Are you a cider lover? Not to be confused with spiced apple juice, hard cider is a light, refreshing alcoholic beverage that is as unpretentious as it is food-friendly.
In recent years this historic beverage has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after virtually vanishing from American culture during Prohibition. With European roots dating as far back as 55 B.C., cider was the drink of choice among English colonists who settled on the East coast and planted the first U.S. cider orchards from seed.
Today, hard cider is the fastest growing segment of the craft beverage industry (even outshining beer and wine). It has earned a reputation as a “gender neutral” drink, enjoyed by men and women alike, and is also gluten-free which adds to its cachet in the current market.
Meet North Bay cider artisan, Jan Lee.
Jan and her husband, Louis, turned to cidermaking as part of a fruitful retirement plan following lengthy careers in construction management. In 2007 they purchased a few acres of land outside the small West Marin town of Tomales, California and planted their first bare-root apple trees that same winter. The north-facing slope of the property and coastal microclimate was perfect for growing heirloom cider varietals. The fledgling orchard thrived.
Fast forward eight years. The Lees are now in full production of their signature AppleGarden Farm Cider and are, to date, the only cidery in Marin County. Their small farmstead operation is truly a tree-to-bottle labor of love.
The more I learn about the process, the more I appreciate the effort that goes into every glass of their cider. The Lees have no staff. They do everything themselves; from organically growing over 40 varietals of apples, to hand-harvesting, processing, fermenting, bottling and distributing their craft beverage.
Nothing goes to waste in production. The couple uses 100% of the apples they grow to make cider. Unlike market (aka “eating”) apples, which may be passed over by consumers for imperfections or odd shapes, cider apples are crushed for juice. Physical appearance doesn’t matter, so none are wasted. Even the pulp leftover from pressing gets gobbled up as feed by a neighbor’s sheep or put out for the native wildlife to enjoy.
If you venture into the orchard, you’ll share the path with Jan’s free range hens who dart and bob through the apple trees. Aside from fresh eggs, the chickens play a vital role on the farm by eating bugs that could wreak havoc on the crop. They also leave nitrogen rich fertilizer everywhere they go!
Tasting cider apples is a mouth-puckering experience! The “bittersweet” and “bittersharp” varietals that make the best cider differ from traditional market apples in their high tannin content. This astringent quality makes them unsuitable for eating, but is perfect for balancing the sweet and bitter flavors in cider.
Jan and Lou’s AppleGarden Farm Cider is a fermented “field blend” made from the pure juice of crushed whole fruit. They carefully balance the apple varietals used in each batch to achieve the desired flavor profile, and they never add sugar or concentrates to the mix.
The result is a nuanced, mostly dry and lightly effervescent beverage that best compliments savory foods. Jan recommends pairing it with full-bodied artisan cheeses, briny oysters, charcuterie and holiday turkey! It stands up beautifully against pungent flavors and rich holiday dishes.
I am particularly fond of sipping it with a selection of local cow, goat, & sheeps milk cheeses from Point Reyes Farmstead (Bay Blue), Marin French Cheese Company (Breakfast Cheese), Cowgirl Creamery (Mt. Tam), Toluma Farmstead Creamery (Kenne), and Weirauch Creamery (Saint Rose).
Be sure to serve it well chilled in a wine glass to surprise and delight your guests.