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FOODPATHS - December, 2015
Celebrating Cider!
Building a Lifestyle Business

It’s the holiday season, and once again, a time of sharing, celebration and stories.

 Our story begins with a young couple, Jolie Devoto, daughter of Stan Devoto, Sebastopol, California’s “Artisan Apple King,” and Hunter Wade, son of a Maryland farm family. Blessed with a healthy dose of passion, luck, timing, and opportunity, the couple (“Devoto-Wade”), are at the forefront of a burgeoning demand for small-craft, artisan cider as an alternative to beer and wine among a generation of gender-neutral consumers.

Similar in alcohol content to beer, and most like wine in the way the beverage is made, sales of hard cider, including those categorized as “artisan” or “hand-crafted,” have increased 70 per cent over the past three years. Devoto Orchards Cider, distinguished by specially selected, organically grown, cider apples from the family’s orchards, is on the cusp of the explosive sparkling cider industry. Perhaps even more important, Devoto-Wade is carving out a new and expanded brand to complement the long-established and renowned family farm.

Two years ago, Devoto Orchards Cider celebrated its first bottling of 4,000 cases. FoodPaths accompanied the couple on their journey over many months as specially selected, hand-picked apples from the family orchards were gathered, processed, and fermented. We were also with them to witness the first vintage rolling off the bottling line and into the marketplace. 

 In September, 2014, the couple, responding to meet the demand among a younger, millennial target market for cider with a more affordable price point, launched a second line, Golden State Cider (GSC). Packaged in cans and in kegs, and sold alongside Devoto Orchards Ciders (produced with only organic, Sonoma-County fruit), GSC sources fruit from many different regions including not only Sonoma Country, but also Oregon’s Hood River Valley and Washington’s Yakima Valley, both regions known for their excellent fruit and grapes. This has enabled the young entrepreneurs to produce GSC year-round from fresh-pressed dessert varieties including Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, pink lady, Fuji and Gala apples.

Next year, in early 2016, the company moves to a new facility, formerly the site of an apple processor in West Sonoma, to meet the market craving more of their new canned craft cider born from the ideas and lifestyle of the Pacific Coast.

Jolie and Hunter (left) and Stan (right) in the apple orchard

“Great apple cider begins in the orchards,” said Jolie, with the passion of a woman whose agricultural heritage, from childhood, is rooted in artisan apple growing. “We make our cider from our own organic, heirloom apples, not sweetened apple concentrate. Our name is on the label. And, we are now able to select the best from the orchards of our apple-growing neighbors in one of the best apple producing regions throughout California and the Northwest to produce and deliver Golden State Cider to new markets. We grow apple varieties with great flavor -- Arkansas Black, Wickson, Kingston Black, Golden Russet, Ashmead’s Kernel, and Gravenstein -- with complexities like high acids, tannins, aromatics, and, most important, a sugar content that allows the fruit to ferment until it reaches “brix,” (i.e. the starting sugar levels in the raw juice before it is fermented). Usually the brix level of apple juice is between 12 and 15 degrees when pressed, translating into 6 – 8 percent alcohol by volume when fermented, allowing the fruit to transform into a high quality, hard cider with a dry character. As a comparison, brix levels between 22 – 24 degrees are common in white wines before fermenting can begin.”

“Our cultivars are perfect for cider, adding structure, nuance and character,” explained Hunter, “They may make their way to local markets, and bear unique flavors, but are generally not sold for eating out of hand. We are focusing on producing ciders from cider apples that will showcase a unique single variety designate or a specifically tailored blend.”

 Jolie and Hunter share more than a passion to introduce hand-crafted cider to a generation of consumers receptive to new beverage experiences. They share a commitment to grow a new market for one of the most unique and delicious heirloom apple varieties, the Gravenstein. A late season variety, long sought after for its balance of sweet and tart flavors and crisp flesh, and the consummate cider apple, the Gravenstein once dominated Sonoma Country’s renowned apple industry. But the Gravenstein drops early. As a grower, this means a loss of nearly 30% before they ripen. Using the Gravenstein for cider production means opening a market for this coveted apple as a way of conserving a fruit designated by Slow Food as a “heritage” apple, while meeting increasing consumer demand for new, single variety ciders.

There is also an element of the Gravenstein-apple conservation story that has its roots in human nature and the need to survive.  The Devoto Farm is located in Western Sonoma County, a coastal climate where foggy mornings give way to sunny days and ocean breezes at night. Both apples and wine grapes grow well here, but the Gravenstein is near extinction as apple orchards increasingly are pulled out and replaced with vineyards and wine grapes that yield more than 10 times the price per ton as locally grown apples.

* * *

 It was on one of these fog-enshrouded mornings that I set out to join the couple and their crew in the Devoto orchards. The group, including Devoto-Wade, was gathering the remaining 10 bins of late season cider apples that would become part of the Devoto Orchards Cider first vintage. Winding my way through the silent and empty farm roads, with the fog so dense, signs and road markers virtually invisible, I had to double-back and retrace my steps repeatedly, the GPS virtually useless. I was riding solo, guided by pure instinct. When I arrived at the orchards, the crew was at work, the fog offering a backdrop to this land, its acidic soils, and greater insight into why these dry-farmed apples are able to flourish in this terroir.

Generally, the process for making hard cider parallels the process for making wine. There are five basic steps in the cider-making process; collect and “sweat” the apples, grind the apples, press the apples, ferment the must, bottle the cider, and take it to market. The decision when to pick a cider apple requires precision, experience, and instinct, just as the decision when to harvest grapes relies on a combination of scientific knowledge and viticulture experience.  The major difference between wine and cider is that the hard cider develops its alcoholic content over a period of weeks, or at most, three months. A great wine may take years.

By the time the apples fall from the tree, or are shaken from the trees at the precise picking moment, they are perfectly ripe to eat. As Devoto-Wade collect the cider apples, they are placed in bins where the fruit begins to “sweat,” a process where the natural sugars, complex flavors, and aromas develop, contributing to the cider’s depth of character and of fullness. The water content of the apples decreases; the sugar concentration increases. “Eating” apples cannot be sent to consumers as market fruit with blemishes. Cider apples, however, age differently, often carrying brown spots and blemishes on the skin as they undergo sweating. This is a good sign. You know the apples have finished sweating when they are squeezed lightly and give slightly. When that time arrives, the couple calls the harvest, rallies the troops, and sends the apples to the press.

* * *

 As the crew hustled to collect the apples, Jolie and Hunter worked side-by-side with the men, checking quality control, and keeping up a running commentary of cider-making factoids. Completing each other sentences, and building on each other’s thoughts, their enthusiasm was infectious.

Quality control is critical with Devoto-Wade. While other cider producers may purchase apples from apple growers, here, the apples are grown on their own turf. Both Jolie and Hunter pulled “unacceptable” fruit from the bins, assuring that over-ripe apples, those that didn’t look or feel right, would not make the cut for their ciders.

“We’ve created full-time jobs for ourselves and are investing in our own facility, equipment and future,” said Jolie. “We see our cider as a way to keep us farming apples in the long run, even as the price of land increases. It’s important for any farmer to keep up with the times, which is why we want our cider to be a part of the evolution of the Devoto brand of excellence. It is important for us to maintain our family history, our farm’s values of being a steward of the land, and also to maintain the integrity and passion for what we do.”

“Our approach to cider-making is the same concept as making a Pinot Noir wine out of Pinot noir grapes, rather than table grapes,” continued Hunter. “The traditional cider heirlooms –Stan, Jolie and I planted about 600 new trees this year -- have tannin (bitters) and sharpness (acid). Once all the sugar is fermented out, a unique character and structure remains. Those flavor components cannot be mimicked. Devoto Orchards is the first commercial grower to cultivate many of these varieties in California.”

* * *

As soon as the last batch of apples was collected, we were off to the processing plant, Manzana Products Company (M.C.P.), the last remaining apple processor in Sonoma County, to have the juice extracted from the pomace. (pressed apple pulp, skin and seeds). With Hunter supervising the press, Jolie chatted with other neighboring apple growers and family friends lined up to have their apples fed into the large hydraulic press where they would be ground and transferred to trucks or tankers destined for food processors for use as apple sauce, apple juice, and other apple products. The pomace was loaded separately to be taken to a local dairy farm to be fed to their cows. Very lucky cows.

 While we waited, the group talked about the disappearing domestic apple industry and the differences between apple juice, apple cider and “hard” cider, and the apple by-products the neighboring men were sending off to food processors for applesauce, dried apples, and apple concentrate.

 “I don’t know why so many people think that cider is only sweet and non-alcoholic,” explained Jolie, capturing the attention of the group. “The flavor of the cider depends either on the purity of the single variety apple – like the Gravenstein -- or the blending of juice from different apple varieties to create the perfect balance between the sweetness, tartness, flavor, aroma, and distinct characteristics of the apples themselves. We know our apples. We’re not sourcing them from other growers. The process for making cider is relatively simple. It just made sense to use what we grow ourselves.”

She also offered the group a crib sheet on artisan cider-making:

  • “Cider Rules” – Cider means fermented apple juice and is usually not sweet after the fermentation takes place. Cider is either a still or sparkling alcoholic beverage made from apple juice. Apple juice is just ground and pressed apples. Apple juice is often made from apple concentrate, compressed juice that can be liquefied with water when it is ready to be used.
  • Sweet Cider is apple juice that has not been processed, stabilized, or filtered. At this stage, the appearance of the sweet cider is cloudy and brownish. It could ferment in time and become alcoholic. “Cider” in the United States refers to either “sweet cider” or “hard cider” because there is no standard definition among states. Elsewhere, globally, “cider” generally refers to an alcoholic beverage.
  • Hard Cider is apple juice that has gone through a fermentation process in which its sugars have turned into alcohol. The process is similar to wine-making where sugars from the grapes transform the fruit into wine. The volume of alcohol in hard cider ranges from 4 – 7% depending on the sugar levels of the apples.

Soon, Devoto-Wade and their juice was siphoned directly into a waiting tanker and we trucked down the road to Sonoma Wine Company, a custom crush facility used by many wineries lacking their own crushpads and winemaking facilities. Here, the juice pressed minutes earlier was pumped directly into a large stainless steel vat to begin the fermentation process. Cider scientist Rick Davis awaited the couple to test 1976, the second batch of the 2014 release.

* * *

In addition to Golden State Cider, three releases, all at 6.9% alcohol by volume, will be blended from a variety of organic apples from the Devoto Farm:

  1. Save the Gravenstein. Mainly Gravenstein, with less than 10% Pink Pearl, Hubbardston Nonesuch, Burgundy, Akane, and Pink Blush, to round out the character. Using apples from the August harvest, the cider is semi-dry with bright acidity, aromas of vanilla, honeydew and walnuts. 2,100 cases.
  2. 1976. A blend of 17 heirloom apple varieties including Rhode Island Greenings, Jonathan, Spitzenburg, Ashmead’s Kernel, Empire, Winesap, Golden Delicious, Hawaiian, Mutsu and Golden Surpreme. (The latter grown on the farm since 1976!) Using the September varieties in this blend, the cider is semi-dry with creamy mouthfeel and apple aromatics. 400 cases.
  3. Cidre Noir. Blended using late season varieties, and dry and tannic in style, apple varieties in this cider include Arkansas Blacks, Black Twigs, Pippins and Davisson. 1,500 cases.

 Fermentation to produce sparkling cider requires a number of steps including testing the raw juice immediately after it is siphoned into the tanks. Yeast is added as a starter to unleash the sugar in the juice, with each batch tested at least three more times through the fermenting process to fine-tune its characteristics, including aroma, taste, mouth feel, and flavor. Monitoring the pH factor (either increasing or decreasing the acidity) to balance sweetness, tartness and acidity is also crucial to assure that Devoto-Hunter’s “ciderhouse style” (dry to semi-dry) best expresses the fruit.

Finally, when all the sugar has been absorbed by the cider, the juice will be “racked off,” removing the sediment at the bottom of the tanks before bottling, siphoning the juice into clean tanks, and filtering the cider as it passes into these tanks.

 Because Devoto Orchards Cider is a sparkling cider, before bottling, the temperature of the tanks is dropped to around 30 F degrees and CO2 gas is added to the tanks. This assures that the cider’s sparkling bubbles will remain throughout the bottling line. From here, the bottles are packed into cases and stored in a refrigerated warehouse until they move into the marketplace.

Already on the beverage lists of such restaurants as A16 Rockridge, Zazu, Peter Lowell’s Café, Backyard, Woodfour Brewing, Diavola Pizzeria, Alta CA, Millennium Restaurant, 20th Century Café, Gracias Madre, and Tartine Bakery, chefs are also using the cider to pair with seafood, savory vegetarian dishes such as Butternut Squash Pizza with prosciutto and broccoli rabe.

How did this happen in just a short time span? A recent article in Restaurant Hospitality Magazine exploring the Top Trends in the Food & Beverage industry, tagged artisan cider as one of the top five cocktail trends for 2015. “The craft beer movement has paved the way for an influx of artisan ciders,” the article stated.  “On tap, in bottles, and even in the can, these easy drinking, sweet-yet-top beverages are a welcome addition to bar menus.”

Devoto-Wade continue to be at the forefront of the artisan cider movement. Chalk it up to the classic entrepreneurial spirit and the passion, perfection, and professionalism of a couple with a great idea, the will to implement it, and the savvy to listen to a changing marketplace. Jolie now handles sales and marketing; Hunter is responsible for production and operations.  Traveling for five months abroad to learn from Europe’s cider masters, touring cider houses, talking to cider-makers, and, with the support of the Devoto family, farming, food, and fermentation have combined to bring a new product to consumers at the crossroads of perfect timing.

Stan Devoto, patriarch of the family, had this to say about the next generation.

“It’s THEIR Venture, their opportunity…”

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For more information: www.devotocider.com and www.drinkgoldenstate.com

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