Got Cider? visitors ask at the 2016 Gravenstein Apple Fair
Got Cider Past
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” the proverb goes. And when life gives you apples, make apple pie, apple juice, applesauce, and apple art. Moreover, now more than ever before, you make hard cider. “Got cider?”, people often ask, especially here at the 2016 Gravenstein Apple Fair in Sonoma County.
Once upon a time, I made my own cider in my own kitchen. I bought fresh-squeezed apple juice from Apple-A-Day Ratzlaff Ranch in Sebastopol, once the heart of the Gravenstein apple empire. I drank some and then let the rest sit and age. The natural fermentation process took place and low and behold I had an alcoholic and a carbonated beverage that I loved.
My earliest memories of Sonoma County are entwined with apples: the smell, and the touch of them: the skins, the seeds and the sweet/tart taste of the fruit itself. I still remember the way that Graton, Sebastopol and Occidental smelled like apples from August to October. It wasn’t always a pleasant aroma, but one accepted it, just as one accepted the smell of a dairy farm.
I remember reaching up and picking apples from the trees, as well as gathering windfalls from the ground. In the 1970s, some of the first farmers I met — like Benedict Sobler – as I mention in my book Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California – owned big orchards where I learned the basics of pruning so that the trees received ample sunlight and air and looked beautiful, too.
The farmers’ wives — like Frances Sorgenstein — always sang the praises of the Gravenstein because it ripened early and because it made for good applesauce and apple pies.
Frances also taught me that the Gravenstein had a short shelf life and that I should use them quickly or have to add them to the compost pile.
Got Cider Present
On a summer afternoon, the sun was hot, the crowds at the 2016 Gravenstein Apple Fair in Ragle Park in Sebastopol, CA were hungry, and the cider was hard. It was downright easy to dive head first into the newest beverage craze to hit the West County, and elsewhere in the U.S.A.
Cider seems to appeal to a new generation that’s younger than the “wine geeks,” as a sommelier friend of mine calls them, though there’s quite a bit of crossing over, too.
Got Cider: Hard Cider or Apple Juice
There’s some confusion about what’s cider and what’s apple juice. Martinelli’s, which has been in the apple business since 1868, makes two non-alcoholic beverages, one of which is labeled “juice” and the other labeled “cider.” Both have the same ingredient: the juice that’s made from apples.
Still, in most parts of the world, especially in Europe, cider has alcohol, juice doesn’t. In the United States, the drink that has alcohol is sometimes called “hard cider.” That’s the stuff that I wanted at the two-day Gravenstein Apple Fair where the cry Got Cider got a few decibels louder than ever before.
Cider alcohol content varies from a low of 1.2 % to a high of 12% and that gets close to wine. Mass-market cider often contains huge amounts of added sugar and ought to be avoided for health reasons.
Some New Cideries in Sonoma County
Cynthia Newcomb from Dutton Estate in Graton and Paul Kolling from Specific Gravity Cider poured generous portions to those who of us who were thirsty and who gathered at “the outdoor artisan cider tasting lounge” as the hosts called it.
Newcomb, a veteran chef, knows a great deal about food and wine and how to pare them. Like many others at the Fair, she’s just learning about cider and she’s enjoying it, too.
Kolling explained that his cider wasn’t pasteurized and that he used stainless steel tanks, not barrels, for the fermentation process to take place. He had plenty of good ideas about how to pair cider and food. He uses apples from his own orchards at Nana Mae’s Organics. The Dutton’s are also an established apple growing family.
Occasionally they brew a special batch such as the Backyard Cider that was created as a benefit for Slow Food Russian River from apples gleaned from trees growing in Sonoma county backyards.
Her father Stan Devoto probably knows as much about apples as anyone in Sonoma, though others, like the folks at Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Windsor are learning fast, especially in the area of apple varieties specialized for cider making.
Stan’s daughter Jolie — one of three — poured a Devoto cider made from Gravensteins and explained, “Just four years ago, people had very little appreciation for craft ciders or even knew what cider really was. The public is just getting educated on the subject.” Hunter and Jolie have devoted much of their time and creativity to help make cider mainstream with their new company, Golden State Cider, that sources apples from beyond Sonoma County. Sonoma County now has over ten new cideries, a far cry from the time that Ace Cider of Sebastopol – founded back in 1993 – was the only one in the county.
Darlene Hayes Tells Cider Tales
But perhaps no single person has done more to bring aficionados of food and drink up to speed about cider than Darlene Hayes, the author of Cider Cocktails: Another Bite of the Apple and a roving ambassador for cider. Darlene blogs at all into cider.
At the Gravenstein Apple Fair, she wore the official T-shirt for the event that showed a cow perched on top of an apple, an image that suggested the diversity of local agriculture.
“I have an old orchard on my property off Mill Station Road, with apple trees that are about 80 years old,” Darlene told me. “I harvest the apples when they’re ripe and use them to make cider for myself and for friends. After all, you can only make and eat so many apple pies.”
She ages her cider anywhere from six months to three years. The alcohol content varies from about six-and-one-half percent to eight-and-one-half percent.
Darlene added, “I’m putting in 60 or so new trees so I can make more interesting varieties of cider and use the information I learned about cider when I traveled in Germany, Spain, France, and the UK. In Spain they made cider before the Romans showed up.”
What does she see ahead for apples and cider?
“I think the Gravenstein has a future here, especially with value-added products like cider, though it’s an uphill climb,” she explained. “After all, the U.S. is a beer-ish place. Perhaps local distillers will start to turn their apples into brandy the way that Europeans do. That would be very cool.”
Darlene looked at the crowds and smiled; indeed, she was happy to be among fellow apple lovers.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that there’s also an increase in the number of acres planted with Gravs,” she said. “From where I stand, hard cider has a lot going for it. In fact, it can be as complex as wine, though some like it because it has less alcoholic content than say Pinot or Chardonnay. It’s also gluten free.”
The Gravenstein Apple Presidium, the Community Apple Press
Members of Slow Food Russian River poured and then handed out free samples of newly pressed Gravenstein apple juice at the 2016 Gravenstein Apple Fair. It was so popular that it ran out by four p.m.
Over ten years ago the chapter created the Gravenstein Apple Presidium to promote this endangered apple variety – part of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. Serving freshly pressed juice at the Gravenstein Apple Fair has been a promotional event for many years to get the word and the taste out.
They also publicized the upcoming Slow Food event Celebrate Life on a Slow Day in Apple Country, a Community Apple Press experience and cider/food pairing at Devoto Gardens and Orchards. It’s a benefit for a program of Slow Food Russian River that brings city kids to the Sebastopol Community Apple Press to learn about local apples and press apple juice together. It’s on Saturday September 10, 2016. The Sebastopol Community Apple Press is now in its third year.
Johnny Appleseed Got Cider
The American legend, John Chapman, otherwise known as Johnny Appleseed, would no doubt jump for joy if he could see that apple presses are thriving in Sebastopol, that apple orchards are making a comeback — and that hard cider, which he introduced to pioneer families more than two hundred years ago, is reaching a whole new generation.
As Michael Pollan noted in The Botany of Desire — his classic about apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes — “Really, what Johnny Appleseed was doing and the reason he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana was he was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus.”
Long Live Johnny Appleseed! Long Live the Gravenstein and the Slow Food Community Apple Press!
Jonah Raskin is a member of Slow Food Russian River and the author of Field Days: A Year or Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California. For more of his posts see here. Photo Credit: Zeno Swijtink of the Slow Food Russian River Media Team.