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Serious Cider

Graton brewery makes it easy to be hard

By Bruce Robinson

OF ALL THE OBSTACLES that Jeffrey House has confronted in establishing his young business, the most elusive has been linguistic. "That word cider is the problem," the founder and president of the California Cider Co. acknowledges cheerfully.

"That word normally means fermented, in most European cultures. In America, the word got changed to be a softer cousin, just like apple juice really, around the 1930s. That's part of our problem: to try and convince people that ours are fermented."

House's Graton-based company now produces three Ace brand ciders--apple, pear, and honey--whose smooth carbonation and strong fruitiness belie their 5 to 6 percent alcohol content. But those same characteristics are a big part of cider's appeal.

"It's fresh, it's natural, it's half the alcohol of wine," House elaborates. "Ladies can drink it instead of beer. It's low in calories, it mixes with things. It's got a lot of positives."

Apples combine readily with most other fruits, opening myriad possibilities for punches and spritzes, but cider has long been blended with beers, too. "You can take an average lager, like a Miller or a Coors, and you can make a better-tasting drink by adding cider to it," House explains.

Snakebite--a 50/50 mix of cider and lager--is a standard quaff in British pubs, while a combination with a dark stout, such as Guinness, is commonly known as Black Velvet or Black Satin.

One unusual benefit the cidery provides is a new market for Sebastopol-area apples, fruit that historically has been primarily pressed into juice use. "We use Gravenstein and about five other apples, all of them grown locally," says Dave Cordtz, the Ace brewmaster. Apple juice is the main ingredient in all Ace flavors. For Ace Pear, "We remove the aroma from the apple juice so that when we add the pear juice back to it, it takes on the whole characteristic of pear," Cordtz explains.

Ace Honey, which has been available for only a few months, is the driest of the three, and appeals to more experienced palates, says House. It collected the gold medal for cider at last fall's Sonoma County Harvest Fair.

CIDER'S HISTORY in America extends back 1629, in the earliest years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, House says, but after Prohibition its popularity waned, owing to the erratic quality (and potency) that consumers associated more with moonshine than with predictable brews such as beer.

Across the Atlantic, however, cider has endured as a popular alcoholic libation, served alongside a range of beers at pubs throughout Great Britain, where it accounts for about 8 percent of the beer market.

"In the UK now, it's over a $1.5 billion business," says House, a British native, who got his start in the trade by importing cider to the States. "The three top cider makers are producing over 100 million gallons a year of cider."

He is hoping cider will attain comparable popularity here, and the trends appear to be heading in that direction. Industry figures cite sales of 115,000 cases in 1990 jumping to a whopping 606,000 cases in 1994. Total sales last year reached 2 million gallons nationwide; that is projected by some analysts to jump to 15 million gallons by the turn of the century.

So who is drinking all that cider? "I think Generation X has always liked hard cider and has taken it as their own," House replies. "The obvious consumption is going to be with the 21- to 28-year-olds. We're the alternative to a wine or beer."

Ace Ciders produced 56,000 cases in 1996, the company's second year, and has been hard-pressed to keep up with the demand for its products. House expects sales to triple or more in 1997, and plans to add an as-yet unnamed fourth flavor before summer.

Along with that growth, House has already prepared plans to build a micro-cidery, complete with tasting room, tours, and historical displays, to be located on Highway 116 at Graton Road. He hopes to begin construction later this year.

A big part of their business is kegs, which are rapidly gaining favor in youth-oriented bars. "If you look at all the taps that are going into all the bars across America, one or two of them should be a cider tap," House says. By aggressively courting that market, he hopes to see Ace Ciders grow to a business doing "somewhere between $15 million to $20 million" annually in another five or six years, which, he jokes, "means that we might put Graton a little more on the map."

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From the January 23-19, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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