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Cracking open the cider door

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012 | Posted by

Jesse Harrison keeps his eye on the bottling line at Ace Cider in Graton. (Jeff Kan Lee / Press Democrat)

By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent

Hard cider used to be very popular. After all, Johnny Appleseed didn’t plant all those trees for pies. Instead he was guaranteeing a supply of cider for western emigrants.

Jeffrey House, 61, has been working to bring it back, operating Ace Cider Pub for a decade until it closed in 2009.

“It was the first cider pub in the country in this century,” he said.

Now House is busy bottling an ever growing line of hard ciders, his Graton manufacturing facility filled with pallets of cases being stacked for delivery, kegs ready to be shipped, trucks being loaded, and giant steel tanks fermenting away.

We decided to learn more about the beverage and the man who makes it.

You are originally from the UK. How did you come to Sebastopol?

I was working in Marin County for a UK cider company Black Thorn when it was bought out in 1994 by the Miller Brewing Co. I was living in Marin County with my wife, Angela, who used to be an actress and played an intergalactic hooker in the first “Stars Wars” barroom scene.

A journalist told me I should go to west Sonoma County to find cider makers. I drove up here and couldn’t get over how beautiful it was, like the UK but with sunshine.

And you found apples here?

Yes, but I was astounded. All these apples and no one was making cider. I stopped by the Apple Co-op Cannery because it looked like a cidery, but they told me they only made apple sauce and apple flakes as a filler for the food industry.

Jeffrey House of Ace Cider. (Jeff Kan Lee / PD)

I found a Graton apple processor who agreed to make my recipe for me. That was Black Ace. Eventually, the late Warren Dutton was putting up a building in Graton, and I told him if he built it to my specs so I could start a cidery, he could have 5 percent of my business.

That was also the home of Ace Cider Pub?

Yes, it was popular and lasted 10 years until Warren died and his family turned it into a winery. So I moved here, where I had room to expand.

How much has the business expanded?

When I left the old location, I was doing $2 million in sales a year. Now I am doing $6 million a year and will soon be doing $10 million. The cider industry is exploding.

A competitor of mine was recently bought out by an Irish company for over $300 million. Heineken and Budweiser are now getting into the business. Cider is finally coming into its own.

Tell us about Ace Cider.

It is clean and crisp. It’s an entirely natural product made completely in-house. I make our Ace, a berry cider, a honey cider, Perry (our pear cider), Joker, which is very dry. It’s popular here because it is very champagne-like.

I make a seasonal pumpkin”cider in the fall, which is apple but flavored with allspice. Angela wants me to make it all year long because it is her favorite.

The cider is so clean and crisp because we don’t pasteurize it. We filter it four times and make sure it has absolutely no more yeast in it after it has fermented. We check it thoroughly because we don’t want any exploding bottles. We are considered America’s best cider and have been winning prizes.

Why do you think it is becoming so popular?

There are a lot of reasons. Some people like it because it’s less alcoholic, just 5 percent. People are interested in the artisan brewing movement, and it’s part of that. It has no gluten unlike beer. It’s a healthy natural thing.

Whole Foods is one of our outlets, although we are getting into Safeway soon.

How much cider do you make?

We made 650,000 gallons last year. I plan to get that up to 1 million in the next couple years. We currently sell to 40 states and the Cayman Islands. Next year I begin shipping to Australia, and possibly the UK.

Cider is now a billion dollar industry in the US. In the UK, though, it is a $10 billion business. I feel like I’ve got a tiger by the tail.

How many people do you employ?

I have 12 full-time people in the plant and sales reps all over the country. My son does it in Los Angeles. Of course I have distributors.

Do you miss the cider pub?

Well here on Fridays from 2 to 4 p.m. we let customers come in our tasting room at the cidery to fill their jugs, and they can taste cider then. Some of regulars show up for that, and we chat.

Ace Cider is located at 2064 Gravenstein Highway North, Building 4, Graton, 829-1101, acecider.com.

Writer Spotlight

Andrea Granahan is our West County correspondent.
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