Already deep into home brewing, Ben Schroeder decided a few years ago to experiment with making hard apple cider because his 12-year-old daughter has celiac disease. While she’s far from drinking age, Schroeder found himself hanging around with adults and parents of other kids with the autoimmune disorder, which causes dangerous gastrointestinal reactions to the gluten that’s in wheat, barley, and all of those other grains so inherent in beer, but absent from fruit-based beverages.
“I started making cider and people started asking for more of it,” explained Schroeder, who was soon getting requests for weddings and bigger parties. “It kind of snowballed from there. You’re only allowed to make so much of it privately.”
About two years ago, he began investigating how to do it commercially and realized that he could fit a cidery and tasting room into his existing warehouse space in Old Town Goleta. That’s where, from an alley off Rutherford Street behind Santa Cruz Market, he sells marching-band equipment over the internet. (Though worthy of a story itself, suffice it for Schroeder to say, “If you see something in the Rose Parade, chances are we probably did it.”) His neighbors didn’t mind since the evening and weekend tasting-room hours didn’t conflict with their daytime traffic, and he also found support from the City of Goleta, whose leaders have pledged for 15 years to rejuvenate Old Town.
Fast forward through nearly a year of the usual state and federal permitting hoops — during which time the tasting room was built out with shipping-container walls, recycled fence planks, and other reused materials — and Santa Barbara Cider Company quietly opened for business on August 17. Schroeder — who was raised in Los Angeles County and graduated from UCSB in 2001 — is joined in the venture by his sister, Twilight Robin (who works at Sansum Clinic and makes gluten-free desserts), and his good friend Niklas Shaefer, a Santa Barbara native and UCSB grad who works at Yardi.
The relaxed tasting room vibe is very family-friendly, with board games to play, music in the air, and food service usually available right outside, from wood-fired pizzas to the latest food truck. But the focus is certainly the ciders, of which 12 are always on tap. “I have probably about 30 recipes that I’ve worked on and honed,” said Schroeder. “A lot of the time cider is treated like wine, and we’re trying to treat it a little more like beer.”
Instead of pressing his own apples — a laborious, time- and space-consuming process — Schroeder instead buys pressed juice, free from artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors, and preservatives, to make his cider. Then he blends that apple base with other fruit juices, like mango, pineapple, cherry, and blueberry — the list goes on and on — as well as hops and other spices, adding them sometimes prior to fermentation, sometimes after. He’s used a variety of yeasts, from champagne and cider to white wine and ale, as well as some he harvested off his own apple trees.
“They don’t take as long to make this way,” said Schroeder of the pressed-juice base, which makes his ciders much easier to increase in production. “We can get a wide variety of flavors, and they’re unfiltered and presented as is. What I’m aiming for is consistency and scalability and something that people will enjoy.”
So far, customers are steadily liking the Deepen (with mulberry), the Great Lei (with pineapple), and the Hoppy Ending (with Cascade and Mosaic hops), so those will likely become core flavors, with plans for canning and bottling down the road. Seasonal offerings will remain a constant, from the blueberry lemon he made for the Lemon Festival to the more sour, sweet, and spicy options.
It’s been interesting for Schroeder to see the range of clientele, which includes both reluctant wine lovers who find themselves liking cider and those who find beer too filling, so are stoked to find a tasting-room experience they can enjoy. “We’re finding that there is a lot of misunderstanding about cider,” he said. “It’s not a clearly defined space yet, so that’s kinda nice because people can trust their own palate.”
The cidery is already reinvesting profits into new equipment to keep up with tasting-room demand while expanding to restaurants and bars in the area, which is to say that they’ve been happily surprised with early success. “We’re in that proof-of-concept phase,” said Schroeder. “We wanted to see what the reaction was, and it’s been robust.”
For his growth model, he looks to Russian River Brewing Company in Sonoma, where hordes flock for fresh, small-batch beers. “I don’t look at that as a scarcity model — I see them as focusing on their local customers and making sure they’re happy,” he explained. “That’s what makes this area special. It’s a big-name small town, and word travels fast. People know when they’re being taken care of and being listened to. Our goal is to really keep our local customers happy.”
Santa Barbara Cider Company (325 Rutherford St., Ste. D) is open Thursday-Friday, 5-9 p.m., and Saturday, 3-9 p.m. The grand opening party is on November 4. Call (805) 695-2457 or visit sbcider.com.