Bristols Cider House: The Art of Hard Cider
If you’re like many people, the first place that comes to mind when you think of hard cider is Bristols Cider House in Atascadero.
Today, Bristols Cider House is an institution—one of the oldest, biggest, and well-respected hard cider companies on the Central Coast, as well as throughout California and beyond.
The cidery crafts 3,500 cases (equal to about 12,000 gallons) of quality cider annually, and has a robust and devoted following.
But let’s start at the beginning and take a peek at how it all began… and where it’s headed.
The Birthplace of Bristols? Bristol.
While Bristols Cider House opened in 1994, the spark for the idea ignited many years before in Bristol, England, hometown of brother and sister Neil Collins and Jackie Meisinger, where local pubs offered hard cider, plus camaraderie and a fun atmosphere.
Over time, Jackie and Neil both made their way to the Central Coast. Neil’s passion for and career in winemaking had taken him to wineries around the world before coming to California and the winemaker position at Tablas Creek.
One day, the siblings were reminiscing about the wonderful hard ciders from their native Bristol. At the time, there was nothing available. So, they agreed: why not create their own hard ciders and bring Bristol’s traditions of quality ciders to the Central Coast?
The Spark Grows
Over the next 23 years, Bristol’s Cider House has grown from that initial spark into one of the bright spots on the Central Coast.
Neil and his wife Marci teamed with Jackie to begin crafting hard ciders based on traditional Bristol recipes, and Neil blended in his talents as a renowned winemaker. Word spread about the ciders created at Bristols, and eventually they hired a cider maker to oversee the ever-increasing cider production.
Adam Welch joined the team and created not only great ciders, but the unique label artwork, murals, and other art found at Bristols.
It wasn’t long before Adam faced a decision: which talent to pursue? With his recognition heating up in the art world, Adam decided to leave behind the fermentation tanks and turn his full attention to creating art. Adam continues to create Bristols’ awesome labels.
Meet the Cider Makers
About two years ago, an equally wondrous path led Erich Fleck to Bristols as head cider maker. After a career in the US Army as a linguist, Erich left Maryland and headed west. His destination: the Enology and Viticulture program at Cal Poly. After Cal Poly, Erich’s wine career first took him to New Zealand, then Portland, where he gained experience both as a wine buyer and in wine sales.
Weston Hartley, co-cider maker, is the son of Gray Hartley, the proprietor of Hitching Post wines. The Hitching Post’s fame dates well before the recognition garnered by the movie “Sideways,” as it’s been creating top-quality Pinot Noirs, Syrah, red blends, and other varieties since 1981.
Meeting a Mentor
As a wine buyer, Erich learned of a winemaking internship at Tablas Creek under the tutelage of Neil Collins.
“I so respected what Neil was creating at Tablas Creek, and I wanted to be part of that,” he said. “I sent a letter, we talked, and I walked in the doors of Tablas Creek a few weeks later as the new intern.”
“One of the biggest things I appreciate about Neil is his approach to life,” shared Erich. “The motto for Neil’s own winery—Lone Madrone—is ‘eat, drink, and be merry.’ That idea carries through in everything: life is to be enjoyed, and when we do the things we love, life is all about the journey.”
Starting a New but Familiar Path
As Erich worked with Neil at Tablas Creek, he began learning the ins and outs of winemaking, which parallel cider making. Both involve guiding the best of a harvest’s fruit through fermentation, blending, and bottling.
So it was only natural that Erich was offered the position as Bristols’ cider maker. And it’s a role he has embraced.
Like any business, cider making is not just about the fun of creating the end product. It’s also very much about growing the business. As Erich put it, “legs on the ground.”
“From January through June, I’m visiting accounts, developing relationships with prospective clients, meeting with distributors, and doing whatever it takes to build Bristols Cider House.”
The Making of a Great Cider House
A great pub is more than just the beverages available on tap or in bottles at the bar.
If it doesn’t have an uplifting atmosphere created by staff who truly care about their customers, it won’t last. Or at least it won’t become the go-to place for locals and travelers alike.
That’s exactly what’s happening at Bristols, and bar manager Cody is a big part of that. He’s friendly, professional, knows his ciders, and creates an environment that people want to come back to.
“We love our local customers,” said Erich, “and we also have customers from San Diego and San Francisco. They bring their empty growlers, coolers with ice, and stock up for the drive home.”
In addition to several ciders on tap or in bottles, Bristols offers live music and food every week. On Thursdays, Chef Jeffrey Scott creates a different curry. Fridays, Farmstead Catering does wood-fired pizza. The space is booked for parties, and Bristols looks for opportunities to foster community both inside and outside the cider industry.
Open Wednesday through Sunday, Bristols has become the chosen spot for many to meet friends, and many first-timers become long-term customers after their first visit.
When asked what’s ahead for Bristols Cider House, Erich explained by reaching back to his internship with Neil several years ago.
“Neil illustrated then, and continues to show, this attitude that there’s no point in doing something if you don’t enjoy it,” Erich explained. “Winemaking and cidermaking are labors of love, and we do them because they bring us energy and we are passionate about all that’s involved in the process.”
And along the way, through the years from fruit to harvest to bottle, the foundation of Bristols Cider House has been consistency. But it’s not been consistency producing a narrow range of the same few ciders year after year.
“Our consistency is in our quality, not necessarily in sameness,” explained Erich. He’s learned from Neil that wine makers and cider makers are stewards, not the absolute creators, of what happens along the way. That journey is about always looking for ways to keep learning, keep growing, and keep improving.
And that’s when the fun really starts.
Stay tuned for a look inside the apple barrel and the cider-making process.
Meet the Ciders
Bristols Cider House offers a wide range of hard ciders, from the traditional dry and lightly carbonated ciders to “farmhouse” style ciders that are still, sometimes murky, and oftentimes complex.
Here’s a quick look at a few of their current offerings.
Antiquity. Blend of Pink Lady, Golden Delicious, New Town Pippins. Fermented and aged in new whisky barrels.
Bristols Original (The OG). A fresh and classically styled English dry cider.
Bristols Skimmington. A still farmhouse scrumpy with brettanomyces yeast. Skimmington is murky and still, rather than carbonated. The brett brings out a sweet, yeasty flavor and aroma.
Bristols Granata. Named after the Latin word for pomegranate, this pretty pink and tart cider blends Newtown Pippin and pomegranate ciders. The Granata is a lovely garnet-hued cider that has a bit of a bite.
Bristols Barti Ddu. It’s a 100% Granny Smith apple cider that is dry hopped using English hops. Even if you don’t like hoppy cider, try this one. It just may change your mind.
Bristols Black Beard. This cider, from a variety of applies like Arkansas Black, Black Twig, Honey Crisp, and Newtown Pippen, is aged 18 months in bourbon barrels. The result is the masculine side of bourbon (not the sweet vanilla side), and is slightly yeasty and definitely complex.
For More Information
Bristols Cider House
3220 El Camino Real
Atascadero, CA, 93422