooler type drink,” said Bushouse. “It’s not sweet and syrupy. It’s not a lady’s drink.”
Though unaware of any thoroughly gendered advertising campaigns — a la yogurt — in Bushouse’s experience, cider still comes with some undeserved and highly sexist baggage. According to Bushouse, because of a sugary reputation, cider is perceived as insufficiently masculine, and so of limited appeal to drinkers who fear ordering one might telegraph something about themselves besides that they just like cider.
“People think of it like it’s a wine cooler type drink. It’s not sweet and syrupy. It’s not a lady’s drink.” — Dana Bushouse, Crooked City Cider
“You run into a lot of people that are just like, ‘Oh I don’t like that. My girlfriend likes that though,’” she said. “And nine times out of 10 when I ask them why they say it’s because it’s too sweet. Cider can be sweet, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a really diverse product. It is legally a wine and it can be as diverse as a wine.”
“If you’ve only had one to two ciders and you’re saying you don’t like it, that’s not necessarily accurate,” said Bushouse. “You probably will like it and you just have to get the right cider in your mouth.”
As evidence to the claim, Bushouse offers more than 30 different ciders on draft at Crooked City, most of which come in 5-ounce or 10-ounce servings (though most come served in pint glasses, poured just a few ounces shy of the top) and in a variety of sweetness: bone dry (dry-farmed Goat Rock Gravenstein), off dry (Bristol’s Cider Manglewurzle, brewed with Granny Smith apples, fennel, and beets), semi-sweet (Two Towns Ciderhouse Ginja Ninja, a blend of apples and ginger), and sweet (Rider Ranch Raspberry Rose, made with sweet Pippin apples, raspberries and rose petals).
The 5 to 10-ounce serving sizes are in keeping with treating cider more like wine, but some customers have offered their own chauvinist interpretations.
“I had this guy come into my bar, who’s in my industry, and he was like, ‘It’s great you have the 5-ounce pours for all the ladies that don’t want to drink too heavily,” said Bushouse. “And I was like, that’s not why we have it. We have it so you can try a bunch of different shit.”
The majority of Bushouse’s offerings are from small, independent cideries. Which means most of her ciders are not nearly as sweet as the ciders that dominate the commercial market — like Angry Orchard or Woodchuck — because the sweeter the cider, the more processing required, pushing it beyond the price point of many small growers.
“Most of the smaller cider makers, especially ones with their own orchards, are really paying homage to the apple,” said Bushouse. “I’m actually finding it hard to find quality sweet ciders, which I never thought would be an issue.”