At Tilted Shed, we both grow and use dozens of apple varieties, from multipurpose heirlooms (like Gravenstein, Newtown Pippin, Roxbury Russet, and Wickson, which are good for eating, cooking and cidermaking) to the tannic cider types (such as Kingston Black, Muscat de Bernay, Nehou, and Tremlett’s Bitter, whose only purpose is to be fermented). Some of these are rarely grown in Sonoma County, much less California, so we’re conducting trials at our Sebastopol cider orchard to discover which apples will thrive here.
Bittersweets (high tannin, low acid) are the backbone of many of our ciders, and as raw fruit they are the most unpalatable. The easiest way to describe their taste is like sucking on a black tea bag while eating a small spoonful of sugar. The texture can sometime be dry, and of all the apples we use, these are the one most deserving of the term “spitters.” However, once fermented, they add layers of complexity and structure and provide the barnyardy, funky finish that we love so much. We use and grow French and English bittersweets, including Muscat de Bernay, Nehou, and Yarlington Mill, and are doing trials of dozens of other varieties, including Amere de Berthecourt, Dabinett, and Muscadet de Dieppe. Their sugar levels tend to be slightly lower than bittersharps, but can still hit 20° degrees, with pH ranging from 3.5 to 4.1.
Most common dessert (eating) and culinary (cooking) apples are sharps; their high acid and low tannin content provides that distinctive crisp, tart apple taste. Sharps can add great body and flavor profiles to a cider. Our favorite sharp for cider is, of course, the Gravenstein, Sonoma County’s imperiled apple variety. It imparts pretty aromatics, brightness, and stone fruit notes. Other sharps that we use and grow include the American heirlooms Espous Spitzenberg, Golden Delicious, Golden Russet, Jonathan, Newtown Pippin, and Northern Spy, among others. Some sharps can make for brilliant single-variety ciders, but all are great in blends. Sugar levels range from 14° to 22° Brix, with pH being anywhere from 3.2 to 3.4.
Sweets (low tannin, low acid—nothing to do with sugar levels!) don’t provide much astringency or acidity to a fermented cider, but they do impart a lot of flavor, aromatics, and body. We don’t use or grow a lot of sweets, but the ones we do, including Roxbury Russet (dating back all the way to 1617 Massachusetts!), Rome, and Le Bret, have proven their worth in our cider blends. Sweets can be prolific bearers and can reach very high sugar levels; we’ve had Roxbury Russets hit 22° Brix. As with sharps, sweets have very low tannin content.
All of our apples are organically grown in Sonoma County, the majority in old dry-farmed orchards. Yearly variations in our climate affect the levels of tannins, acids, and sugars, as they do for wine grapes, which is why our ciders don’t taste the same every year.
Our ciders are orchard-driven and made in sync with the seasons. From late July to October, we sort, wash, grind, and press dozens of heirloom and tannic cider apple varieties at their peak ripeness and ferment slowly in small batches. We don’t take shortcuts or add flavorings and other adjuncts. Our mantra is apples and time. The results are food-friendly, earthy, elegant dry ciders that can be made only here.