In just six steps, Bristols Cider House blends apples, artistry, and a joyful approach to life that’s captured in every hard cider they make.
The Bristols Way: Creativity and Quality
As one of the most established and respected hard cider makers on the Central Coast, this Atascadero-based producer has been creating quality ciders—and fostering a growing community of devoted fans—since 1994.
With a creative approach that produces several distinctive styles and flavors—think beets co-fermented with Granny Smiths in the Mangelwurzel or Newtown Pippins and pomegranates in the Granata—as well as their beloved OG traditional hard cider, Bristols slakes cider lovers’ thirsts in a way that’s always quality, but never boring.
Cidermaking 101: From Apples to Enjoyment
Co-cider makers Erich Fleck and Weston Hartley have been overseeing production at Bristols Cider House for about two years. Currently, they produce about 3500 cases (12,000 gallons) of hard cider, with a rotation of more than 60 ciders and about 10 on tap or in bottles.
While it’s relatively simple to make hard cider—press the juice from fresh apples, ferment it, and bottle it—creating a quality hard cider involves art, science, and instinct.
Come along, fellow cider lovers, on tour of Bristols and learn how the six steps of cider making transform the humble apple into creative and inspired hard ciders just waiting for us to try.
Thirsty? We are, too! Let’s get cracking.
Step 1: Apples Aweigh
“We hand-pick most of our apples,” said Erich, “and we tend to focus our picking decisions on the orchards themselves, some of which contain many different varieties of apples.”
Bristols sources apples from as far north as Sonoma County and down the coast to See Canyon outside of Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County. A few of the varieties they use are Arkansas Black, Black Twig, Braeburn, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, and Newtown Pippins.
Different varieties ripen at different times of the year, which gives Erich an ever-changing selection of tastes to choose from depending on what he wants to showcase in a cider.
“After we pick the fruit, we press it and let it ferment,” he said. “It’s after that point when we begin to identify all the possible final destinations each cider can have.”
Once the apples are picked, they arrive at Bristols in 850-lb. bins. On any given day, the total weight of apples arriving fluctuates between 10,000 and 20,000 pounds.
Step 2: Rinse. Chop. Press. Repeat.
The crush pad outside the main doors of Bristols is a busy place late June through November, when the press is going.
On the day we filmed the action, the well-oiled team of Erich, Weston, and Scott would press 13,600 pounds of apples in about five hours.
“When we’re finished, we will have about 750 gallons of juice,” said Erich.
Erich picks up one bin with the forklift and brings it to two bins filled with water. By positioning the bin in the center as he raises it, he’s able to dump half the apples into each bin with water.
Next, he lines up a water-filled bin in front of the press machinery and scoops crates of apples into the spray washer.
As the apples make their way to the edge of the washer, Erich discards any leaves or twigs and tosses out any apples that are not worthy of becoming Bristols cider.
From there, the washed apples fall onto the conveyor belt and make their way up the incline to the chopper. It’s a loud, sticky affair that fills the air with the sweet smell of apples and random airborne apple pieces. Scott smartly wears a hat as he works the press with Weston.
Weston pulls open the chopper chute and chunks of apple fall into the square open frame about three inches high that’s lined with cloth. He and Scott spread the apples to the top of the frame, then fold the cloth over to make a neat apple-filled package.
They lift the frame, place another cloth on top, and repeat the process several times. When they have several apple packages, they pull the stack underneath the hydraulic press, which slowly crushes the apples and their juice flows into the capture tank.
The juice is now ready for the magical transformation of fermentation.
Step 3: Fermentation: Alchemy of Juice to Cider
As the unfiltered juice is pumped into the waiting barrels, Erich monitors the fill height and pump operation.
“Leaving the juice unfiltered is important because we want the fermentable juice matrix to be as raw and interesting as possible at the onset of its long journey to becoming a cider,” said Erich.
He added, “It’s always much easier to filter and clarify later if and when needed than to try and blend some intrigue back in to a blend of ciders later on.”
Erich and Weston usually ferment each apple variety separately to begin with. “This way, we can create different ciders based on the individual characteristics of the variety. Then we choose a blend of ciders that will complement or contrast in a positive way.”
Bristols ferments in both stainless steel (including a 2,500 gallon tank) and wood, which may be new oak or neutral oak barrels, or larger 132-gallon puncheons that once held Rhone blend or Tannat wines from Tablas Creek. They also use barrels that once held spirits, such as bourbon.
All ciders undergo spontaneous fermentation. “This means that the naturally occurring yeasts on the apples starts the fermentation process,” he explained. “And ciders can ‘go bad’—which means they can develop undesirable characteristics—pretty quickly, so we have to keep on top of the fermentation process.”
On the other hand, cider is more forgiving than wine fermentation, which is focused on the chemistry. Wine needs testing throughout fermentation for alcohol level, brix (sugar), free sulpher, and acid level.
While some “farmhouse”-style ciders are still and not bubbly (The Skimmington is one of Bristols’ still ciders), many ciders go through second fermentation to add carbonation.
To add carbonation, “the finished cider goes into the Brite Tank, where we cool it to about 25 degrees Farenheit with our glycol-jacketed tanks,” explained Erich. “This helps reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we need to add via a sparging stone.”
Step 4: Blending: The Cider Maker’s Signature
Making great hard cider is more like following an idea than following a set recipe, and the cider maker learns to bring out the best of each year’s initial fermented batches.
“After fermentation, we taste the cider and then make decisions of how best to use it,” shared Erich.
For example, the fermentation process can result in several outcomes: high pH, lower alcohol, less acid, and so on. All these variations require the cidermaker to make decisions about how to use the cider in a finished product.
While hard ciders don’t have vintages like wine, which reflects the year the grapes were harvested, they can have annual variations in taste.
“For example, our Barti Ddu is always made from Granny Smith apples and English hops, but it can taste different depending on the fruit each year,” said Erich.
One of the hallmarks of Bristols is its creative ciders. As Erich explained, “We believe in being stewards of what’s in the barrel and working to highlight its characteristics rather than force a certain flavor or outcome.”
Sometimes, this can mean creating lemonade from lemons, er, a distinctive cider from interesting components.
“We had a ‘Bretty’ tank of finished cider that had a high degree of Brettanomyces yeast. This means the yeast flavor is pronounced, so we capitalized on that and created the Colony cider. By leveraging this characteristic, we made it into a farmhouse cider, and our customers really like it.”
For larger batches of blended ciders that the cider makers are happy with, they’ll use diatomaceous earth filtration as an effective way to inhibit any unwanted microbial activity before it’s bottled.
Step 5: Bottling the Goodness
The bottling process is very labor intensive, using a two-head counter-pressure bottling machine.
“It takes about four days to bottle a new cider,” said Erich, “and a typical run will be about 150 cases.”
Some ciders are bottle conditioned with added yeasts. For example, Black Bart uses saison yeast and Black Beard receives a Champagne/Brettanomyces blend.
Step 6: Drink and Be Merry!
Now for the fun part: enjoying the fruits of Erich and Weston’s efforts. But don’t wait too long.
“One of the great things about making hard cider is the smaller production,” said Erich. “We usually do about 40 kegs of each type, so when they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Come for the Quality, Stay for the Variety
Bristols is known for its consistently great hard cider. But as Erich said, the consistent element is the quality, not the sameness.
“We enjoy creating different ciders in different seasons, and offering a list that changes during the year.”
Members of the Cider House Press Gang (Bristols’ cider club) receive three shipments per year, and one product in each shipment is made exclusively for club members.
There’s More to Bristols than Cider
The hard ciders are the obvious reason to visit Bristols Cider House—and often. But there’s more to Bristols than the cider. The place has become a gathering spot for locals and out-of-towners who make a point to stop in on their journey.
Different food options are offered during the week. Currently, Thursday is Curry Night with Chef Jeffrey Scott, Friday is Street Taco Night from Heirloom Catering, and Saturday is Greek Night from Templeton Pizza & Greek Food.
There’s often live music, and no matter what, the friendly atmosphere at Bristols will soon have you relaxed and kicking back in this English pub that found a new home on the Central Coast.
For More Information
Bristols Cider House
3220 El Camino Real, Atascadero, CA, 93422
Fun Related Stories
For more about the history and background of Bristols Cider House, read
“Bristols Cider House: The Art of Hard Cider”
To learn about more about Tablas Creek, where Bristols owner and founder Neil Collins is the winemaker, read
“Winery Spotlight: Tablas Creek Vineyard”
Quick Tour of Selected Bristols 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 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.