Last Saturday afternoon, fellow Bullpen-er Luke and I, Amy O (along with our significant others), visited Santa Sidra Cidery in Santa Fe. We were very warmly greeted by owner and cidermeister Michael Zercher and his wife. None of us had ever seen a working cidery before and the tour was quite informative. Mike knows a great deal about the history of cider and trained in cider making both in the northwestern United States and in Europe. As it turns out, the process is very much like winemaking until the final steps and the cidery actually operates under a wine license. As with wine, the process starts with whole fruit that is pressed for its juice, and each year’s harvest will produce different flavor characteristics.
Mike tries to use New Mexico apples as much as possible. This year’s crop came mostly from an organic grower in the Mimbres Valley in southern New Mexico, with some additional apples from Corrales and Alamogordo. Currently on hand in Santa Sidra’s warehouse are approximately 11,000 pounds of apples in the cooler, with a few thousand more pounds at room temperature awaiting pressing. It is quite an impressive sight. The boxes of apples are enormous. Apparently, each box weighs about 800 pounds and yields about 60 gallons of juice. The juice is fermented in stainless steel wine tanks using white wine or champagne yeast. The cider is transferred to a brewery bright tank at the end for carbonating and back sweetening with cane sugar (the cider is fermented to completely dry in the wine tanks). The finished product comes out at just under 7-percent ABV. It is bottled in bombers and each bottle contains the juice of four apples. Yes, four apples!
According to Mike, prior to Prohibition, cider was the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in the United States. But the growers were encouraged (I am sure that is putting it mildly) to remove their apple orchards so they would not be tempting anyone to make cider in “those dark days.” All these years later, cider is finally starting to make a comeback. Cider consumption in the U.S. has grown 100 percent each year over the past three years.
After the tour we all sat down together at a table and enjoyed the literal fruits of their labor — and it’s a lot of labor, folks. So, remember that fact the next time you question the price of locally produced craft ciders. We learned that the large producers like Angry Orchard usually make their ciders from concentrate and water. Although, as Mike said, it is very difficult to make good cider that way and some of them do it very well. In addition to volume, it simply explains how they are able to keep their prices in line with beer.
Santa Sidra currently makes two types of hard apple cider — a “Dry” and a “Tad Sweet.” I preferred the “Dry,” just because it differs more from most of the mass-produced ciders. It is subtle, a little nutty/yeasty, and totally refreshing. The “Tad Sweet,” just like the name suggests, is only slightly sweeter. It also has more tartness so the sugar balances it out. The Zerchers are incredibly invested in the community, and are doing their part to help New Mexico growers. Return the favor by giving their cider a try (see the website for locations where the cider is sold). Santa Sidra does not have a taproom just yet, but you never know what the future may hold.
Now let’s hear from Luke. Here are his imPRESSions …
Hey folks, Luke here! First off, huge thanks to fellow Bullpen member Amy O for inviting me to tag along on the tour of Santa Sidra Cidery. She knew that I would jump at the chance because if it’s in Santa Fe, carbonated, and has an ABV, it’s probably right up my alley. I want to preface this by admitting that I’m not a cider drinker, which is why I brought my lady friend along. Being gluten-free, she’s had much more experience with hard ciders than I have. I’m a beer guy at my core, but I’m willing to branch out. I’m sorry, I had to.
When we arrived I thought it looked like a typical cidery in Santa Fe (I’ve been to a couple now), meaning it’s pretty unassuming from the outside and probably too small for production inside. We would soon see. We found ourselves immediately in a small office space with a table, chairs, and some file cabinets, and I keep thinking, but where do you make the cider? Then we’re taken down some long stairs into a part of the building you’d never have guessed was there. The space appears to be a very pristine, re-purposed garage of sorts, inside which looks very much like a brewery if you’re not looking too closely. It has the big stainless steel tanks, a large walk-in, temperature-controlled room, but here’s where the apple falls a little farther from the tree: the cider press, the many boxes of fresh apples, and that incredible fresh apple aroma. You can’t even get that at the orchard. Santa Sidra is indeed a cidery, and it means business.
It’s easy to take Mike seriously about his craft, even as he joked along with us throughout the tour. He’s very impressive with his knowledge of the business from the vast history to the microbiology. But in him, you see the same kind of true passion that I’ve seen in the great brewers that truly love what they do, which gets them through the trial and error, and beyond the failed batches. If he’s a salesman, he’s the most laid-back salesman you’ll ever meet, but that day, on ciders, I was sold.
When it came time to taste, I was excited that we were going to taste a cider that had won Best of Show at the NM State Fair Pro-Am Beer, Mead, and Cider competition. This little cider, the “Tad Sweet,” had caused a bit of a stir amongst many of our hop-nation, as you might remember. It was the cider “heard ’round the world,” the way folks were talking.
Upon first sip, I instantly got the impression that it was something special. I certainly understood why MrHoppy – ABQBeer (@MrHoppy505, who was one of the judges for the cider category) said via Twitter that “it was amazing! Definitely stood out.” As for me, I really appreciated that it wasn’t just carbonated apple sweetness. It was more complex than I was expecting. It was a bit more full flavored, with more of that apple presence than the dry cider. My girlfriend, just as others had, preferred the dry, noting that it was “light, clean, fresh, not too sweet, very enjoyable, delicious!” My notes on the dry were almost exactly the same, with an emphasis on clean.
For a beer guy like me, I won’t likely make any drastic life changes after this tasting. But ciders are now on my radar, and they will certainly become a greater presence in my life, just as they will (and deservedly so) in the craft culture. Before the tour, I knew very little about hard ciders and the business of making them. After having tried Santa Sidra’s ciders, I can honestly say that I can’t wait to open up another bottle to do a little more research on the matter.
— Amy O and Luke