Old, overgrown apple orchards were everywhere Troy Carter looked when he took a post-college motorcycle trek along the back roads of California’s Sonoma Coast. Planted in the 1950s, the trees had been fending for themselves in the generations since wine arrived.
A kombucha fan, Carter treasured artisanal hard cider’s funky flavors and guessed the ugly apples would be the perfect raw material for his favorite libation. An orchard owner told him he could pick all he could carry.
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The first pressing of Troy Cider was in the fall of 2012 using the mostly Gravenstein apples he and about 100 of his Stanford University friends harvested one afternoon. To manage the wild yeast fermentation, Carter hired organic winemaker Tony Coturri to produce his inaugural vintage. Artisanal hard cider makers view cider apples and orchards much like vintners view wine grapes and vineyards. The taste of the “place” is in the cider.
Fresh-pressed apple juice with nothing but the orchard’s natural wild yeast, cold-fermented in Pinot Noir barrels, Carter’s hard cider made itself. He aged it for eight months in those same barrels before bottling it, unfiltered.
The 25-year-old who thought to check out the apples by the side of the road has moved on in his peripatetic journey around the world. While Carter remains the “artist in residence,” he sold his cider operation to Mark McTavish, a Los Angeles hard cider importer Half Pint Ciders and distributor who says he will stick to Carter’s protocol. The third vintage of Troy is now available.
Troy seemed an oddity when it launched but it is part of a nationwide revival in the all-but-lost American hard cider tradition, an outgrowth of spreading interest in locally sourced products and farm-to-table cuisine. Where there were, perhaps, a dozen artisanal hard cider makers in 2000, today there are 400 with new farm-based cideries opening every day.
Sensing a trend, big beer companies recently jumped on the hard cider bandwagon, producing commercial hard ciders that are selling faster than their beers. Launched in 2011, Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard Hard Cider now commands 40% of the $300-million commercial hard cider market.
Artisanal vs. commercial ciders
Don’t be confused. The difference between artisanal and commercial ciders is stark. Artisanal cider is made with fresh fruit. Commercial hard cider relies on reconstituted fruit juice, often from as far away as China. If there is much residual sweetness, it’s probably a commercial cider. “If you want to drink it over ice, it’s crap cider. Artisanal hard cider is best sipped at room temperature,” says McTavish.
To the uninitiated, artisanal hard cider can be difficult to understand. In the Spanish tradition, the ciders have a slight vinegary flavor and lots of funky mushroomy, savory notes on the finish. English hard ciders are austere drinks that highlight the tannins from the apple skins with refreshing acidity. French-style hard ciders tend to be softer, gentler. Most artisanal hard ciders have a light spritz.
Tom Wark, a longtime wine industry publicist, launched The Cider Journal last year to track artisanal cideries and give vent to his passion for the movement. “These are complex, interesting drinks that are worlds away from the sweet, artificial tasting stuff I used to think was hard cider,” he says. “There is a growing band of dedicated craft cider producers across the country. Some have been at it for years, others not so long. But all of them are artisans.”
On the West Coast, Tilted Shed is another Sonoma County-based cidery gaining traction for its fresh, earthy hard ciders. Wark recommends E.Z. Orchards in Oregon and Snowdrift Cider Co. in Washington state. With its vast apple orchards, the Pacific Northwest welcomes a new cidery into business every week, according to industry analysts.
Main photo: Troy Carter at the cider house where he hand-bottled the first vintage of Troy Cider. Credit: Courtesy of Troy Cider