Lassen Traditional Cider in Chico
By Kimberly Boney
Story by Kimberly Bonéy
Photos by Sunshine Rush
“WHAT IS CONSIDERED a good eating apple and what is considered a good one for making cider are two very different things,” says Ben Nielsen, owner of Lassen Traditional Cider in Chico. He would know. Having fallen in love with the art of pressing apples in 2005, in an effort to make use of free apples from a generous neighbor in Corvallis, Ore., Nielsen slowly began bridging the gap between hobby and career.
The apple pressing became an annual tradition, where friends would come to help with the process and bring their own apples to see what new flavors would emerge. As the excitement built, and more friends began to join in the fun, Nielsen had to seek out other sources to keep the cider flowing. Errant trees on the side of country roads and those resting in long-abandoned orchards kept him in enough apples to continue to press. His curiosity was piqued one day when he pressed cider from crab apples, a fruit typically considered inedible because of its distinct astringent flavor. “Crab apples actually make some of the very best cider.”
Nielsen’s passion continued as a hobby as he plugged away at a career in engineering. But 2014 was a rough year. In the span of 12
months, Nielsen experienced a hard break-up, was in a serious car accident and was laid off from his job. As difficult as it was, the losses propelled him toward a change. “I was getting burned out with engineering, but it’s hard to make the decision to quit,” Nielsen says. Opportunity, however, has a way of emerging out of the most difficult and untimely circumstances.
In October 2015, Nielsen found a space in Chico and spent almost a year obtaining the necessary permits. He began making cider commercially in September 2016. Although Nielsen has been limited in how fast he has been able to grow the business because of the cost of equipment, Lassen Cider has seen slow but steady growth. In 2018, he pressed and fermented 3,000 gallons of cider.
Lassen Cider maintains between 60 and 70 accounts in and around Northern California. Chico alone sustains a dozen of those. “It’s on draft in some local bars and taprooms, it’s available at the Bottle Barn in Redding, and there are two dozen accounts in the Bay Area. Forty percent of my sales are there. Oakland is the best market in the state for cider.”
Nielsen is typically at the Lassen Cider Tasting Room on Saturdays between 2 and 7pm, sharing his love for cider-making with visitors in the facility where his product is pressed, fermented and bottled. When he’s not there, it’s because he’s out spreading the word about Lassen Cider to a robust, excited market of cider and brew enthusiasts at festivals and other special events. As a self-proclaimed introvert, Nielsen admits that the sales part of his business is more difficult than he would have imagined.
“I was naïve when I first began. I thought the cider would sell itself. I thought I’d be a ‘cider evangelist,’” he says with a laugh. “But it’s hard for people to overcome their preconceived notions of what cider is and what it should taste like. It comes down to sharing knowledge with people and building relationships. There is a lot of power in the story.”
From late September to December, Nielsen presses apples two days a week. The cider is fermented in repurposed red wine barrels for three to four months, where they gain complexity from the tannins in the oak barrels. While cider isn’t as robust as wine, it does have the ability to take on some of the characteristics of the wine that was once stored in the same barrel. Between January and March, the cider is bottled. “A lot of what you find in the supermarket is more like a cider-cooler – a wine cooler of sorts. Many of them are made with high-fructose corn syrup. They are produced using juice in bulk from unknown origins, made from grocery store apples. They are often cloyingly sweet. Those companies are multiple steps away from their product,” says Nielsen.
Nielsen’s approach to cider-making is invariably different: “I go directly to farms and bring the apples to Chico, where they are pressed and fermented. I use single varietal heirloom apples. Every time an apple starts from a seed, it will be its own apple – a unique flavor. Some apples may be bitter to the taste but will make a phenomenal cider.
“I love the simplicity of it,” Nielsen continues. “Knowing where each part comes from is important to me. There is no disconnect with my product. I love being able to build a relationship with the farmers. It’s traditional, unadulterated cider. There are no sulfites and it’s not filtered. It’s a natural process that is always evolving.”
Montgomery Creek, off Highway 299, used to be teeming with commercial apple orchards. Between fire, mass production of apples in other regions, an older generation of farmers making the decision to retire and the fact that the former apple orchards have been replaced with more lucrative vineyards for winemaking, only two orchards have remained. Troxell Big Red and Hillcrest Orchards have fought against fire and transfer of ownership, respectively, over the years to maintain the area’s rich tradition of apple growing. Montgomery Creek is where most of the apples Nielsen uses are produced. There, he has built strong relationships with both orchards and holds on to the hope that others of their caliber will find a way to rise again.
“I look at this business from the standpoint of a lifestyle, more than as an opportunity to make a bunch of money. I want to make a decent living – but I also want to do something that I enjoy. This business is my baby. It’s my creation – and watching it grow is powerful.” •
Lassen Cider Tasting Room • 26 Bellarmine Court, Chico
(530) 593-0555 • www.lassencider.com
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Saturdays from 2 to 7pm