Checking out The Cider Junction in San Jose

You’ll often find craft cider at most beer bars, but mostly as an afterthought, with a cider selection or two tacked at the end of the beer list. At The Cider Junction, which recently opened in San Jose’s Willow Glen, the roles are reversed. Fruit rules over grain with a wide variety of ciders and other fermented fruit beverages dominating a row of roughly thirty taps, with a few beers selections at the end. They also serve up a selection of small plates, in the form of sliders and flat breads, in addition to cheese and charcuterie boards. A few bottles and can of various cider are available for take home sale.

My wife and I biked to the place last weekend to check it out. One thing that’s apparent from over 25 different ciders to choose from is, well there’s a lot of different ciders out there. Some are made with heirloom apples, some are made with a blend of different fruits, like cranberries, cherries, passion fruit or plums. Hops have made their way into a couple ciders, but frankly, I find hops work better in beer than in cider. But if hoppy ciders are your thing, you’ll find at least a couple different ones at The Cider Junction. Not going to bore you with a lot of tasting notes, especially since I was too engrossed battling my wife in a few games of Connect Four to write things down, but let me just say we enjoyed a number of fresh, interesting, and flavorful fruit concoctions.

They sell ciders either by the pint or 10 ounce pour, or you can tasting flight of four 4-ounce samples. I recommend going for the tasting flight, since they always have something new rotating into the tap list and plenty of the selections appear to be limited releases. As for the small plates, we split a jackfruit slider, which came disguised as a pulled pork sandwich. I’m not a fan of non-meat masquerading as meat, but this was delicious. The chopped up fruit slaw, bathed in a tangy sauce was a wonderful riff on traditional barbecue. That was the only plate we tried, so I can’t vouch for the others, but I’d have to think there’s plenty of good stuff on the menu based on the strength of this effort.

Now for the bad news. The Cider Junction has this weird, counter-productive “no sampling” policy. You can order a four glass tasting flight, but you can’t order a single tasting glass, or add a couple extra samples to your tasting flight. Most places will let you do that  Told I couldn’t add a couple extra samples to my flight, I asked to taste a plum Jerkum before ordering a 10-ounce glass of it, to see if I liked it. (A jerkum is a plum wine.). They wouldn’t do that either.  It’s pretty standard in the industry to provide small, 1/2 ounce samples to customers so they can order a pint with confidence they’ll enjoy it.  Heck, they’ll even do that in hotel bars. For a place that you would think would want to reward trying new things, The Cider Junction seems to stifle it with an inflexible policy.  Not only do I find it frustrating as a customer, they’re leaving money on the table. People are more willing to spend money if they know what they’re getting ahead of time.

Without the benefit of a taste, took the risk after working through my flight and ordered the Plum Lovin Criminals Jerkum from Mission Trail Cider. As the waitress brought over the glass filled with cloudy beige liquid, it looked like one of those hideous hazy IPA’s I can barely stand and my expectations sank. But lo and behold, I loved the fresh tart plum flavors in this little number. So while The Cider Junction won’t let you taste anything before you order it, whatever you order, it’s probably going to be pretty good.

This “no tasting” policy gets under my skin, it’s really a minor quibble. The Cider Junction seems to be emerging as a neat little hangout in the middle of Willow Glen and already our friends are asking us to take them there. We’ll certainly be back.

Is this one of those hideous hazy IPA’s? No, it’s a delicious plum Jerkum!


I’m thankful my cider didn’t suck

One benefit from writing this blog is that I learn a lot of useful things from leaders in their field. OK, maybe that’s just a charitable way to say I steal people’s ideas, but the fact is, I probably would’ve never make a decent cider unless I talked to Mike Faul of Red Branch Cidery. About a month before I interviewed him for an article, I tried to make cider for the first time, but the result tasted like apple flavored cleaning fluid. As I explained how things went wrong, all of sudden Mike exclaimed, “I bet it got really hot overnight when the fermentation got going. The temperature could’ve risen up to 90 degrees F, and at those temperatures yeasts start creating all sorts of volatile alcohols that create those kind of off-flavors.”  Red Branch keeps their cider at controlled temperatures to prevent the very problems plaguing my cider.  I filed that fact to the back of my brain for future use.

Nearly two years later, I decided to make a holiday cider for all my relatives visiting for Thanksgiving.  This time, I kept it cool by pitching the yeast in the late evening and then putting it in my garage where the 50 degree night time temperatures would keep the temperature down as the yeasts did their thing. After about 24 hours in 50-60 degree weather, I brought the two 1-gallon jugs inside to the pantry finish out the fermentation as forecasts called for warmer temperatures. (This is Northern California, after all.)  I also used Belgian Saison yeast instead of the Champagne yeast I used the first time. I like a dry cider and while Champagne yeast is very attenuative, I feared it was creating a little too “hot” a cider. In addition, the Saison yeast added some light additional light fruity esters to the underlying apple juice.  The carbonation level was on the tingly side as I like it for cider. And everyone else seemed to like it too.

Maybe the start of a new holiday tradition.  And my mind is already thinking about brewing a winter California Common letting the yeast do their thing cool spaces on my garage next month.

The Recipe: 2 gallons of organic apple juice and pitch Belgian Saison Yeast.   After 10 days of fermentation, take 2/3 cups of water and dissolve six table spoons of honey. Bring to a boil and then let cool. Add to the cider and bottle.

IMG-4582bottling ciderCider in wine glass





Dan Gordon talks about his new cider venture WILDCIDE

Craft beer is hot. Lately, cider has been even hotter. The Beer Institute reported US cider production more than tripled between 2011 and 2013, from 9.4 to 32 million gallons. In 2014, Nielsen reported off-premise cider sales grew by 71% in 2014. While cider sales among the nation’s largest brands have slowed in 2015, cider has firmly established itself in our nation’s beverage landscape with many new cideries both large and small getting into the action.

So perhaps it’s no surprise the Gordon Biersch stepped into the cider area with their newly released WILDCIDE. Of course, most people aren’t all that interested about a brewery diversifying its beverage portfolio, they just want something good to drink.

On that score, I found WILDCIDE successful. It’s quite refreshingly dry, full of crisp apple flavors with a pleasant residual tartness. WILDCIDE takes fresh pressed juice of four different apples: Fuji, Granny Smith, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious.  Fuji and Golden Apples create aroma and sweetness, while Red Delicious apples create body.  Granny Smith apples provide the tart tang at the finish.

So exactly how did WILDCIDE come about and what else can we expect from Gordon Biersch’s cider venture? I asked Dan Gordon, Gordon Biersch’s Co-founder and Brewmaster about the genesis and his future plans for WILDCIDE in an e-mail. Here’s what he had to say.

BR: Why did you decide to start producing cider?
DG: I made the decision when the laws changed a couple years ago allowing me to get a winery license. Also, after reading the back labels of the major producers and seeing there wasn’t a 100% all-natural hard cider I could find made from fresh pressed juice without additives.
BR:Take us through the process to blend the different apples to get the flavor you were looking for. How many test batches did it take?
GD:The most important element was using fresh pressed apple juice. That was the key to capturing the aromatic qualities of the apple. By using fresh pressed juice, we were able to achieve a very aromatic flavor profile and fruitiness while keeping it dry with a crisp body. Many of the large producers are using concentrate and nearly everyone uses sulfates. We don’t use either.  
The blend of apples was designed to have the right amount of fermentable sugars, acidity and aroma.It wasn’t rocket science. The magic comes in how we control the fermentation rate and dialing in the residual sugar to 1.15%. That’s the challenge. Selecting the apple formulation was the easiest part.  
BR: What’s the biggest challenge in brewing a consistent high quality cider?  
DG: It is all about controlled fermentation to get it consistent. It is a different approach than beer but equally satisfying.  
BR: Cider doesn’t exactly meet the Reinheitsgebot. Is brewing WILDCIDE a departure from your German traditional brewing roots?
DG: To the contrary, I think we’re applying the spirit of the Reinheitsgebot philospohy to cider. We use one ingredient: just fresh pressed apple juice. Making a great cider as pure as possible is exactly what the Reinheitsgebot is to brewing.  
BR: Did brewing something like WILDCIDE involve a lot of soul searching or was it more a “let’s go for it” thing?
DG: No soul searching was necessary. We needed to broaden our horizons and it has been a blast. I really am a fan of our hard cider and have it on tap at home.
BR: Do you have plans for other cider versions (pear?) or other projects in the works you can talk about?  
DG: We will be doing some flavored ciders but not really flavors you would expect. The philosophy is to make it delicious and not try to make statement with esoteric flavors.  
BR: Anything further you’d like to add?
DG: I am drinking one as I answer all of these questions.  

The Session #105 : First Foray into Cider Double Feature

Kudos to Mark Ciocco, not only for his efforts at reviving The Session but coming up with a great topic, Double Feature, where the basic idea is to compare and contrast two consecutively consumed beers. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for crystal ball gazing, thinking deeply on esoteric beer concepts, or waxing philosophical on beer culture. But I love his Session topic harks back to an earlier, simpler time of The Session, where the idea was let’s all drink a beer and talk about it. Maybe too many topics only a hard core beer geek could possibly care about, let alone write about, was a big part of why The Session was almost no more.

OK, back to today’s topic. Indeed, tasting two beers consecutively reveals the minute details otherwise lost on the brain through the fog of time. As a homebrewer, seeing how my brews measure up to the best examples the professional brewing world is both a great way to learn and often a deeply humbling experience.

Mark calls himself “a big tent guy” so I’ll put that to the test for this session with a post about cider rather than beer. I’ve had a had a few ciders here and there, some I’ve enjoyed, others not so much. Ciders remain hot, growing in popularity to the point where it’s time for me to figure out what all the fuss is about. I’ll be exploring this new world over the next couple months and exploration is a big part of what craft beer is all about. I suppose that is a bit of tenuous connection to this month’s topic, but hope you’ll all work with me here.

San Jose’s Gordon Biersch Brewing, sent me a couple bottles of their new cider line Wildcide to sample which seemed like a good place to start. I figured Gordon Biersch would be putting out a good product, but thought it would be good to compare Wildcide to Samuel Smith’s Organic Cider, which won a few awards over its time.

I tried the Wildcide first, hoping it wouldn’t taste like carbonated apple juice. It didn’t. I liked that it was rather dry, giving the apple flavors crispness and had a nice residual tartness. Then I tried to the Samuel Smith’s.  Compared to Wildcide, it was a little sweeter, a little more complex, heavier, and also had a slight tartness at the end. I found both refreshing and pleasantly sessionable. And yes, it’s doubtful I’d have picked up the slightly noticeable, but significant differences without sampling these ciders consecutively. As for which one I preferred, I’d be fine with either of them, but I liked the dryness of the Wildcide, so that’s my pick.

One thing learned from this exercise is that ciders are a study in subtleties, without the booming hop and roasted malt flavors you get with beer. But perhaps more importantly for the long term health of blogging, simply drinking a beer, cider, or whatever and telling the world from our own corners of cyberspace may be pretty simplistic, but still has its rewards.

Wandering into the Angry Orchard

OK, I’ve pretty much ignored cider.  Maybe at a beer festival I’ll try a sample or two of cider, and often it’s some experimental pink or purple fizzy stuff with raspberries or olallieberries in it.  Of course, since my tongue is already seared by some quadruple IPA hop bomb or barbecue tri-tip by the time I get to sample any cider, it’s hard to appreciate their delicate flavors.

Of course, if I really wanted to try cider, all I’d have to do is walk into my local grocery store.  Since Angry Orchard Hard Cider has recently expanded into California, they’d like me to do just that.  To encourage this, they sent me their three varieties of ciders to try.    Since my wife and I enjoyed sipping cider samples from wine glasses, it only seemed fair to tell the world about it, or at least the small part of the world that reads this blog.  So without further ado, here’s the low down on Angry Orchard Ciders.

Angry Orchard Traditional Dry
Tastes like crisp apples with almost no sweetness, with a slight tanic bitter finish that tasted like apple peel and a low level of carbonation.  It’s like drinking an crisp, slightly tart apple which may seem obvious, but it’s a rather impressive feat of fermentation preserving the delicate flavors of the apple without creating any extraneous tastes.

Angry Orchard Apple Ginger
A little sweet, with more depth from a restrained use of ginger that gave this one an interesting twist.  Despite the unique flavors, I’d have to say it was my least favorite of the three, but my wife’s favorite.  You can judge it for yourself.

Angry Orchard Crisp Apple
The slightly sweet apple flavors and well balanced by a light tartness.  Barely noticeable aromatic spice quality of nutmeg or cinnamon.

Perhaps it’s time to discuss the disconnect between the company name and the liquid in the bottle.  The subtle, balanced flavors of Angry Orchards certainly don’t seem “angry”.  I don’t know where Angry Orchards got its name, but seeing how saturated we’re getting with extreme, over the top products everywhere we look, wouldn’t it be more distinguishing if Angry Orchards called itself, oh I don’t know, maybe Harmonious Orchards or Artisan’s Orchards.  OK, maybe those alternative names aren’t the greatest, but the name “Angry Orchards” creates an expectation not actually found in the bottle, and comes across like a zillion other brands screaming for our attention that all just drown each other out.

Marketing discussions aside, Angry Orchards develops their balanced apple flavors by blending Italian culinary apples from the Alpine Foothills with French bittersweet apples from Normandy.   Their website goes on to describe their lengthy fermentation process that includes wood-aging.  As a comparison, I picked up a six-pack of Woodchuck Amber Hard Cider, which I also liked, but noticed it had a sweeter, less developed flavor, and was more akin to carbonated, slightly alcoholic apple juice.

Cider seems a great substitute for white wine, especially when you want to keep yourself sharp with its lower alcohol content.  So maybe it’s time for me to give ciders there due, and next time I’m at a beer festival, to skip the barbecue and hop monsters and go straight to the cider.