This is the story of cider in the dark days before it was hip and of one man’s decision to bring cider back to northern California and in the process lay some of the groundwork for today’s cider renaissance.
Which would you guess sold more in the U.S. in 2014, cider or pale ale? Would you be surprised to learn that it was cider? In fact, cider out sold every craft-style beer category except IPAs, a testament to cider’s skyrocketing popularity. It was not always so. Even as recently as 2012 the number of beer drinkers that drank cider, a reasonable measure of changing tastes, was one-sixth of what it is today. And 25 years ago, when someone thought of cider they invariably thought of something sweet and soft, like Martinelli’s. That was the way the world was when British expat Jeffrey House founded the California Cider Company, maker of Ace Cider, in 1993.
Cider wasn’t even a blip on Jeffrey’s radar as he was working in advertising in mid-1970s London. But the firm where he worked wasn’t going anywhere, and he was restless for something new. The economy in the UK was in a shambles with rampant inflation and rising tax rates, and though he knew only one or two Americans personally, the US seemed like a country of optimism and opportunity. So with the rumor in his ear of a possible job, he sold all he had and hopped a plane to sunny California. The job never materialized, but San Francisco in 1977 was a place where the possibilities seemed endless. He was able to keep the rent paid by picking up the odd job here or there until one night in the classic fern bar Lord Jim’s he met a fellow with a wine business. This chance encounter led to a job selling spirits, a green card, and eventually the formation of Thames America Trading Company with a couple of partners. Their plan was to import British beers for the lively San Francisco bar scene. And here’s where cider comes in.
They started off with Fuller’s London Pride, and were reasonably successful. Except at the many Irish pubs, places like Ireland’s 32, a reference to the “lost” counties of northern Ireland and the hopes of many Irish expats that Ireland could be a whole nation once again, which gives you an idea of the reception a British seller of British beer might receive. Still, Jeffrey was, and is, an affable fellow with no real antipathy toward anyone, so he kept at it until finally one barman consented to talk to him. “Eff your London Pride”, the conversation started. “What about your effin’ cider?” Cider?, he wondered. Wasn’t cider a ladies’ drink? Maybe where he came from, but they drank a lot of it in Ireland, home to Bulmers, one of the largest cider producers in the world. They still do, in fact. So back he went to England and returned with an agreement from Taunton Cider in Somerset to import their Blackthorn brand. Through dogged persistence and a willingness to explain over and over again that Blackthorn was a fermented, alcoholic beverage, he had by the early 1990s made it the best selling draft cider on the West Coast. Success can be a two edged sword, however. Taunton must have seen that there was growing potential for cider in the US, and when Miller Brewing suggested a partnership – Taunton would distribute Molson beer in the U.K.; Miller would distribute Blackthorn cider in the U.S. – Jeffrey was paid off with a bit of cash and a hearty Thank you but we’ll take if from here.
Fine, he thought. He’d already noted that Sebastopol, about an hour north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, looked a lot like the apple growing counties he remembered from England (despite increasing pressure from the wine industry to turn every square inch into vineyards), so why not make his own cider to replace his lost Blackthorn? He bought out his Thames America partners and joined forces with a couple of consultants from the wine industry (including David Cordtz, founder and cider master of Sonoma Cider). They got juice from a local apple processor (desert apples, because that’s all there was) and started making test batches in the facility of one of the local wineries. The first product, Ace Apple, was launched into the market in 1993. All those relationships with bars built up through years of hard work paid off, and Ace Apple soon was replacing Blackthorn in many of the old accounts.
On premise sales were really what California Cider Company was after. But Jeffrey happened to know a buyer for the Lucky’s Supermarket chain, so one day he and David paid him a visit. The shift of Blackthorn from Thames America to Miller was still in process, so Jeffrey thought he might be able to coax a few last sales out of Lucky. The buyer was mildly interested, but what he really wanted was an American cider, and he wanted it in 22 oz bottles. “Can you do that?” “Oh, sure”, came the reply. “Well, I’ll take a container!” And off they went to quickly figure out to take something they had only ever intended putting in kegs and get it into bottles suitable for grocery store shelves.
And that, perhaps, is the lesson for how to sell a beverage that no one has heard of. Be friendly and persistent, and above all, be flexible and recognize a good opportunity when it comes along.
Today the company makes eight different ciders from dry, with 0.5% residual sugar, to medium (3.5% rs). The biggest seller, the pear cider, is also the sweetest, but it, like all the Ace ciders, is an accessible, refreshing drink, a little tart with a clean finish. Quaffable, one might say. The ciders hew closely to their originator’s vision of something straightforward to have at the pub with friends while you play a bit of pool or simply wind down from a long day. Though the business has expanded to 44 states so far and is looking for opportunities abroad, it remains family owned and close to it’s Sonoma County roots. Two of Jeffrey’s sons already work with him and the third will join the business after college graduation in June. The consummate publican, Jeffrey can always be found on a Friday afternoon in the tasting room, having a pint himself, and chatting up anyone who wanders in. One person will start playing the piano while another racks ’em up on the pool table. And for a few short hours you can imagine yourself back in one of those old Irish pubs that launched Jeffrey’s cider adventure so many years ago.