Wine & Beer

5 innovative craft cider makers in SLO County

A pitcher and a flight of ciders at Tin City Cider Co. in Paso Robles.
A pitcher and a flight of ciders at Tin City Cider Co. in Paso Robles. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Locally made craft ciders are bubbling up around San Luis Obispo County, spurred by a somewhat surprising bunch: winemakers.

“Used to be, winemakers were all making pinot noir on the side, now they’re all making cider,” says Neil Collins, co-owner and cider-maker at Bristols Cider in Atascadero and the winemaker at Tablas Creek Vineyard and his own label, Lone Madrone.

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Bristols was the lone local hard cider for more than a decade, but a handful have popped up in the past few years, with more in the works — mostly from people with ties to the winemaking industry.

Cider appears to have more in common with beer than wine — it looks more like beer, and it’s sold and served more like beer. But making it is a lot like making wine, Collins says.

“It’s fermentation of fruit juice,” he says. “Wine is basically grape cider.”

But these aren’t the syrupy, sweet drinks many people associate with cider. Most craft cider-makers produce crisp, dry ciders, which customers are discovering as a refreshing alternative to wine or beer.

Another reason for the drink’s recent bump in popularity? Many people consider it a fitness-friendly beverage, Connor Meznarich says.

“They’re low sugar, most of them, and gluten-free,” says Meznarich, Collins’ first assistant at Bristols and now half the duo behind Jean Marie Cidery. “It’s a drink for active people.”

Another draw, for both makers and consumers, are the endless flavor profiles afforded by using different apples, throwing in some spices or adding other fruits or juices.

“Everyone’s doing different, interesting stuff,” Collins says. “It’s super cool to see.”

Read on for the in-cider scoop on San Luis Obispo County’s cider-makers:

Bristols Cider House

Thirst inspired Collins’ cider endeavors. He just couldn’t find ciders like the ones back in his native England, so he began making them himself, starting with two barrels in 1994.

Today, Bristols offers a publike tasting room — featuring eight ciders on tap as well as Lone Madrone wines — that’s often hopping with food, live music and a lively crowd. Both the ciders and the decor pay homage to Collins’ hometown, Bristol, as well as the port city’s more infamous inhabitants, Blackbeard and other legendary pirates.

Collins’ focus is traditional English-style cider, though he’s not afraid to get creative with some smaller batches. Spent gin botanicals give Merry Hell a fragrant kick, brettanomyces yeast lend Skimmington a farmhouse-style flavor, and 50 pounds of beets tinge Mangelwurzel with a bright pink hue and earthy backbone. Other creations are hopped, aged in spirit barrels or “bottle conditioned,” re-fermented in the bottle to create natural carbonation.

Try Bristols (www.bristolscider.com) by the taste, pint, bottle or growler at the Cider House, at 3220 El Camino Real in Atascadero, open 1 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 1 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday. Find Bristols Original and occasional special bottlings — $9 to $20 for 500- or 750-milliliter bottles — at outlets from Ventura to Paso Robles, as well as Oregon, or order at www.lonemadrone.com.

Jean Marie Cidery

One of the newest to the scene, Jean Marie Cidery was founded by Branden Welshons, the business brains, and Connor Meznarich, a former cellar master at Sans Liege Wines in Pismo Beach under Curt Schalchlin as well as Collins’ original assistant at Bristols — the first cider he ever tasted.

Jean Marie’s aptly named first release, Training Wheels, is a funky farmhouse-style blend, while Mama’s Boy is injected with local honey, giving a spiced honeycomb finish to the tart green apple flavor.

Welshons and Meznarich plan to continue playing with honey — which ferments in the bottle and adds a hint of sweetness — using varying types to coax different flavors from the cider in about a half-dozen experimental batches.

Jean Marie’s ciders are sold in 375-milliliter bottles for $6 to $7 at about 20 spots around San Luis Obispo County, listed on their website at www.jeanmariecidery.com, along with newly added locations in Santa Barbara County. A cider club is in the works. Email jeanmariecidery@gmail.com to set up a tasting.

Reef Points

Patrick Martinez developed a taste for the crisp ciders of Down Under while working at wineries in Australia and New Zealand, discovering that the dry, refreshing beverage complemented his thirst for adventure.

Now cellar master at Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles, Martinez partnered with friend and fellow ocean lover Dane Jacobs to craft bottle-conditioned ciders from family-owned orchards in Paso Robles and Watsonville, up toward Santa Cruz.

Their core cider, Kid Neptune, is fermented in a blend of stainless steel and oak barrels, giving it a bright nip of lemon and green apple. For smaller releases, they’ve played around with techniques such as increased carbonation for a zippy texture, malolactic fermentation for a softer, creamier feel, and aging in wine and spirits barrels to pull out berry and maple tones.

Find Reef Points ciders, sold in 22-ounce bottles for $14 to $16, in restaurants, bars and shops throughout the county and up and down the coast. Order online at www.reefpointshardcider.com or join the Cider Club to get a 20 percent discount on shipments of six bottles. Check out its blog for cider cocktail recipes.

See Canyon Hard Cider Co.

Chris Lemieux, winemaker at the family Domaine Le Mieux label, got into cider-making by accident when his parents, Wayne and Karen, purchased a farm in See Canyon and began nursing an old apple orchard back to health. Lemieux made some cider for winery customers, and it took off.

See Canyon’s flagship Classic is a smooth, refreshing semi-sweet field blend, while the bitey Boneyard, at 9 percent alcohol by volume, is bone-dry without sacrificing the apple flavor. Premium Dry is a sparkling cider made in the same “methode Champenoise” as sparkling wines — bottle-conditioned for two years and cellared an additional four years before release.

To bring hop-heads into the fold, Lemieux created Triple Threat, dry-hopped with three West Coast hops that bring out citrus and tropical notes, as well as Piney the Cider, combining pine needle juice with the same hops as Russian River Brewing Co.’s iconic Pliny the Elder beer.

Stay tuned for information on the reopening of the tasting space, which closed for some changes in the fall. In the meantime, find See Canyon Hard Cider (www.seecanyonhardcider.com) on draft and in 22-ounce bottles for $14 to $16 at a variety of stores and restaurants. Or order by phone at 805-706-0411.

Tin City Cider Co.

Not just one but three winemakers are behind the popular new Tin City Cider Co. — Field Recordings’ Andrew Jones, Sans Liege Wines’ Curt Schalchlin and Scar of the Sea’s Mikey Giugni. The spirit of collaboration runs through the ciders.

The trio partners with local farms for fruit for ciders such as the passion fruit co-fermented Liliko’i. They’re working with nearby Wine Shine to make calvados, an apple brandy. And they teamed up with next-door neighbor BarrelHouse Brewing Co. to make the crossover Sour Blonde.

They also bring techniques from brewing and winemaking to their ciders: Fermenting them in white wine barrels, adding hops and using both beer and wine yeasts, creating an effervescent, almost Champagne-like flagship cider.

The airy, modern taproom — with orchard ladders hanging overhead, trivia and live music nights and apple juice boxes for the kids — is open 1 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 1 to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Get tasting flights, pints and cans, bottles and growlers of whatever is on tap. Or sign up for the cider club at www.tincitycider.com, or find 500-milliliter cans of the original cider and some specialty bottles at area stores.

Giugni also makes cider under his Scar of the Sea label. Order at www.scaroftheseawines.com or look for it in area stores.

Central Coast Cider Festival

After a sellout debut last year, the Central Coast Cider Festival returns Saturday, May 13, at the Atascadero Pavilion on the Lake, with tastings, dinner and live music. Check www.centralcoastciderfestival.com for tickets and more info.

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