In November of last year, Sonoma County’s Tilted Shed Ciderworks embarked on a bit of an experiment. They shipped their first batch of ciders in their “Luminous Cider Series” to members of their “Luminary Cider Club”. Clubs run by cideries aren’t experimental. A number of cideries across the country ship cider to members of their club on a regular basis. Tilted Shed however will take no more members to their Luminaries Club since it filled out its capacity, 30 members, one day after it was announced.
Tilted Shed Ciderwords is the product of the husband and wife team of Ellen Cavalli and Scott Heath. In the short time since beginning their cider project in 2011, they have developed a national reputation for producing authentic ciders that trade on carefully sourced local apples and a non-interventionalist approach to cidermaking that is meant to highlight what the apple can produce in the glass. They are risk takers who have been embraced by the growing corp of cider geeks across the country.
The reason that such a small number were able to join their new Luminaries Cider Club is that the ciders produced for its members amount to around 5 to 20 cases annually of each cider shipped. It is “micro-marketing” and micro-production to the extreme, but it’s also a way for Tilted Shed to undertake cidermaking experiments, have an outlet for those experiments and receive feedback from a dedicated group of cider lovers. And these cider lovers are willing to pay to be the Tilted Shed Guinea Pigs with each bottling costing $30.00.
The initial shipment of the Luminous Series Ciders include a single variety 2014 Wickson, a single variety 2014 Kingston Black and the 2014 Juniperus—a blend of locally grown heirloom apples aged in barrel for seven months. We tasted and reviewed the first three ciders released from Tilted Shed’s Luminous series and came away very impressed. In fact one bottling, the 2014 Wickson, received 5-Stars, one of only 9 ciders to which we’ve ever given the full star treatment.
The idea of experimental, micro-batch cidermaking is exciting for cider lovers who want a chance to discover something different, out of the ordinary and to learn more about the the apple varieties that are being made into single variety ciders in the Luminous program. The opportunity also excites Ellen Cavelli and Scott Heath, husband and wife owners of Tilted Shed. For them it is an opportunity to work outside the cider box, try new approach to cidermaking and learn more about sources of apples.
We spoke with Ellen Cavelli, co-owner with husband Scott, about Tilted Shed’s Luminous Series and the ciders being produced under its moniker.
1. What was the impetus for the Luminsous Series?
From the very beginning, we’ve made Luminous ciders, though they never had a name. A gallon or five of super rare single-variety batches of cider apples, of wild ferments, of co-ferments, and the like. How do you know what the apple can do if you don’t explore it? It’s all part of our inquiry into cider. What works, what doesn’t, why is one apple touted as superior for cider when another isn’t, what unexpected beauty lies in a mundane fruit, how does a still cider change your perception of acid and tannin and nuance, is there typicity in cider, is there terroir? We’ve never lost our curiosity about the apple and about cider, and surprise and discovery are paramount to what we do. The day we know exactly what our apples will do during fermentation, the day when we approach cider as a formulaic product rather than the shapeshifting, transformative, agricultural-cultural process it is, is the day we throw in the towel. After a few years of keeping these rare and small-batch tests for personal enjoyment, we decided it was time to share them with others, so they can understand why we love cider, why we believe in it so truly.
2. What is the greatest challenge is producing these small production ciders and the single variety ciders for Luminous
The main challenge is not having enough cool cider apples! But we are working hard to change that, both with our cider orchard and with a couple of our growers in grafting and planting more cider varieties. Beyond that, the challenge with Luminous is the same with all our other ciders, and that is not letting all the business stuff and all the noise in the cider industry get in the way. This business can be a slog, especially when you are a bootstrapping mom-and-pop with no prior experience in the drinks industry, and it can be exhausting. The Luminous ciders fulfill our need for creativity and exploration, and take us back to our early amateur days, of pressing apples on our farm, making cider in our barn, filling up our kitchen with carboys and experiments. Cider is our devotional pursuit, but it’s also one that gives us great pleasure. Cider should be a revelation and a joy. And that’s what Luminous is.
3. At $30 per bottle they fall into the “high end” cider category. To what degree is the cider market ready for higher end ciders?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask about trends in the cider market. Scott and I always seem to be going in the opposite direction, as manifested by our recent rash of rarified, aged, and still bottled ciders when the trend is for inexpensive, heavily flavored, quickly made, easy drinking, and canned. That said, we’ve had no problem selling our higher-priced bottlings and I think they’re worth every penny. I also think the best cidermakers charge too little. If we devalue our ciders, others will, too. I think $20 to $40 retail should be the norm for the superlative American ciders. “You get what you pay for” should hold true with cider.
4. Tell us more about the Wickson bottling. This is a tremendously expressive cider that shows both intensity and elegance and shows off the Wickson apple’s very distinct characteristics.
So the 2014 Wickson you’re referring to is one of three single-varieties we’ve done over the past few harvests. The other two went in the direction one would think a Wickson cider should do, based on what the fresh apple tastes like …high malic acid on the midpalate. Acid bomb. The 2014 went in a different direction, and can I admit we didn’t expect it? Scott is a careful, dedicated cidermaker, but he doesn’t do much intervention in the cellar as it is, and some ciders are left to their own devices longer than others. “Apples and time” is our mantra. Give the apples a long, calm time to do their thing, and they might surprise you! The only other variable I can think to also chalk up this particularly beautiful batch is the climate in 2014. Another drought year, long periods of heat, which seemed to enhance sugar development and reduce acidity a bit. This may be a case where less is more. The longer we make cider and grow cider apples, the more I come to understand that the best ciders aren’t “produced” but are rather “grown.” Cidermaking teaches you patience, humility, and reverence. Don’t meddle too much. Grow and find the right fruit. Take it slow.
5. What’s next for Tilted Shed? What are the next developments in its evolution? Among them I presume is the use of your estate orchard apples.
Our two-acre cider orchard on our Sebastopol farm is still young and yields only a few hundred pounds of apples per harvest, so we’ve got a few years until we can make an estate orchard blend. But we definitely have plans for that! Meanwhile, lately we’ve been especially curious about what does it mean to make cider in California. Is there a “California” cider, a “Sonoma County” cider, etc.? Is there regionality, terroir, or whatever term you want to use to describe the phenomenon in which the place where fruit is grown matters? To that end, we’ve been isolating, fermenting, and comparing single-variety batches from different local orchards. We’ve brought in some apples from nearby Mendocino County to compare to those from Sonoma County. We’re doing trial batches with native and foraged California pome and other fruits, including toyon, manzanita, acorn, and elderberry, as well as various fruits from the Luther Burbank Experiment Farm here in Sebastopol.
We’re also continually trying to expand our knowledge base and repertoire. We love to read about traditional cider regions, including Basque Country, France, and England, to more fully appreciate the richness of their heritage and then to use that knowledge to inform how to approach similar concepts. We’ll be throwing our interpretation of a Basque txotx at the cidery soon. We’re collaborating with local distilleries on pommeau and apple brandy projects. We’re exploring “live cider”–wild ferments–and still cider more broadly, as are done by some of our favorite cidermakers in the UK. From our tasting room, we’ve discovered most people don’t know about all the beautiful ciders being made around the world, and I want to make that more accessible to them.
I’m also developing more educational seminars and events this year. As more people get into cider, both in making and drinking, there is an onslaught of misinformation. By no means do we claim to be orchard or cider experts, but we do our homework, we read and research and live and breathe apples and cider. I feel like we can help to better educate people, so that cider as a whole receives the respect it deserves.
In the end, we hope to make a small but meaningful contribution to the history of cider, and to advance the appreciation for, understanding of, and devotion to cider.
Tilted Shed’s Tasting Room is located in Windsor, Sonoma County, California and is open regularly on Saturdays. (currently closed for the season, but resuming regular tasting room hours in February). Although the Luminary Cider Club is filled to capacity, Tilted Shed is taking requests to be on a waiting lists if spots open up or if they expand the club size.