Jim Morrison greeted me as I opened the door to a small nondescript warehouse space tucked into a quiet residential area near Sacramento City College. “Break on through to the other side”, sang Jim as I made my way into the heart of Two Rivers Hard Cider (www.tworiverscider.com) looking for its chief cider maker Vincent Sterne.
Two Rivers is the oldest, and to date the only, cidery in Sacramento, founded in 1996 during cider’s first attempt at a post-Prohibition renaissance. Cider has a long history in the area as one of the favorite drinks of the miners that sought their fortunes in the the late 19th century gold rush that turned California from a sleepy backwater into an economic powerhouse. Many of the original apple trees have survived but it took Vincent’s vision to see them as more that just a historical curiosity.
Like many of today’s cider makers, Vincent started out as a brewer, first at home for himself and his friends and eventually in informal collaboration at the Rubicon brew pub where he tended bar for almost 20 years. In the mid-nineties, he was thinking about expanding his horizons and opening up a brewery of his own when while driving through a series of orchards outside of the gold rush town of Placerville (an area known colloquially as Apple Hill) it came to him. “Apples! I should make cider!” This was a pretty radical idea since there were a mere handful of companies making cider in the US at the time and none of the cider making classes you can find around the country today. So he set out to teach himself, seeking feedback and advice from brewing and wine-making friends.
Friendships and connections are clearly an important part of Vincent’s approach, that and an obvious penchant for tinkering and experimentation. You can see it in the many events that he sponsors in support of the bicycling community in Sacramento, for example, or fund raising events for injured friends. (Bikes are, in fact, a long time passion – Vincent has even been delivering kegs around town by bike for years.) You can see it, too, in collaborative concoctions like Friend of the Devil, a hybrid Belgian Blonde beer made with 25% Two Rivers Original Hard Apple Cider in partnership with Rubicon Brewing. Rumor has it he’s currently working on a coffee flavored cider in collaboration with a local coffee roaster (another long time friend).
Two Rivers’ ciders are ciders you want to drink at the pub with your friends or down by the river on a sunny day listening to music. They are bright and uncomplicated, more often than not containing some flavor element besides apple. Two Rivers’ best seller, for example, is a Pomegranate Cider – tart, pink, and fruit-forward – one of a half dozen or so that the cidery makes year round. It pairs well with spicy, smoky barbecue flavors. Another favorite, the Blood Orange Hard Cider rings with sunny citrus notes and shows a nice balance between tangy and fruity that compliments sharp, assertive dishes. Try it with a grilled bratwurst and onions with a piquant mustard or as a fun mixer with a little vodka.
In keeping with his restless experimental nature, Vincent also produces a whole range of seasonal ciders such as Batch 800 (aged in whiskey barrels), a range of single varietals such as Gravenstein, MacIntosh, or Pink Lady, and Chica Vieja, an anniversary cider made with 100% agave. Never seemingly at a loss for new ideas, Vincent and his cider maker Nick Vellanoweth are constantly at play with new flavor profiles – barrel-aged smoked apple/wasabi and sour patch kids are two that enjoyed a limited release in 2014. When I visited a few months ago the two under development were white chocolate/raspberry and juniper.
While the more imaginative ciders will probably never be available outside of the Sacramento pub scene, the rest of the line up can generally be found throughout northern California, just waiting for a trip to the beach with the gang.