California Cider Revival
Ben Nielsen is from Wisconsin but he’s a got a Johnny Appleseed heart, sprinkling bottles of his award winning cider throughout the North State. He looks like a bearded, earnest Midwesterner—the kind of man I’d imagine owning a small cabin on a frozen lake where he fishes from a hole in the ice, drinking strong beer and sipping a thermos full of steaming cheese-based soup. A material science engineer by trade, he never felt like it was his true calling. He trekked from the Midwest to the West Coast, picking up a college degree in Michigan, where he began homebrewing with friends, and his college-homebrewed “Breakfast Beer”, an oatmeal coffee stout, is actually still being served at a brewpub in Calumet, Michigan. While on the West Coast, he earned his Master’s degree at Oregon State and spent a decade in Corvallis as an engineer. But as life is wont to do when you’re not out fulfilling your destiny, it’ll bring destiny to your doorstep. And for Ben it was discovering apple trees growing in his neighbor’s yard and the subsequent cider made from that neighborly haul. The finished product was so good, he was inspired to go around town asking people if he could have their unwanted backyard apples, and set out searching for wild orchards.
One time he happened upon a Century Farm with an orchard dating back to the turn of the century, when their farm first started, but their apples had been long forgotten. They were happy to have Ben pick them and take them away to his own backyard. Another time he found an old crabapple tree growing wild and was surprised to find that it made the best cider of them all; it was a revelation. The wild crabapple piqued his interest further and recalibrated the way he thought about heirloom varietals. He began to focus on those particular species that were good for cider, the classic European bittersweet apples. After government budget cuts serendipitously left him without a job, Ben left Oregon and engineering behind, moved to Chico, and started Lassen Traditional Cidery.
Now, the thing about writing for Edible is that I am often in places where things don’t really smell all that tantalizing. Hanging out with cows, chasing piglets, manure wafting up my nostrils as I chat with farmers, ranchers, and growers. And though I am getting the hang of things and learning to become more comfortable with mud on my shoes, I’m still a little nose sensitive. But this time, the clouds parted and I finally hit the odor jackpot—apples! Apples that had been smashed and pulped, wrung dry of juice with the smell permeating every molecule in the air. Every corner of the Lassen Traditional Cidery warehouse is flush with the smell of apples and apple pulp. It’s fresh, it’s balmy, it’s nostalgic and sweet; it’s cloying but in the best way. I am sure that there is nobody that wouldn’t love the smell of a cidery.
Not that many of us have much experience with cideries. It’s a legacy that many Californians are not intimately familiar with, as the heritage apple industry has nearly faded to extinction in the North State and local apple production has steadily diminished. Apple orchards that once covered the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, or the rolling hills in Sonoma and Napa Counties, in Watsonville, and counties South, have given way to grapevines and cash crops, or merely allowed to grow wild, lost in time, abandoned due to lack of profitability. Most of our apples are now exported and our apple juice is imported from Washington, the apple baron-state of the West. Even ciders produced in California, the ones that you’re familiar with and used to seeing in local bottle shops and supermarkets, are made with juice that is trucked down in tankers from way up North. But Ben Nielsen is committed to doing things another way. An apple geek at his core (good pun, or great pun?) he explores California seeking out our heirloom apple varieties and searching for orchards gone wild. He is particular and faithful when it comes to using local apple varieties and encouraging apple growers to grow the heritage crops that used to be so notable in days gone by.
The common apple is thought to be a collection of clones hybridized between species originating in the forests of the northwestern Himalayan Mountains. The only apple that is truly native to North America is the bitter, tannic, woody little crabapple. But apples are naturally diverse, they have to outcross, requiring pollen from another variety, which in turn causes a lot of genetic variation; every apple is a hybrid. And it’s true that if you try to grow an apple from an apple seed, you will not get the apple that you think you’re getting. The only way to ensure you’re growing your favorite apple is to make a clonal propagule of that variety by saving a vegetative cutting when it’s dormant in late winter (known as scion wood) and grafting it onto rootstock. This allows for a lot of experimentation and diversity as growers play around trying to express and suppress various apple traits. Dan Bussey, of the Seed Saver’s Exchange in Iowa, author of The Illustrated History of Apples in North America and possibly our foremost American apple scholar, has catalogued over 17,000 different types of apples grown in this country since 1623. Locally, one of my favorite apples, the Pink Pearl, was developed here in Northern California in 1944 by Albert Etter. It displays an ancient characteristic in that it is pink-fleshed on the inside. Etter coaxed it to life by using another pink-fleshed apple variety named Surprise. The Surprise apple was thought to be originally from Turkey, possibly descended from an apple variety in Siberia, and after a failed stint in the Midwest, it was found that it was distinctly suited for our West Coast climate.
As Ben shows me around his warehouse, going over his process, I revel in the scent of apples, and the soothing sound of CO2 bubbling out of barrels. Ben’s latest bounty, a large load of Newtown Pippins, comes from Apple Hill in Placerville. Though I’m bowled over by the syrupy smell of apple, Ben doesn’t necessarily seek out sweetness as a defining characteristic. He prizes fruit with strong tannins, finding that they make a superior cider. After his apples are processed and pressed—he does everything by hand, using fairly simple equipment—he’s left with bins of juice, and loads of apple pulp. The juice goes into the barrels, and the pulp goes to a local cow and pig farmer who happily takes it by the truckload for her bovine and porcine epicureans. The process for creating a cider is pretty straightforward, it ferments in the barrel, allowing yeast, naturally present in the apples, to convert sugar into alcohol and we’re left with the sottish essence of the apple. Generally his ciders are finished fermenting in about 4-6 weeks, but are left in the barrels for about two months to absorb more earthy barrel flavor. Ben’s ciders are crisp and clean, and at first you might feel surprised that they’re not sweet, but after a glass or two you’ll realize that all of the sweetness is in the nose. All of the apple is in the bouquet and the complexity and diversity of the apples come through vibrant and alive in more ways than one. Ben is fascinated with the fermentation process and creating a living food, his cider is by nature probiotic.
Though Ben is working mostly on his own at the moment, his distinct Lassen Traditional Cidery labels are created by his sister, her talented illustrations capturing the feel of an old-fashioned fruit crate. He is committed to producing cider as traditionally as possible, while innovating within those parameters; mostly forgoing fermentation in stainless steel vats for wine barrels he’s collected and now obtains locally. The barrel aging adds complexity, complementing the conversion process. It’s definitely working for him: he took the Silver Medal this year at the California Cider Competition for his Farmhouse Dry cider. When you ask Ben about his favorite apples, he says, “Ooh..King David, Wickson Crab, which was bred for cider specifically, and Ashmead’s Kernel.” He goes on, “The heirlooms that I’m using are mostly King David, Winesap, Newtown Pippin, Jonathan’s and a little bit of Arkansas Black. But the King David, Winesap and Newtown Pippin are my workhorse apples that I use a lot of.” The Newtown Pippin, or the Albemarle Pippin is the oldest commercially cultivated apple in the United States, a favorite grown by both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. “There’s a lot of great American history surrounding apples, that were propagated and planted, and used for ciders specifically, it’s really cool to see a lot of them coming back, seeing things come around again like that,” and this is a cornerstone of Ben’s cider-making philosophy; from an apple tree in Kazakhstan, to Plymouth Rock and West, everything that is old, can be new again. Even the Sierra Beauty apple, first discovered as a seedling growing East of Oroville around 1870, is thought to have been descended from a discarded Winesap. The Sierra Beauty was first propagated and sold by General John Bidwell’s Rancho Chico Nursery, but it disappeared after the turn of the century—expeditions were launched all around Chico to re-discover this lost varietal, but it turns out that it was alive and well the whole time, under the careful stewardship of the Gowan Family Orchard in Anderson Valley. They are still the main grower of Sierra Beauties to this date. Ben has ideas for this special apple, “I’d like to do a single varietal Sierra Beauty cider, it’s Chico’s apple.”
Currently he’s offering four ciders: Farmhouse Dry, which is a blend, but mostly made with King David. Also on offer, Newtown Pippin, a single varietal cider, and Apple-A-Day—an easy-to-drink blend made with some heirloom varietals, and some “dessert fruit” apples. It’s sweeter and isn’t aged in a barrel so it has less of what Ben calls “farmhouse-y funk.” Also available on tap at the Winchester Goose in Chico is the not-quite single varietal, Winesap, which is about 80% Winesap, an apple noted and named for its vinous tasting notes. Ben is also intrigued by the idea of doing a “community cider.” So if you happen to find some old apple trees on your property, reach out and let him know—he’d love to take a look, and he’s open to doing some bushel trades for a bottle.
Lassen Traditional ciders are available at Spike’s Bottle Shop, Mangrove Bottle Shop, Star Liquors, S & S Produce, Chico Natural Foods, Ray’s Liquor, and on tap at the Winchester Goose. You can reach out to him on Instagram, Facebook, or via his website, www.lassencider.com.