Cider—perishable, pastoral, autumnal—represents a point in the process of food refinement that Americans rarely experience. Ripe apples, crushed and pushed through a rough filter such as burlap, yield the opaque, spicy, full-bodied juice we know as apple cider. Soft or sweet at this stage, it will, left to its own devices, ferment into hard cider as natural yeasts consume the now-exposed sugars. As the juice ferments it becomes drier, more alcoholic, and, if in a closed vessel, bubbly. Soft cider is not considered to be stable—its inclination to ferment means it has a very short shelf life and needs constant refrigeration. Once sterilized, you get shelf-stable apple juice, which is just soft cider that has been filtered, pasteurized, pressurized, and often treated with sulfur dioxide. Apple juice is ubiquitous throughout the United States, while fresh cider remains seasonal and regional. Hard cider can be made from either fresh soft cider or filtered apple juice, which is more available but has less character and can require more additives.
Happily, we are in a hard cider renaissance both nationally and, if you look for it, in southern Arizona. This renaissance is in part motivated by dietary concerns surrounding gluten—cider is gluten-free, unlike beer—and in part because Americans have begun to shift from thinking of hard cider as a subcategory of beer to recognizing it more as a sibling of wine. This shift is important because it implies a rethinking of the methods of production. Cider made in the style of industrial-scale American macrobrews is produced from sterilized apple juice and is force-carbonated, producing a style of cider that, while drinkable, tends towards sweet and insipid.
Cider made in the style of wine is different. The cider maker considers variables such as the types of apple varieties (cultivars) to use and whether to age the product. Barrel aging can coax out nascent complexity, but only in tiny batches. In the end, this shift makes sense; cider, like wine, is a fermentation of fruit.
This reconsideration of cider and its pedigree has inspired a handful of Arizonans to begin fermenting their own ciders from our state’s orchards. In doing so, they are finding a new medium through which to express our local terroir. As there is almost no incentive for Arizona orchards to grow the bitter apples used in traditional French and English cider, Arizonans must rely on cooking apples to form the base of their ferment. Although some cider makers complain about the relative plainness of these apples, it is this quality that allows them to communicate terroir so well. In the absence of a strong fruit character, an apple’s character is determined more by the tree’s environment—soil composition, elevation, and weather patterns. The blank-slate aspect of cider’s building blocks results in two distinct approaches—either the adding of flavor with other fruits and sugars, or the opposite: a hands-off approach which allows the variables of the harvest to add subtlety to the ferment.
James Callahan of Rune Winery made his first cider two years ago: a barrel-fermented and aged cider made from Willcox apples using the facilities at Arizona Hops and Vines, up the road. The process came relatively easily to Callahan, who employed winemaking strategies borrowed from the Champagne region of France: bottle-conditioning and extended lees contact. The lees, or spent yeast, settle at the bottom of the barrel during fermentation and lend a certain nutty or bready flavor to the final product. Bottle conditioning, allowing the cider to re-ferment and carbonate in the bottle, complements this aging as it yields a more delicate fizziness. Callahan has been happy with the reception of the cider, which he calls Ten Ten, and plans to make another batch in the next year or two. Ten Ten is available at niche retailers in Tucson and should age well in the bottle over the coming months and, hopefully, years.
Callahan is working on opening an off-the-grid winery in Sonoita, where a more rustic style of cider making should come naturally. For Callahan, cider’s relationship to terroir is about exploration and potential. “With Arizona wine there is definite terroir. I taste it, but I haven’t tried enough ciders from around the state to know what elements of terroir show up. There isn’t enough clean, honest cider out there—people add sugar, CO2, acid—and don’t realize they’re putting up all these roadblocks to expressing terroir.”
Down the road from Rune’s new winery is one of the few other Sonoita cider producers, newcomers Mel and Tom Pyle of Copper Hop Ranch. Although Copper Hop Ranch has been open to the public for only five months, it already feels like an institution.
“We get a good mix here,” says Mel. “The hippies from Patagonia appreciate what we’re doing, farming organically and being all local; the ranchers love what we do too because they can ride their horses here—we have tie ups for them around back—and have a beer whenever.” From the bungalow where Tom pours beer and cider flights for tourists and locals alike, a patio extends into the trellised hop yards where they grow 12 species of hops. One will eventually flavor a dry-hopped dry cider, complementing the current rotation that includes pear- and mango-flavored varieties.
“This is the Napa Valley of the Southwest,” Mel says. “Tom and I could have lived anywhere. We looked all over the world, but I’ll tell you there’s something special about this place.”
Mel and Tom became interested in brewing beer while living in Julian, a small town outside of San Diego, where neighbors owned a microbrewery. Surprised at the rarity and expense of hops—their friends were bidding on hops futures 10 years out—they decided to look for a place where they could grow their own, settling, eventually, on Sonoita. “This place is perfect for hops,” says Tom: “Long daylight hours, great altitude, benign weather.” Tom makes the beer and Mel makes cider, mostly from her neighbors’ apples. Mel appreciates the “flare and intuition” that guide her process, as opposed to the more scientific and exacting process of brewing beer.
After two years, Mel continues to be surprised by the Sonoran landscape and its seasonality. The farm is on a butterfly migration corridor and is inundated for four months every year. Guests come to watch the migratory scene and drink beer on the patio, alive with color and movement. Mel recently began brainstorming what a butterfly brew would mean—could they isolate a wild yeast strain from the pollen carried on the insects’ proboscises? “It’s a special thing about this place, so I want to get it into our cider,” says Mel, who is also planting native trees and herbs that will one day augment their beer and ciders. With the exception of a few popular fruits blended into the apple cider, the couple’s goal is to grow everything they use on their farm.
That there are only three ciders being produced for commercial consumption in a state awash with microbreweries speaks to cider’s relative unpopularity. That one of the three, a cider called Blueberry Spaceship Box, is ranked at the top in its category on RateBeer, a beverage rating service, speaks to Arizonans’ impatience with mediocrity, regardless of relative popular demand.
Jeff and Jen Herbert have been making barrel-fermented ciders in Prescott since 2012, when they opened Superstition Meadery. Although the focus has always been on the namesake honey wine, the couple has never been able to make enough cider to satisfy demand. Superstition Meadery has quickly outgrown its home in downtown Prescott, and the Herberts are anxious to open their new facility a few blocks uptown in early 2017. The new facility will allow them to both increase production of their popular staples and also continue to explore new projects, such as installing an onsite apiary to support estate-made meads.
Most of their ciders are blended with other fruit juices, sometimes before and sometimes after fermentation, which gives a particular seasonality and dynamism to their product. The Herberts rely on the subtlety of barrel-aging to give their ciders depth and complexity. “Barrel aging elevates things,” Jeff says. “The slow oxidation process adds a depth of flavor that is hard to describe. Barrel-aging can also remove flavors you don’t want, blending and integrating the rough edges of the compounds produced in fermentation over time.”
This integrated, well-rounded character is evident in all of their products, from ciders to mead. The French call this process élevage, or the maturing of raw, fermented materials into something more than the sum of its parts—a coming-into-itself. Here, it is obvious that the language and methods of viticulture are best suited to cider production. When working with Arizona apple juice, Herbert sources soft cider from Dwight English, a fifth generation orchardist in Willcox.
Although there are small orchards in the Verde Valley, Willcox is the heart of Arizona apple country. Here the orchards are large enough to support a commercial cider operation. English’s orchard has been certified organic since 1988, a few years after he moved to Arizona from New Mexico, where his grandfather’s orchards were. “I had put on the suits and sprayed things I didn’t want to spray back then, and I knew as soon as I owned my own land I wouldn’t do that anymore,” English recalls. English believes that organic practices make better fruit and are especially suited to the dry climate of Baja Arizona where trees mostly don’t suffer from the diseases of humid regions. It is this climate, furthermore, that stresses the trees. While this may decrease their yield, the apples themselves are widely regarded as superior. “Any wine guy will tell you that the vines which work the hardest make the best grapes,” English says.
The soft cider that English makes for Superstition Meadery is flash pasteurized, a lighter sterilization method that protects the enzymes essential to fermentation. Although this makes the juice more stable, it remains a nearly raw product and must arrive fresh at the Herbert’s facility. Ideally, the batches of fresh cider are consistent in terms of the ratio of sugar to acid—the foundation of any cider. To achieve this consistency, English blends the cider from an array of apple cultivars, which ripen at different points during the long apple season, balancing sweeter cultivars with more tart ones.
David Scharf has been interested in cider for most of his life. Drinking apple juice as a child, he remembers being fascinated by its particular stickiness. Later, as a home brewer, he would come to understand that the stickiness of juice was evidence of its natural sugars and of its potential for robust fermentation. Now, having made his first large batch of bottle-conditioned Arizona cider with business partner Stephanie Hunter, that potential has been realized on a meaningfully local scale.
Scharf and Hunter plan to start selling cider in late 2017 under the label BEKO, a name borrowed from Hunter’s grandfather, who owned a business of the same name. The apples for the first batch were purchased from Pivot Produce and came from a large orchard in Willcox. Although he used a commercial yeast strain for his first batch, Scharf looks forward to experimenting with local, ambient yeasts in the future. “What I love about fermentation is that you can’t actually ferment anything. You can only allow fermentation to happen,” he says.
Scharf, a longtime home brewer, says that he likes cider because it is easier to make than beer. What ease means, here, is not so much a lack of hard work (Scharf recently returned from Willcox hauling 400 pounds of apples to crush in his backyard) but rather a lack of singular will. Scharf would rather act as the steward for a process that occurs naturally than create the sterile conditions necessary to work outside, or in spite, of his environmental context.
The same might be said of John Slattery, an herbalist and local food advocate. Slattery has no commercial ambitions for his cider making, allowing him more exploratory license and an unapologetically process-driven approach. Slattery echoes Sharf’s assertion that, for all the technology surrounding modern fermentation, the process itself is elemental and can be as simple as getting out of the way. “The idea of fermentation had seemed unreachable to me in terms of gear and equipment—but to realize that all I had to do was put a sugary substance on the counter and let microbes take over, that was really fascinating,” he says. “So I started to dabble more, make more mistakes and see what came of it.” These “mistakes” eventually led to his embrace of wild ferments and their singular expression of localness.
Slattery’s latest ferment is a bright pink, bottle conditioned apple cider fermented with ambient yeast. The apples came from a stand of feral trees on Mount Lemmon. Crushing these apples with Scharf’s help, Slattery allowed the cider to spontaneously ferment with prickly pear juice and finished it with manzanita berries. The cider was bright with unmistakable prickly pear funk and tart berry notes from the manzanita. Bone dry and acidic, the cider was more invigorating than gulpable, a testament to Slattery’s interest in a more experiential mode of consumption rather than the simple sating of appetite.
“For the concept of terroir to really mean something, there has to be a melding between us and our place,” he says. “I don’t think we have that yet … and I think that such simple things like this, local cider, can help us tap into that knowledge.” ✜
Luke Anable is a Tucson transplant, natural wine protagonist, and beverage consultant for independent restaurants.