By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
While the California beer boom has been going strong for decades — San Francisco’s Anchor Steam showed up on the scene in 1971, long before the term “craft brewing” had been coined — ciders are the new kids on the microbrew block. Although “new” isn’t quite right, either. Made from fermented fruit juice (usually apples), the brewing and consumption of cider goes back centuries, before the Romans invaded Britain.
In the United States, cider making went hand-in-hand with apple growing. Apple saplings were carried over on the Mayflower, and John Chapman — better known today as Johnny Appleseed — helped introduce the plant to present-day Pennsylvania, Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and parts of West Virginia. Not all apples were made into cider, but wherever apple orchards flourished, ciders could be found.
Craft beer lovers, always on the prowl for something novel to tempt their sophisticated palates, have helped revive a number of specialty ales: saisons, lambics, goses, sours. Ciders might have fallen into this category originally, but have thrived independent of their “niche” origins. One of cider’s great success stories is Anna’s Cider of Santa Paula.
From grapes to apples
Anna’s Cider is named for Anna O’Reilly, one half of the couple that founded the company. Husband Dominic is the fermentation wizard while Anna’s role is “basically making the business work,” handling everything from bookkeeping and dealing with city regulations to bottling.
Dominic was born in Ojai but moved to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, south of Portland, when he was a toddler.
“My father went to become part of the new wine region,” he explains.
This was in the late 1980s, when the Pacific Northwest was still a new frontier for the wine industry. Dominic’s parents, David and Angelica O’Reilly, would go on to found Owen Roe Winery in 1999.
“I grew up doing wine from a young age,” Dominic says. “I worked in my dad’s cellars. It’s very hands-on and very scientific, and at the same time it’s very artsy. The combination of art and science really appealed to me.”
Dominic would eventually return to Ventura County to attend Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, which is where he met Anna. After graduation, he worked at the Ojai Vineyard under Adam Tolmach.
“Other than my dad, he had the most impact . . . he taught me the art of winemaking,” Dominic recalls.
Later, he joined Topa Mountain Winery as head winemaker, where he continues to work while producing Anna’s Cider — a passion project which has evolved beyond his wildest dreams.
“My whole life has evolved around wine,” Dominic says. “Cider was something that Anna and I could do together. Cider seemed like a natural progression for us. We wanted to do something to make a family business.”
Fruit without the funk
“Historically, cider is the American drink in many ways,” Dominic explains. “Apple orchards . . . planted here in America are for cider production.”
Dominic says that his background in wine has primed him for success as a cider producer. “I know I can take this ancient craft and put my winemaking twist on it.”
Anna’s Cider is known for its semi-dry concoctions — a far cry from apple juice, and developed to appeal to beer drinkers . . . and themselves.
“We didn’t like a lot of the ciders we tasted,” Dominic confirms. “They tended to be really sweet and kind of boring.”
From the beginning, the O’Reillys aimed to develop something interesting, with greater depth and more nuance…similar in some respects to wine. Something that would appeal to a connoisseur. They’ve achieved that goal with ciders that are clean and fresh, fragrant and delicate — fruit forward without a lot of sugar or additives.
“We want our ciders to be really clean,” Dominic adds. “Something very pure . . . [that] doesn’t have funky, off flavors . . . sort of like French farmhouse cider without the funky stuff.”
Anna says that their ciders are often compared to a sparkling wine. “It’s one of the most common comments we get. It’s like champagne or a really light beer. It has a nice, light, natural carbonation.”
Anna’s Cider uses Braeburn apples as the “backbone.”
“It’s an old cider apple,” Dominic explains. “It tends to be very acidic. It’s probably 50 percent of the base.”
Other flavors and characteristics come in with Fuji, Granny Smith, Gala, Pink Lady and other varietals. All the fruit comes from family farms in the Sierra Foothills, San Luis Obispo County and San Diego. Crops are picked in the fall, but unlike other produce, apples can be stored — in cellars or coolers — and grow sweeter over time.
“We have access to fresh apples all year round,” Dominic confirms — which is strange to him as a winemaker, where much more delicate grapes need to be harvested and crushed right away before they rot.
Rising from the ashes
Anna’s Cider produced its first batch — about 30 gallons of cider, or 240 pints, made from 600 pounds of apples — in November 2017. A month later, nearly everything — facility, equipment, inventory — was lost to the Thomas Fire.
Anna and Dominic — parents to three children, with a fourth on the way — were bolstered by the support of the community, who rallied around them to donate to a Kickstarter campaign which allowed them to get back on track. In early 2018, they also added some partners to the business: Alex and Elaine Tombelli.
“We just needed more help with the business,” Anna acknowledges.
Alex Tombelli and Dominic have been friends for many years, working together at Owen Roe, Ojai Vineyard and Topa Mountain Winery. It was a perfect fit.
“Alex knows how to make cider,” Dominic says. “And he’s a craftsman; he knows how to build.”
In fact, Alex helped get the Anna’s Cider Tasting Room in Santa Paula ready for opening this summer. He built the beautiful patio, where the proprietors now serve customers, and the gorgeous live-edge table that has become the tasting room’s centerpiece. More importantly, the Tombellis’ involvement has allowed the O’Reillys to keep Anna’s Cider in operation while they both continue to work at their “day” jobs — Dominic’s with Topa Mountain Winery, Anna as an online math teacher who mainly serves homeschooling families.
“We were doing Zoom classes before it was cool,” she jokes.
Opportunity on tap
Anna’s Cider acquired the space in Downtown Santa Paula — on Main Street near the corner of 8th — over a year ago with the intention of opening a tasting room. It took a long time, however, to work their way through “city bureaucracy,” Dominic says. But several months and two more kids later (for a total of five), the tasting room finally opened on Aug. 7.
“Opening up now, during COVID-19, I felt like a madman,” Dominic acknowledges. “It was the worst time to start a business. But we were sick of waiting. We’d been sitting on the property for months. And I was going stir crazy with nothing to do . . . and we thought other people might be feeling the same way.”
They were right: Craft brew lovers from across the county have flocked to Santa Paula, queueing up (socially distanced, of course) to partake in the cider revolution.
Two ciders serve as the company’s bread-and-butter offerings: the unfiltered Hazy Dry (crisp, dry, no sugar, unfiltered — ideal for beer lovers) and the rosé (fermented with cranberries and raspeberries, which give it a pretty pink color and fruity aroma).
The tasting room has given Dominic and Alex a chance to experiment as well. Once or twice a month they’re offering something special, bringing in local produce and herbs to make limited edition pours, like the pineapple habanero and cucumber ginger that were on tap for opening weekend.
“These pour out quickly,” Dominic cautions.
He hopes to continue adding new and different options to the list, including “heritage” ciders made from a single apple varietal. Fans can monitor availability at the Anna’s Cider Instagram page, and he’s always open to suggestions from customers. In addition, the tasting room offers Topa Mountain Winery wines (owner Larry Guerra has supported Dominic from the beginning — and sells Anna’s Cider at his Ojai tasting room) and light bites courtesy of El Capricho next door, which keeps Anna’s Cider in tacos, wings and other food.
“We’ve been doing rotating menus every single week, keeping it fresh and interesting,” Dominic says.
Future endeavors might include gourmet farm-to-table meals, live music and activities such as bocce ball. Just more opportunities for the O’Reillys to use their family business to build community. It is this community, after all, that helped Anna’s Cider weather some spectacularly difficult times.
As Dominic says, “We have a lot to be thankful for.”