by Holly Madrigal
photos by Ree Slocum
Sheriff Tom Allman gets a gleam in his eye when he talks about making hard cider. “It’s just so much fun, and it is a retirement plan—for whenever that is,” Tom laughs.
“My wife Laura and I were visiting friends in England and we ended up in a little pub, and they served us a pint of hard cider. It was not too sweet and it was crisp and refreshing,” he remembers. “Maybe we drank too much because we got it into our heads that we could do this.”
It may seem unconventional, given that the fertile Willits valley has typically grown hay and provided rangeland for cattle. Though apples are a different story altogether, Tom was optimistic. In fact, he remembers that there was a historic cider house not far from his home in Willits. And the roots for cider are deep in this country; hard cider was a traditional family drink in frontier times, since it wasn’t always safe to drink water. Research, in fact, even suggests that Johnny Appleseed wasn’t planting apples to eat; rather, he was interested in varieties that made delicious cider.
After his visit to England, Tom and Laura began researching what it would take to produce cider and sketched out a rough plan. It was a multifaceted project, with some pieces coming more quickly than others. The name —Satisfied Apple—was easy to settle on. Collecting materials took more focus. The pneumatic apple press, for example, came from North Carolina, while the apples themselves came from their own property and friends’ trees as well.
When it was time to produce the cider, Tom found eager help in family and friends. Tom’s family came down from Humboldt County, and along with some in their local community, the apples were soon getting pressed. The rewards came quickly, as “family and neighbors all took home fresh juice for their families.”
That fresh, unfermented apple juice, Tom says, is completely different from that which can be bought in a store. “It’s a revelation. Like, oh my gosh, where have you been all my life? It’s so sweet and good.” Tom also decided to venture into cider vinegar, noting that it’s “so good for you.” With a light effervescence and a wallop of tang, the vinegar is an explosion of taste and texture.
Tom is careful to note that he does not sell hard apple cider and doesn’t produce more than 200 gallons a year. Rather, he makes it for his own enjoyment and is honing his craft. He has traveled as far as Oregon State to take cider making classes at the university. And he has stayed close to home for the annual fruit tree pruning workshops held by Dave Watts and Richard Jeske.
“I have planted over 120 apple trees here,” he says. “I get the good ones because I work with Dave Watts at San Hedrin Nursery. I order them early. If you order trees in late fall you are going to get a better quality tree than those who wait until spring.”
Tom also credits the Gowan family for helping in those early years. They sold him organic apples and talked shop about the best fermentation methods, yeasts and apple varieties. “They make a really good hard cider and have been so generous with their knowledge,” adds Allman. “When I asked them why they would help me out, they said, ‘If Mendocino County had just one winery, no one would come and visit.’”
“I am by no way competition to the Gowans. They produce hundreds of thousands of gallons a year and consider themselves small cider producers,” Tom adds. “Compared to them I am a micro-micro producer.”
At this point, Tom still buys apples from Gowan’s. “I am probably three years away from being able to grow all the apples I need on-site,” Tom explains. Still, he is looking down the road at the long process of developing cider and gaining the certifications allowing it for sale. He’s even taken the step of designing a logo, with the help of Tim Ramming at Printing Plus.
Tom notes that the local community has influenced him significantly and continues to do so. For example, Tom says that “at first, I was concerned because I could never get two apple ciders to taste the same.” It wasn’t until he sought out input from others that he realized his mistake. “I was speaking to a man in Ukiah. He is about 80 and makes hard apple cider. [He] almost yelled when he told me, ‘That’s the idea! You don’t want to be a cookie cutter!’”
As Tom and Laura continue to learn, they also continue to develop the vision for this post-retirement plan. Tom, for instance, proudly shows off a new tank that will make sparkling cider, and they are setting aside funds to buy a 15-barrel Brite Tank someday.
Still, the focus on local production extends to how Tom sees sharing the results. “I see myself producing hard cider that is going to stay in Mendocino and Humboldt County.” He describes a scene he envisions. “Imagine if this was a summer evening, and the weather was just right,” he says. “We could have a little covered area out here, and you could come taste cider and eat homemade pizza.”
“I think that would be just about perfect,” he adds.
Considering Tom’s passion, his partnership with Laura, and the support of their family and community, it seems that sipping Satisfied Apple Cider on a warm day in the future is more than just a possibility. Given some time, it may well be exactly as Tom sees it: a certain type of perfection, in the tastiest, most local of ways.