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Pressing matters

September/October 2017 California Bountiful magazine

Father and son carry on legacy of century-old apple farm




The Clendenen family of Humboldt County is best known for its century-old legacy of making apple cider, which Drew Clendenen, left, and his father, Clif, now oversee. Photo: © 2017 Paolo Vescia

Although the Clendenen family has made California apple cider for more than a century, it isn't consistency that has brought the family business success. In fact, it is the absence of consistency that sets Clendenen's Cider Works apart.

Clif Clendenen and his son, Drew, press apples into cider on the same Mount Gilead cider press that Clif's grandfather bought in 1916. And many of the apples used to make cider today come from trees that have produced fruit for 100 years. It would seem the Clendenens have the elements to create a recipe of continuity for their cider.

But with 30 varieties of apples growing on the family's 5-acre Fortuna farm, and each variety bringing its own flavor and harvest time, the Clendenens adhere to a philosophy of embracing the unique tastes and ripening times of their apples.

A Gravenstein apple picked in August puckers your mouth with tartness; a Pippen apple from late October or November brings sweetness, with a side of spice. No two apples are the same and, in keeping with that, the Clendenens say no two batches of their cider are the same.

"The touchstone for any food product is that it is identical to the one that was made nine months ago. Consistency is what you're after," Clif Clendenen said, noting the irony. "For us, that's the charm of our cider—the product is different from the beginning of the season to the end of the season and from year to year."

The uniqueness comes from a hand-selected blending process driven by Mother Nature. At the beginning of the season, when the heat of summer is just beginning to fade, Gravenstein apples are the only variety ready to harvest. Clif and Drew Clendenen pick the apples and press the first batch of cider—about 400 gallons of liquid gold.

From that point until January or February, each successive batch of ripened apples is picked and pressed. Aside from the Gravenstein, a single apple variety is rarely pressed alone: Jonagolds are mixed with Idareds; Mutsus and Fujis find their place with Waltanas. Every 400 gallons, there's a different taste for a different palate, with some customers loyal to an early or late-season cider and others coming back week after week, anticipating the notes of honey or citrus that will distinguish their bottle of cider from the previous week's. Each batch that flows through the press tells its own story of the season. 


The apples on the Clendenen farm are hand-picked, as Pedro Gonzalez, left, and Ramiro Ramirez demonstrate. Photos: © 2017 Paolo Vescia

Built from 'rotten apples'

The Clendenens' own story stretches back to the turn of the 20th century. Ernest Clifton (E.C.) Clendenen bought the family's apple orchard in 1908 and began his business by packing and shipping fresh apples in wooden boxes for the San Francisco wholesale market. At that time, the apples left the rural and isolated Humboldt County docks by steamship.

Early on, one of E.C. Clendenen's buyers sent word that one of the shipments had spoiled, and he refused to pay for the apples. Clendenen boarded the next steamship and found his apples in perfect condition, the buyer simply trying to avoid payment and underestimating Clendenen's fortitude.

The experience inspired the entrepreneur to buy an apple press and mitigate some of the risks of the fresh apple market by making apple cider and apple cider vinegar. He used a small, manual press for a few years before buying the sack-and-cloth cider press that stands on the family farm today (see story below).

The investment turned out to be a profitable one, especially when, just four years later, Prohibition began. The press ran nearly every day of apple season throughout Prohibition, as apple cider was fermentable and, with time, could fill the void of brandy and whiskey. During the era, Clendenen sold fresh apple cider by the barrel or keg.


Drew and Clif Clendenen's 5-acre orchard boasts more than 30 varieties of apple trees. Many have been producing fruit for 100-plus years. Photo: © 2017 Paolo Vescia

A core business

Clif and Drew Clendenen still sell cider from their family farm, only now in plastic bottles. The father-son team produces about 12,000 gallons of unpasteurized cider each season, buying some of their apples from Sonoma County's Walker Apples to help meet demand.

Customers can visit the Clendenens' farm stand between August and January. Because the cider is unpasteurized, the farm stand is the only place the cider can be sold in accordance with state law. The Clendenensalso sell baked goods at the stand, as well as fruits and vegetables from farms in the local area and from other, more distant parts of the state, including pears from Lake County and mandarins grown in Oroville. 

The family also still sells whole, fresh apples, despite E.C. Clendenen's once-unfortunate experience. These apples are marketed to a dozen or so area grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants, either to be sold as fresh fruit or used as an ingredient in a variety of products.

Ramone's Bakery and Café, which has five Humboldt County locations, is a longtime buyer of Clendenen apples. Owner Berit Meyer, one of the bakery's founders, said apple pie is a popular fixture on her fall menu—and many of those pies feature lendenen apples.

Meyer's team buys more than 1,000 pounds of apples from the Clendenens each season, identifying uses for the fruit beyond pies. Clendenen apples find a home in Ramone's muffins and pastries, and in salads and pizzas served in the company's Eureka restaurant. To add longevity, Meyer said chutney has even been made from the apples.

"Wherever we can use an apple, we do," she said. "It's a great local product for us. The apples haven't left Humboldt County. They are just down the road, and I know they are super fresh, and when and where they are getting picked."


Chanel Ptacek shops at Clendenen's Cider Works in Fortuna. Photo: © 2017 Paolo Vescia

With the fortune of being only a quick car ride away from most customers—rather than a steamship's journey—the Clendenens have embraced the attention and affinity for locally produced food, opening their farm each year to school tours and even founding a yearly Apple Harvest Festival to celebrate the season.

"I meet customers who came to the farm when they were a kid and got a tour from my dad, or people from out of the area who make it a yearly trip to come and buy our cider," Drew Clendenen said. "Some of our customers have been coming here their whole lives. That's what makes what we do special and makes it possible for us to still be around."

With a rich history and an undeniably popular product, Clif Clendenen said he's proud of the legacy of Clendenen's Cider Works—one he hopes will press on for another 100 years.

"Every generation that has worked on the farm has put its own stamp on it," he said. "My grandfather had one milk cow and chickens. My dad brought Clendenen's into the modern era. I did my own thing and Drew will do his too. Every generation adds something, but there is a continuity: Our name is on the business. We have the honor of running the family
business and that outweighs any challenges."

Toni Scott

Im-PRESS-ive


Photo: © 2017 Paolo Vescia

The cider press at Clendenen's Cider Works is the cornerstone of the family business, squeezing every apple that is bottled into the 12,000 gallons of cider sold by the Clendenen family each year. The process of pressing apples is labor intensive, but offers a sweet reward.

After the freshly picked apples are sorted and cleaned, they are grated into pulp by a mechanical shredder. The pulp falls into a hopper, which fills a shallow wooden frame lined with cloth. Once the cloth is filled, the frame is removed and the cloth is folded over, packing the pulp into a rectangular pillow of sorts.

A press rack is placed on the pulp-filled cloth and the process is repeated six more times, with the apple packs sandwiched between racks. The cart holding the packs is then wheeled into the press, where the entire structure is squeezed until juice from the apples seeps through the cloths. The juice is captured in a vat, stored in a stainless steel tank and then bottled to be sold as cider on the Clendenens' farm.

To see the entire process, visit www.clendenensciderworks.com/making-cider/.


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