Cider Corner: Are You a Brewer or a Shepherd?

Developing a cider profile and creating your own style can be just as important as the apples themselves, but harnessing both aspects can be important in creating a product that is definitively your own for consumers to grasp. Be it high-volume canned ciders or smaller-batch products that are bottled and conditioned.

Mount Diablo Cider’s Thomas Henry shared with Brewer’s Cider Corner how the boutique cidery located near San Francisco in Lafayette, California efforts to “shepherd” the apples to its destination rather than brew them to a specification.

​”I’ll have a single varietal Gravenstein, which is completely different from a single varietal Macintosh, even though they’re both high-acid apples, they’re both considered dessert apples,” he said. “Both are super different as far as the taste.”

You’re trying to always balance the acid, the alcohol content, and the tannins to make different styles of cider, Henry pointed out.

READ MORE: Cider Corner: Packaging Design Strategy for Gowan’s

“Within those styles, you have your own spin on it as a cider maker,” he said. “What you’re doing, and how you’re doing it. You kind of develop a certain bag of tricks and techniques that come along with experience, then you develop that as you go.”

Vander Mill​ Cider also shared that the West Michigan cidery​ uses only the best apples grown locally ​to create blends used in their products.

​”​We use over 10 different varieties of apples​,” they wrote as a staff in an email. ​”​Depending on the type of product we’re making (modern ciders, heritage, or single varietal) we select apple varieties that embody the flavor profile we’re hoping to achieve.​”​

This process all comes down to the type of product Vander Mill is planning on producing.

“While a blend of more typically consumer-focused dessert or culinary apples might be perfect for a modern cider or pressing into sweet cider for the fall season, a more carefully selected grouping of old-world cider apples chosen by us and planted and grown right here in West Michigan just for Vander Mill will have the best sugar content, tannins, acidity, and flavor profiles for our ultra-premium heritage line.”

When selecting heritage blends Vander Mill will limit the number of apple varieties to a much smaller carefully crafted list, while single varietals, like Spitzenberg or Dabinett, are used only on those specific apples.

It’s interesting, Henry said, that you can start to taste people’s ciders and know their style.

“Even though you have different apples, you can still tell that it came from this one cidermaker because they were able to express these certain things out of the cider,” he said. “Also, what’s super interesting is when I’m tasting ciders that came from the same orchard — in the same year that my stuff would come from.

“You can do a horizontal tasting and, wow, these are the same apples from the same year. But it’s so different because of what we did with them.”

​Finding cool and interesting heirloom heritage apples can be a challenge, Henry said about the Mount Diablo brand, but that’s part of the enjoyment.

“…finding these really cool apples and then fermenting them in a way that is going to express those apples,” he said. “It’s not … I just need to get a base going so that I can go ahead and flavor that and have it become whatever I want to make it.

“It’s more like what is this? What’s unique about these apples and how do I express that in the final product? You find yourself less like a brewer in the sense that: here’s my recipe, and more like a shepherd. Where it’s like, okay, here is what these apples are presenting, therefore, here’s what I need to do in this situation to get them across the finish line. I’m doing a minimum amount of intervention, and I’m allowing the apples to really come through.”

​Henry encourages cidermakers to “​just try to do the best by the fruit you have.

“Tell its story in a way that you’re not overshadowing it with whatever you want to put into it. You’re a shepherd, you’re helping it along its path to becoming the best representation of that fruit in a glass.”

Photo courtesy Mount Diablo Cider Company

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