Not Your Forefathers’ Apple Cider

Traditional hard cider uses apples with high acidity and tannins.
Traditional hard cider uses apples with high acidity and tannins. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Modern Takes on the Traditional Beverage

Cider has a long, expansive history. Ancient Britons were said to have fermented cider from native crabapples. In Northern Spain, cider has been produced for thousands of years. In France, it dates to the 11th century. The colonists brought seeds to the New World, planting orchards up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The beverage is relatively new to California producers, but that isn’t stopping Sacramento area businesses from crafting their own take on cider.

Cider apples.
Cider apples. Photo courtesy Hemly Cider.

Traditional hard cider starts with cider apples. These aren’t the snack-friendly varieties found on teachers’ desks or sliced in lunchboxes. Rather, they are known for their high acidity and tannins, cultivated especially for hard cider (some-times referred to as spitters for their inedibility). Johnny Appleseed? He didn’t plant apple trees for eating. He planted them for hard cider.

The cider makers out West employ many of the same methods used in regions throughout the world. But unlike traditional ciders, which are typically made from specific varieties of apples, Golden State fermenters are exploring new fruits and flavors that are relatively uncommon outside of the U.S. 

Hemly Cider in Courtland produces cider from both pears and apples, with flavors such as jalapeño, mandarin, cherry, and chai. And although they offer brut ciders, they use common varietals rather than cider apples, including Pink Lady and Granny Smith apples and Bartlett and Bosc pears, says Hemly Cider Co-founder Sarah Hemly.

Hemly Cider on tap. Photo courtesy Hemly Cider.
Hemly Cider on tap. Photo courtesy Hemly Cider.

Born and raised in Sacramento, she married Matthew Hemly, a sixth-generation pear farmer. Described as the family “problem fixer,” he tragically passed away unexpectedly in July 2023. 

At the time of their marriage, she knew nothing about cider, but figured, with such an amazing fruit, it’s bound to make an equally lush cider. “We may not have as many cider apples, but what we do have is an abundance of dessert fruit,” Hemly says. 

In the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, cider production is highly regulated in terms of its composition. But in the U.S., there are few restrictions outside of alcoholic content, so producers are free to experiment, Hemly says. “We can blend different juices and be more creative, so we became leaders in adding more complexity to the beverages,” she adds. 

Another local cidery known for its unique flavors is Two Rivers Cider in Sacramento. In fact, it’s been producing its pomegranate cider since 1996, says Founder Vince Sterne. 

There wasn’t any particular reason for pomegranate, other than the fact that Sterne liked the flavor. And it seems to be a hit. As it remains one of his most popular products to this day. Sterne explains that the success of the pomegranate product inspired him to try other fruit flavors, including huckleberry, yuzu, blood orange, and seasonal ones, such as cranberry and watermelon. 

Two Rivers offers canned hard ciders for sale.
Two Rivers offers canned hard ciders for sale. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Two Rivers uses apples as the base for its ciders and experiments with adding different juices and herbs. It adds most of these after fermentation, as their flavors change during this process. Fermenting honey along with the apples produces cyser, a cider-mead hybrid, which the company markets as Honey Badger Imperial Cider.

Sterne says the growing popularity of cider can be attributed to several factors. One is the increased awareness about gluten, pushing many former beer drinkers toward cider, what he calls a “happy coincidence.” The other was the newfound respect for how independent craft beverage producers operate. “We’ve always taken pride in our process,” he says. “We use a slow, cold ferment. We’re 100 percent fresh pressed. And I try to use local fruit whenever possible.

A tasting flight of ciders
A tasting flight of ciders; Photo by Debbie Cunningham

”In the Apple Hill area near Placerville, many growers also produce hard cider, adding versions with new and unique flavors. North Canyon Cider Co. has been making cider for more than 40 years, and now offers a pineapple ginger version along with its dry and semi-sweet apple varieties. Delfino Farms now offers a blackberry cider fermented in French oak barrels. And Hidden Star pours more than a dozen varieties in its barn taproom, boasting flavors such as tart cherry pie, pineapple lychee, and blueberry lemon. 

Hemly says cider making is unique in that it doesn’t have the established expertise of, say, winemaking or craft brewing. On the other hand, entering a relatively new field allows California cider makers to forge their own path, to produce their product and operate the ways they see fit. “We’re in a transitional phase, where we take the old traditions and incorporate new techniques to come up with some-thing totally unique,” she explains.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the industry.” 

Sarah Hemly
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