By Vince Burns | Photos by Viktor Budnik
Ventura County is putting itself on the map for craft cidermaking thanks to the efforts of several local fermentation pioneers. One of the newest is the husband-and-wife team behind Pier City Cider. Karen and Gary Stewart created the cider business, a subset of their Four Brix Winery operation, in 2019 to provide a thirst-quenching compliment to wine and an alternative to beer during long working hours at the winery. And why not? A couple of flavorful and cold glasses of their Mango Chili Lime cider could keep any team well hydrated and refreshed during long bottling and cleaning days. And for the gluten intolerant, it’s also a win.
As Gens X, Y and Z discover the joys of alternative fermentations, the drinking landscape has exploded with hard (=alcoholic) cider following on from the high-end wine, micro beer and kombucha booms. In the case of cider, it’s more of a reemergence since early European Americans were practically raised on apples, either liquid or actual, both for healthy nourishment and (perhaps) for a modest buzz.
In Colonial New England, for example, drinking water was never a sure thing, sanitation-wise, but hard or fresh cider was reliably safe from nasty microbes. And with thousands of apple orchards in New England and the Midwest, early Americans had apples aplenty. Cider was simply an efficient way of storing the surplus harvest in the same way that beer is just grain in liquid form.
The numbers are impressive. Early Americans could really put away the stuff: In the late 18th century, per capita cider consumption in Massachusetts exceeded a barrel (35 gallons) annually, a staggering quantity. Early photographs depicted entire rural families jointly drinking cider from a barrel with long straws.
Locally, a long-time county tradition of cidermaking is hard to discern in our own history. Our climate is more conducive to citrus and grapes than apples, and droughts can wreck apple orchards.
Still, there are some traces of bygone Ventura County cider to be found. For example, those of us of a certain age will remember Rancho Arnaz’s fresh-pressed cider on Highway 33 (a sign remains), although it closed long ago. Fast forward to the present and Pier City joins two other cider “peers” in the area, Camarillo Cider House and Anna’s Cider in Santa Paula.
What makes the Pier City Cider operation different from other cidermakers? Two things: a synergy with Four Brix’s winemaking business and the creation of flavored ciders influenced by modern craft bar culture and some of our local Central Coast traditions.
How does that work in practice? Pier City’s cider offerings often echo top-shelf bar drinks. The cocktail flavors, including grapefruit, persimmon, lime, mint, ginger and other ingredients, are all added by cidermaker Gary to his base cider to create refreshing — but less powerful — alternatives to stiff mojitos, greyhounds and Moscow mules.
“We wanted something that didn’t compete with our wine and that would go great with food,” says Gary.
These two identities — winemaker and gourmet flavor master — power Pier City’s ciders. On the day I visited: Sour Apple, (Moscow) Mule, Tamarind Ice, Blackberry and Mango Chili Lime ciders were all on offer. No sulfites, all organic, and oozing freshness both in the apples and from the added flavors.
Once new wine is safely in oak and aging, the vats and other fermentation equipment at a standard winery sit fallow gathering dust until the next fall’s harvest. A creative entrepreneur might ponder other uses for all this high-priced stainless steel. Such was Gary Stewart’s reasoning.
Although apples are also picked in the fall, modern techniques can keep the pressed juice fresh tasting and cold for long periods. So once his Four Brix wine is in oak, Gary can put on his cidermaker’s hat and order up some hyper-fresh apple juice for delivery to his cidery and start creating.
With nature so eager to turn apple juice into slightly alcoholic hard cider (you may have had this happen inadvertently in your fridge), basic cidermaking is much easier than brewing beer: no temperature-controlled mashing of grains or boiling wort with hops. To create the backbone cider for his creations, Gary describes the process as similar to making white wine.
Once the proprietary raw, unfiltered, fresh apple juice is delivered in 4,000-liter increments to Ventura, Gary immediately cools it down and lets it settle to remove the detritus of the orchard. Next champagne yeast is added to convert all that apple sweetness to an alcohol level of about 7 percent. Gary now has a neutral hard cider ready for (in his words) “playing with.” A blank slate, so to speak.
Now the fun really begins, as he mixes in herbs, spices and other natural flavors to create Pier City’s unique tastes. Think vermouth, persimmon, lavender and many more flavors. The now-infused ciders burst with flavor and freshness. The alcohol stays in the 7 percent range from the original base cider. Depending on the flavor profile he’s shooting for, Gary may “back-sweeten” the final product to boost drinkability.
THE CIDERY AT EASTMAN AVENUE
We sampled the Tamarind Ice and Mango Chili Lime ciders and found them off the charts in terms of flavor, freshness and overall taste, all with a nice champagne-like carbonation mouth tickle. A few sips in, we understood Gary’s vision behind his new approach to hard cider with flavors familiar to cocktail connoisseurs.
Together, Gary and Karen manage their cider and wine business, with Karen running marketing, communications, events and much else while Gary sticks to the production side. And if the wine, cider and restaurant business isn’t enough to keep him busy, Gary also helps run a family-owned roofing business in Burbank.
Like every restaurateur and fellow-traveler during COVID, Karen and Gary had to get creative and throw out the business rulebook to stay afloat during the darkest days of the pandemic. They did deliveries to keep the business going and credit a loyal crew of customers on both the wine and cider side for keeping the ship afloat.
To enjoy in person, the Four Brix/Pier City tasting room is on Eastman Avenue (off Telephone). It’s spotless, with gleaming stainless steel Italian fermenters doing their work and dozens upon dozens of oak barrels filled to the brim with Four Brix wines, definitely a fantasy space for any wine or cider lover! Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the space also available for private events. Complementing the fermented refreshments: gourmet pizza, cheeses and other treats, all perfect for pairings with the cider or wine.
So don’t be shy about sampling local cider. Now that we know that early Americans polished off 35+ gallons of hard cider annually, it’s clearly time for local apple-lovers to get busy!