Less than 10 years ago, you could drive through Sebastopol in the fall and see tons and tons of apples rotting on the ground. Sonoma County’s iconic Gravensteins were in danger of disappearing, and the few remaining orchardists struggled to find a market for their apples. Entire apple orchards were ripped out and replaced with vineyards.
Hard cider is changing that dismal landscape, radically.
These days, the remaining orchards are becoming coveted sources for heirloom apples, and seasoned apple farmers are becoming mentors to a new generation of cider makers cropping up throughout Sonoma County. And whether they’re using estate apples, mixing West County apples from a variety locations or importing juice from the Pacific Northwest, all of their beverages have a definite North Bay twist.
As the weather begs for a warm fire and a cold cider, we’ve found some local favorites and got the goods on their new fall releases, which will hit local stores and restaurants throughout the late fall.
Here are our picks for the Best Sonoma Hard Ciders for fall 2015
Hops & Honey Cider, Horse & Plow: Although it’s rather unconventional in the traditional cider industry, lots of new cider makers are adding a bit of hoppiness to their brews, adding a level of complexity and giving them a crossover appeal to craft brew drinkers. Sebastopol winemakers Chris Condos and Suzanne Hagins have made artisan cider making part of their Horse & Plow wine business, with new Hops & Honey releases joining their Farmhouse and Heirloom ciders.
The Anvil, Sonoma Cider: A father-son team is making some of the most buzzed-about ciders in Healdsburg. Classic Dry Zider is a winner in the Reserve series, aged in Zinfandel barrels, while limited releases such as the recent habanero-lime cider are less classic. Our favorite, however, remains The Anvil. Here, apple meets bourbon; deliciousness ensues.
This spirited cider pairs sweet apples with the smokiness of bourbon (sans actual bourbon). Flavor? Full.
Coming soon: Dry Fuji, a “special reserve bottling” of dry fuji pear cider, and Imperial Reserve, a high-alcohol cider that’s packed with organic brown sugar, whiskey barrel fermented and aged to perfection.
2013 Barred Rock Barrel Aged Cider, Tilted Shed Cider: Aged in Tennessee bourbon barrels, this cider gets better with age. Late season Sonoma County heirloom and cider apples slowly fermented, then aged for three months in, did we mention, bourbon barrels. Coming soon: Like all of the ciders made in Windsor by Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli, there’s a fascinating back story behind the releases: bacon smoke, “sidra” (Basque-style) cider and “lost” varietals. Sloe cider was the result of a collaboration with Spirit Works Distillery, and along with the annual releases of Graviva!, Smoked, Lost Orchard, Inclinado and Barred Rock, they’ll launch a club for rare and unusual releases this fall.
Black Jack 21, Ace Cider: Ace started the cider craze 21 years ago in Sonoma County, and they’re still making some of the most popular ciders in America. Though fruitier flavors like pineapple, berry and pumpkin, this dry reserve bottling is the champagne of ciders. Coming soon: Space Bloody Orange, a limited release apple cider infused with blood oranges.
Cidre Noir, Devoto: Only the most “charismatic” of apples goes into this velvet cape of a cider. Sweeter “black” varietals hang until late season, soaking up sweetness, then mix with a smattering of tart for a dry but rich pour. The Devoto family still farms 50+ heirloom apple varieties on their 26-acre Sebastopol farm.
Golden State Cider, Devoto’s second brand, comes in easy-drinking cans and is barn-storming the cider field. Made with West Coast apples, it’s an approachable Friday night kind of cider that’s dry and food friendly.
Foxcraft, Cranberry Cider: ’Tis the season to think berry. This easy-drinking cider gets juiced with cranberry for some tart/sweet holiday fizz. The Santa Rosa company ramps up this holiday-friendly flavor in October, but Apple Blossom, Pear and Blood Orange round out their flavor lineup.
All of these ciders also are available locally at Bottle Barn, 3331 Industrial Drive, Santa Rosa, 528-1161, and can frequently be found at Whole Foods and Oliver’s Markets.
Best places to find local ciders on tap and otherwise:
— Brew, 555 Healdsburg Ave., Santa Rosa
— Woodfour Brewing, 6780 Depot St., Sebastopol
— Sprenger’s Tap Room, 446 B St., Santa Rosa
— Heritage Public House, 1901 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa
— Petaluma Taps, 54 E. Washington St., Petaluma
— Olde Sonoma Public House, 18615 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma