Sonoma Terroir at Tilted Shed Ciderworks
“We’d been trying to connect culture and agriculture, and getting back to the land without jumping out,” said Ellen Cavalli of Tilded Shed Ciderworks. “We’re really into localization of agriculture and learning how to grow our own food, and by way of that, you also start to grow your own drink. Scott [Heath] has done a lot of beer making, wine making; what ever you can make booze with, he will.” And so when living on a small farm in northern New Mexico, where there were apple orchids all around, Ellen and Scott decided to try their hands at cider.
With a barrel press in the driveway near the barn, Ellen had their two-month-old son Benny on her hip, tossing apples into the hopper while Scott turned the wheel and ground. “It was idyllic, but we had no idea what we were doing,” she said and laughed. “We threw it into our barn and let it do its thing over the winter. We didn’t have any high hopes, because all of the cider we’d had, had been really terrible.” But sure enough the cider was pretty good. “There was something to it that captivated us,” she added.
Following up with a copy of Cider, Hard and Sweet, by Ben Watson, they learned the history of cider making, the varietals, and the names of those who were trying to resurrect the art of making cider in America. “I still, to this day, can’t figure out what it is that we really love about cider,” said Ellen, “but I think a part of it is when you make an agricultural product and you share it with people, and create community, that’s really cool. That’s exciting. But there’s also an artistic element to it.”
As a former book editor, Ellen said that they’d become technicians. “I’m a really good editor, and Scott [who is a printer] can make your art look good. He guides you through the process.” And so they both came to love the creative processes of crafting, blending and shepherding the fruit through the process of fermentation. “Every time there’s a new harvest, a new cider, a new something, there’s a new way to experience it. A new way to express it. We tell our story through it, our apple story. There’s an artistic element to it. There’s a craft.”
And so, just as Sonoma has drawn its share of visionaries to grow wine, the same terroir that benefits grape vines is also well suited to growing apples for cider. With well draining soils, dry-farming, marine influence and coastal fog, the apples’ sugars become concentrated (up to 20º brix on the tree, compared to 13º elsewhere), yielding richly flavored ciders that are a little higher in alcohol but also incredibly balanced. “The growers planted them so as to be able to withstand drought conditions,” she said. “So you plant, you give it some buckets of water, it gets established, it roots down, and there’s no supplemental irrigation at all. Those trees are tenacious. They’re survivors. The grapes are coddled. The apple trees not so much.”
And just as low yields and drought concentrates grape sugars and increases phenolics, the same thing happens with apples. With the ongoing California drought, Ellen said, “The tannins seem to be really pronounced and pretty rowdy. For the same reasons that some of the winemakers prefer low yields and stressed vines, because they feel the fruit will give you the best that that varietal can give, we’re thinking the same thing holds true with apples.”
With 97 varietals planted to their farm, each with varying degrees of acidity and tannins, Ellen and Scott for the most part, emphasize blends. “Scott’s style has been to do things in very small batches,” she said. “Other cider makers might use 10,000 gallon tanks, but we’re not on that scale. Blending is key. We’ll press them, and ferment them in small batches. The largest size we have is 275 gallons for our fermentations.” Working with varietals such as Nehou, Porter’s Perfection, and Foxwhelp, they might only have 500 or 700 pounds of each fruit to ferment. “Yield-wise, it’s similar to wine. One ton of grapes or apples yields 140-150 gallons of juice, and we need to have enough to fit into a tank. So we’ll do some mixes of some Bittersharps, or some Bittersweets, or a Roxbury Russet or a Muscat Bernay, things that Scott knows do well together in a blend.”
As one of their favorite varietals, Roxbury Russet is one of the oldest cultivated varietals in America. “It’s really beautiful and sweet, with low acid and low tannins, so it’s not a cider apple in and of itself,” said Ellen. “But it has beautiful aromatics and it gives a lot of body. I talk a lot about French and English apples, but America has a rich history of apples as well. This one dates back to 1617 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and it’s a really productive beautiful tree on the farm.”
While the orchard is planted mostly with varietals that they know well, and partially with ones that they’ve read about, Ellen and Scott also work closely with a few growers. “Most of them are just private growers,” said Ellen. “They bought land with apple orchards and they had a nostalgic sentimental connection to it. They could have plowed them under and planted with wine grapes and made a lot of money, but they love these apples and want to do something with them, so they got organic certification, and learned how to manage and care for these apples. They harvest them for us and we take them directly to our cidery.”
In the cellar, which is registered as a winery with the TTB due to the naturally high sugar content of the apples that yields higher alcohol levels, the temperatures are low and the fermentation is allowed to run its natural course. “We’re very much akin to white wine production,” said Ellen. “While mass produced ciders are more like beer. Scott will rack on occasion, but it’s not high intervention.” With fermentations that can last one to four months, depending on the varietal and vintage, Scott then blends and ages before bottling.
“When we first started in 2011, we had no expectation that this would succeed. When Scott started pressing, I told him to stop at 330 gallons,” she said, with the idea that they would keep 200 gallons for themselves. “I had no idea if anyone was going to like this, but it was a big hit and we sold out very quickly.”
Receiving support from the beer and wine community, Ellen said, “When we make cider, we’re not looking to pander to the craft beer audience or to the wine people.
“We’re looking to make cider appreciated in and of itself. Maybe we’re showing the innovation that the craft beer world appreciates and the elegance and nuance that the wine world appreciates. It’s almost like our community obligation,” she continued. “If we really believe in apples, we better buy those apples from these people. I want people to understand what’s so extraordinary about our apples and why they’re worth saving and why what we do matters.”