All in the apple
Local varieties prove perfect for cider maker
Ben Nielsen did not come to Chico to become the next Ken Grossman, but in the origin story of Lassen Traditional Cidery, it’s hard not to hear echoes of Sierra Nevada Brewery.
As with Grossman and company, Nielsen started small: in this case, releasing batches from a small unit in an industrial park near Park Avenue. He faced some skepticism and indifference, most notably at a craft brewing event where beers eclipsed his ciders, but also earned enough fans to secure local distribution—plus a major award (silver medal in the 2016 California Cider Competition, for his Farmhouse Dry variety).
Nielsen, a 39-year-old engineer who relocated from Oregon last year, has no plans to expand on the scale of Sierra Nevada. He uses only California apples available within a 160-mile radius of Chico; he could not find enough supply to meet the demand of mass production even if he wanted to. Like Grossman, he values local sourcing and sustainability. Several varieties age in recycled wine barrels—again, suited only to a small-scale operation.
So, while well-acquainted with Sierra Nevada’s history, Nielsen has a different plan for Lassen Traditional Cidery.
“I’m not looking at making it rich doing this,” he told the CN&R during a recent tour and tasting. “I just want to make a living doing something that I enjoy…. It’s exciting doing something on my own, having a lot of pride in it, some heart.”
Nielsen works alone, apart from occasional labor by family and friends. His cider is completely different from grocery-store cider, even most liquor-store cider. For one, it’s not sweet; it has no flavors added. The apples ferment naturally due to yeast collected from the environment—no added sulfites—while other inherent microorganisms, such as lactobacillus, contribute to the process. He does not pasteurize his products; secondary fermentation in the bottle adds to the carbonation.
“The best beers I’d had were wild-fermented, so I decided that was the way to go,” Nielsen said. “I sacrifice control in favor of uniqueness. I love that—I like the variety in that.”
Indeed, no two batches come out alike, akin to wine vintages.
“Wild fermentation is something that beer-heads, cider-heads, are really excited about,” said Rob Rasner, owner of the Winchester Goose in Chico, the lone tavern serving Lassen cider. (It’s also sold at Spike’s Bottle Shop, Star Liquors and Mangrove Bottle Shop.)
“This is really high-end,” Rasner continued, “so it’s easy for us to get behind. It goes with our ethos.”
Nielsen made his first cider in 2005. A home brewer of beer since college, he branched out after moving next to a house with apple trees. He’d hold an annual “cider-pressing party” at which friends would come to juice fruit for his creations.
That was in Corvallis, Ore., where he received a master’s degree in materials science engineering from Oregon State University. He found jobs as an engineer but didn’t enjoy the work and switched careers in 2013.
Nielsen chose Chico for multiple reasons. First, he has family here—namely Holly Nielsen, his sister. This region also is rich in varietal apples, with few cider-makers seeking them.
“My focus is using the right kind of apples for ciders,” he explained. “I’m using a lot of the heirloom varieties that have a lot more flavor and complexity than your average supermarket apple…. These are all apples that were used for cider a long time ago, and these orchards kind of disappeared because apple sales have been taken over by the mass-produced five or six American varieties you see everywhere.”
Finally, he said, “it just seems like Chico has the right kind of culture, where people are into supporting local small businesses [and] local agriculture.”
Nielsen buys his fermentation barrels from a wholesaler in Chico who acquires used stock from wineries. The cidery will get about three years’ use from a barrel before repurposing the wood. A local pig farmer is taking the apple pulp, which Nielsen previously brought to a composting location.
Lassen Traditional Cidery offers four brands: three in bottles, one by keg. Each is approximately 8.5 percent alcohol by volume. Production is seasonal, only when apples are ripe. The cidery made 1,800 gallons this year; Nielsen projects 2,500 gallons for 2017 from this fall’s crop.
“It’s basically just all about the apples and giving them the time to do their thing, to mature,” he said. “It’s more like wine, closer to a farm-to-table product…. With beer it’s more about the brewing process, what you are doing with those ingredients; with cider, it’s more about what you’re starting with.”