Back in 1994, when Neil Collins was still in his early days as a winemaker in Paso Robles, he also started making hard apple cider. He sourced apples from nearby orchards, and made dry, crisp versions of cider like the ones he’d enjoyed growing up in Bristol, England.
Fast-forward two decades, and the situation on the Central Coast is the complete opposite.
“Now everybody and their brother is making it,” says Collins, who re-launched his Bristols Cider House brand commercially in 2005. “Now, sometimes apples are hard to find.”
Like wine, craft beer and distilling, cider is booming across the country. Given the Central Coast’s combination of winemaking experience, youthful creativity and abundance of otherwise underutilized orchards, it offers a promising formula for cider success.
Today, there are more than a dozen brands being made from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz, and the first-ever Central Coast Cider Festival occurred in May in Atascadero, just south of Paso Robles. The second festival is set for May 13, 2017.
I’d dabbled in cider since college, when we’d occasionally guzzle a 22-ounce Wyder’s or some 12-ounce Hornsby’s before hitting the malt liquor.
Bristols Cider House, located in a warehouse district of Atascadero just off the 101 Freeway, is a frequent pit stop on my travels up and down the state. It’s great for a quick sip, either from the cidery’s many options on tap, or to stock up on bottles and growlers of the latest concoctions made by Collins and his sons.
That includes the standard, Bristols Original, which can be found in stores throughout Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Other recent small-batch creations from the Collinses are Mangelwurzel (fuscia-colored and earthy in flavor due to beets), Changala (including quince, pear and Gravenstein apples), Anne Bonny (aged in Kentucky whiskey casks) and Skimmington (a still version treated with brettanomyces).
Bristols, however, wasn’t my first taste of this new cider craze. That occurred in the spring of 2014, when I met Mikey Giugni in a hotel room late one night during a wine conference in Paso Robles.
I’d dabbled in cider since college, when we’d occasionally guzzle a 22-ounce Wyder’s or some 12-ounce Hornsby’s before hitting the malt liquor. But when Giugni shared his Scar of the Sea cider, my wine-attuned mind was reoriented. It was dry, crisp and flavorful like Champagne, finishing light and clean as a whistle.
Since then, Giugni, who also makes excellent Scar of the Sea wines with his business partner, Michael Brughelli, has released a number of ciders. Some are hopped, some straight ahead, some barrel-aged and some single-sourced from a former Martinelli’s sparkling cider orchard he found near Santa Cruz.
That stretch of coast, especially from Aptos to Watsonville, used to be home to endless orchards. As a result, brands like Santa Cruz Cider Company, Soquel Cider and Surf City Cider are emerging from the area, though I’ve yet to try them.
Closer to my home in Santa Barbara, Giugni has partnered with Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz Winery in Los Alamos to make Clementine Carter, which combines cider with various fruits, wine grapes and yeasts like those used in saison beers. Nearby, in Los Olivos, is Dreamcôte, a cider made by Brit Zotovich. The Apiary is also making ciders and meads down the coast in Carpinteria.
But San Luis Obispo County remains the hotbed. See Canyon Hard Cider is one of the most widely available, though its most prevalent, semi-sweet version reminds me of my college ciders.
The biggest splash, though, involves Giugni. Along with vintners Curt Schalchlin and Andrew Jones, he recently opened Tin City Cider, which serves their unique creations seven days a week from their home in a manufacturing district between Paso and Templeton, known for its numerous beer producers and winemakers. Their bread-and-butter is canned original cider, but there are plenty of variations.
Giugni foresees plenty of growth for Central Coast cider. He admits that there are still some hurdles to achieving long-term sustainability, like finding a competitive price that keeps both orchard farmers and consumers happy. He’s also learning that cider is a vintage product, with wide fluctuations in harvest year to year—a nuance that should keep fans intrigued for the long run.