If Scott Heath has harvested a bitter fruit from his labors, that's just the way he planned it.
It's late July, and the apples are ripening in Heath's two-acre experimental orchard on Gravenstein Highway north of Sebastopol. Heath plucks an apple from one of the head-high trees, and I follow suit. It's a good-looking fruit, plum-red and smooth-skinned. But when I take a bite, tannins dry out my tongue. This apple's got more grip than a Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon.
"That's why they call them spitters," Heath says.
These aren't your granny's baking apples. But they are an essential ingredient for making traditional and European-style ciders. Access to these varieties will be critical, some say, for local craft-cider makers hoping to compete in an increasingly crowded category.
Ask around about craft cider in the North Bay, and most everyone will mention Tilted Shed Ciderworks, co-owned by Heath and his wife, Ellen Cavalli. When they made their debut at Sebastopol's annual Gravenstein Apple Fair in 2012, they were squeezed into a corner of the wine tent. At this year's fair, running Aug. 8–9, eight local cideries will share space in the "craft cider tent." (See page 23 for more on the fair.)
JUICE INTO CIDER
Craft cider is hard cider, fermented from apple juice to a strength of 6 to 7 percent alcohol, and often higher. According to Tom Wark, author of the Cider Journal blog (ciderjournal.com), the cider category grew by 70 percent in 2014. Behemoth brand Angry Orchard, made by Boston Beer Company, accounts for more than half of sales, while Stella Artois, Samuel Smith and others have made a bid for the apple-flavored action.
Craft producers represent a very small slice of the pie. While the rise of cider generally is linked to the success of craft beer, and to its appeal as a gluten-free alternative to beer, craft cider has more in common with wine.
Heath compares cider apples to Vitis vinifera, the species to which nearly all grape varieties used for making wine belong. The better wines are not made from grocery market grapes like Thompson seedless; they're made from specialty winegrapes, grown in the right regions. "We think cider is exactly the same," Heath says
Heath's orchard includes "bittersharps" like Kingston black, an English variety that's highly valued because of its combination of high acid and high tannin. The "sharps" include local hero the Gravenstein, favored by pie makers for its high acid and low tannin. It makes pretty good hard cider as well, but it lacks the high tannins that "bittersweets" like Muscat de Bernay and Nehou contribute to a cider's structure. Some "sweets" like Roxbury russet wouldn't look pretty in the produce aisle, but provide sugar that approaches winegrape levels.
Most cider on the U.S. market is not made with such apples.