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Cider Flights At Brewery In Central California Travel Blog Bristols Cider House Atascadero In The Great Wide

Bristols Cider House


Did you know that Cider Houses are having a resurgence and that, according to Washington State University, “cider is one of the fastest-growing segments of the liquor industry”? We sure didn’t, but were pleasantly surprised on our trip to the Central Coast of California to find Bristols Cider House, a fast-growing cider brewery with unique flavors and passionate employees.


CONTENTS



What is a Cider House?

Think of cider houses like breweries or wineries, only instead of making beer or wine, they make hard cider. Cider with alcohol in America is usually referred to as ‘hard cider’, while ‘cider’ is the murky, non-alcoholic apple juice that most people imbibe during the autumn and winter seasons. In England, any cider with alcohol is just called ‘cider’ and anything else made from apples is called ‘juice’.


While more uncommon today, cider houses used to be found everywhere when the Americas were first being colonized by Europeans, and cider houses were extremely common in England (especially in the southwest region). They mostly consisted of one room in a farmhouse that was used to press and ferment the apples needed to make cider. It was easier to ferment apples than brew beer, so cider was much more accessible for home brewing. It is still extremely popular in England and most of Western Europe.


Just for the record, “brewing” technically may not be the best term for making cider, as we were educated that the process to make cider is closer to the winemaking process than it is to brewing beer. However, it doesn’t seem like anyone has ever decided on a definitive term for what to call cider-making, so for now, we’ll stick to “brewing” until someone who knows more about it can give us a better answer.



The first apple trees in America were planted in Massachusetts by colonizers in 1629, 9 years after landing at Plymouth Rock. Apple trees became integral to the expansion of the American West, as the government required new land-owners to plant apple trees to ensure they’d stay after staking their claim in the rough and tumble West. The rule was that they had to stay long enough at their newly claimed property to harvest apples from the trees they planted, which usually took a few years. In most places, cider was consumed more than water, as a lot of the drinking water could become contaminated with human waste, making it unsafe to drink.


Fun Fact: Apple trees are not native to North America, or even to Europe. They originated in Central Asia and were introduced to other continents by colonizers, but China still grows half of all the apples in the world. There are now more than 7,500 varieties of apples.



Cider fell out of fashion as the Industrial Revolution ramped up, as more and more people moved to urban areas and away from the countryside. Beer also helped curb the consumption of cider, as it became more and more popular around the same time. The final blow for most cider houses was the temperance movement that led to the Prohibition in 1920, shuttering the last few commercial cider houses still in use.


Of course now, with the interest in craft beer in full swing all over America, it’s not surprising that cider houses should see a resurgence, as creative brewers and winemakers look for new ways to stand out. According to The Guardian, Americans are drinking 10x more cider now than they were 10 years ago, seeking out unique, multicultural flavors.


Bristols Cider House is owned and operated by a brother and sister (Neil and Jackie) who grew up in the town of Bristol in England, where cider houses are still prevalent, along with Neil’s wife, Marci. Neil missed the cider houses of England when he moved to California, and so started making cider at home, which then grew into what Bristols Cider House is now. They work with local farms to source the apples they ferment for their ciders, making it a truly local experience to Central California.


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Where is Bristols Cider House?

Bristols Cider House is located just off of the U.S. Route 101 in the Central Coast region of California, in a town called Atascadero. For those fairly familiar with California, Atascadero is situated about half-way between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. If you’ve never heard of those places, you can think of Atascadero as situated approximately half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco.


Physical address for Bristols Cider House: 3220 El Camino Real, Atascadero, CA 93422



How to Get to Bristols Cider House in Atascadero

Atascadero has less than 30,000 residents, so it does not have its own public transportation system. However, there is a regional transit bus that runs between San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles with a number of stops in Atascadero, so if you’re in one of those areas, you could use the RTA Route 9 to get to Bristols Cider House. The closest stop is 2 blocks away at El Camino Real & San Benito.


Even though we’re usually all for public transit, we highly recommend driving your own car to travel around California’s Central Coast to allow you the most freedom to explore all the region has to offer. If you need to rent a car, we recommend using a service such as Turo instead of a traditional car rental service because it will be much cheaper. I wouldn’t rely on Uber or Lyft in this area though, as there is very limited availability.


Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train route does pass right through Atascadero in its route from Los Angeles to Emeryville (San Francisco), but there is no Amtrak station in the town of Atascadero. To get there, you would need to disembark the train at either the Paso Robles station or the San Luis Opisbo station and then take the RTA Route 9 to Atascadero. In Paso Robles, the RTA stops at the Amtrak station, but the closest RTA stop to the San Luis Obispo Amtrak station is about a 15-minute walk away. Again, driving is definitely our recommended choice for this area.


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Reservations at Bristols Cider House

No reservations are taken at Bristols Cider House, but they often have events that require tickets to attend on the weekends, and sometimes even during the week. Before you head over, check their event page on their website to make sure you won’t be surprised by a cover charge for the live music when you arrive.


You should also be aware that they are only open Thursday through Sunday. Here are their hours:

  • Thursday: 4 - 9pm

  • Friday: 4 - 10pm

  • Saturday: 12 - 10pm

  • Sunday: 12 - 9pm

  • Monday-Wednesday: CLOSED


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Our Experience

We generally opt to stay at AirBnbs when traveling, as the local hosts can usually recommend some amazing places you wouldn’t normally find, and we love meeting new people anyway. This was the case with our Airbnb in Atascadero for my birthday, where our awesome hosts, Jean and Jon, pointed us towards Bristols Cider House.


After our initial Airbnb check-in, we had to rush off to our tour of the Firestone Walker Brewery in Paso Robles (review coming soon!), so when we got back later that night, our hosts asked us if we like cider too. Both of us have definitely had cider before, mostly popular brands like Angry Orchard, Strongbow, or Samuel Smith, but we have to admit that we very rarely choose cider over beer and cocktails. They told us about a local cider house they frequent and told us there were some cards in our room that would allow a 2-for-1 tasting. It just so happened that we didn’t have any particular plans for the next evening, so we decided to check it out. We had never heard of a cider house before.


After a full morning visiting Hearst Castle, grabbing lunch from the food truck at the Hearst Ranch Winery, and seeing the elephant seals of San Simeon, we drove back over to Atascadero to check out Bristols Cider House. It’s in a commercial/industrial hybrid neighborhood with plenty of street parking. Heading in, we saw that there’s plenty of space to sit outside, but they also had big garage doors open to let the beautiful weather inside too. There were a few gentlemen at a long table and a couple of ladies sitting on couches around a coffee table, but the place was empty otherwise (and on a Sunday afternoon!). Everyone had a cider tasting paddle in front of them.


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The bartender warmly greeted us and when we mentioned that we were sent by our AirBnB hosts, he told us he was going to take special care of us. It turns out that Sebastian, the bartender, is Bristols’ newest brewmaster and was especially excited to chat with us about cider.


Sebastian filled us in on how the owner is from Bristol, England, where cider is still extremely common. He had moved out to California and was shocked to find his favorite drink wasn’t easy to find in the Central Coast of California, so he decided to start pressing and fermenting his own cider. It helped that he was already part of the Lone Madrone winery in Atascadero, so he had the space to experiment.



Fast forward a couple of decades and it turns out that a lot of the locals really like cider. The company grew and grew until they finally had to open a tap room. It’s a hodge-podge space with a couple of high-top tables, a few long dining-room style tables, and the comfortable couches surrounding coffee tables, so everyone has somewhere comfortable to sit. There is also a space for bands to perform, which from the schedule of events they had posted, appears to be a couple of times a week. The walls are covered in wallpaper and memorabilia from England and the owner’s family, and they also welcome dogs. We were greeted by quite a few pups as people came and went, which Phoebe thoroughly enjoyed.


The tasting is supposed to be a choice of 5 ciders from the 7 they have on tap, but Sebastian set us up with a taster of each one, in celebration of my birthday. We had no idea there were so many variations of cider, but we’re thrilled we stopped in. Sebastian was very generous with his time, taking care of us and walking us through the different ciders. He really went above and beyond and made our experience there spectacular and memorable.


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As with any good taster flight, we were given a paper guide to follow along and keep track of which cider was which. You get to choose 5 of the 7 to include on your paddle for $15, which is a really great deal! They’re constantly producing new options though, so the ciders we had may not be available when you go, but you’re bound to have some tasty alternatives. Here are the ciders we tried:


  • Bristols - the original cider produced by Bristols. It’s by far the closest to the mass-produced ciders you probably know, like Strongbow or Angry Orchard, but so much more dry and crisp. It’s made from 55 different varieties of apples.

  • Barti Ddu - Pronounced ‘Bartee Thee’, it’s named after a Welsh politician (Bristol, England is right across the Bristol Channel from Cardiff, Wales). It’s brewed from Granny Smith apples with a special English hops that gives it a tea-like taste. This was one of Phoebe’s favorites!

  • Anne Bonny - a cider that is aged in bourbon barrels. You can taste the bourbon sitting on the back of your tongue. It’s quite tasty and has an ABV of 8-10%. It quickly became another of our favorites because it was so immediately unlike anything we had ever tasted before.

  • NC2 - called NC-Squared, after the cider house owner, Neil Collins, and the owner of the orchard where the apples for this particular cider are grown, who is also named Neil Collins. Odd in a smaller town, but combined to create a nice flavor.


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Samples from 2 batches of the Mangelwurzel, a hard cider made with Granny Smith apples, beets, & fennel
  • Mangelwurzel - a cider fermented with beets, Granny Smith apples, and fennel root. I never thought I’d say this about fermented beet juice, but this cider was insanely tasty. It’s also quite beautiful with a rich red color. This was also a great example of how batches can change depending on the specific pieces of produce they start with, as Sebastian opened up a bottle of an older batch of Mangelwurzel and it tasted different, more earthy, and was a different shade of red. Same ingredients, same process, but different because one harvest of the beets or apples was slightly less sweet than the other. If this is an option when you go, it’s definitely a unique flavor you won’t find anywhere else.

  • Mystery XVII - Bristols has a “Press Gang” Cider Club that sends a half-dozen bottles of various ciders every quarter. One of those bottles is an unlabeled ‘mystery cider’. The version we tasted, ‘XVII’, is made from a young orchard in Paso Robles and aged in stainless steel barrels, which provides an insanely crisp taste. It’s only available for a limited time, but shows how much Bristols is willing to experiment and push cider making.

  • Session - the apples for this cider are picked early to make the cider more acidic and to lower the alcohol content (less sugars means lower alcohol). It was extremely smooth and tasty.

  • Skimmington - Sebastian offered this cider that wasn’t on the tasting menu because the gentlemen who were sitting at the long table when we arrived included a man who grew up in the same neighborhood as Neil, the owner. It’s a true scrumpy farmhouse cider, as it’s not carbonated and it’s unfiltered, which gives it that murky look. It’s like an alcoholic, non-sweet holiday apple cider. It was awesome to get to try it because it felt more like we were getting the authentic English experience.


When we finally decided that we needed to head out to find some food (if you’re in Atascadero, we highly recommend the burritos from Papis #1, right off the 101), we bought a couple of cases of the OG and Barti Ddu to take home. You can also purchase growlers of most of the tap offerings or even sign up for their Press Gang Cider Club, which includes shipments 3 times a year to your home and an array of discounts and perks for when you go into the cider house. For those local to the area, they also offer an exclusive mug club with its own set of discounts. If we lived closer, we would certainly consider it, but for now, we’ll just have to be content with stopping in for a drink whenever we’re in the area, which I think may be more often from now on.


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Our Verdict

I’m not going to say that Bristols Cider House is a place you should visit if you’re in the area; it’s a reason to visit the area. There is so much to do in the Central Coast of California, from Monterey to Paso Robles to San Luis Opisbo, including Hearst Castle, the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, and whale watching tours, that you should plan a weekend to the area as soon as possible. It’s like visiting a whole other world from Southern California, and we were surprised by it over and over again. Bristols Cider House should definitely be included in your planning process, as you may just discover, like we did, that you LOVE cider.


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Quick Reference Guide

What

Where

How to Get There

There is extremely limited public transit, Uber, and Lyft in this area, so we highly recommend driving yourself. For affordable car rentals, we recommend Turo.

Time Commitment

You could easily just come in for an hour or so to have a drink and be on your way, but we ended up enjoying ourselves so much that we stayed for nearly 3 and a half hours tasting ciders on my birthday!

Cost

Cider Flights are 5 hefty tasters for $15 - definitely the way to go!

Pints are $8-$9

Growlers (64oz) are $24-$29

Reservation Info

No reservations are taken, but they frequently host live music that sometimes requires a cover charge. Check the events page on their website before you go.

Our Verdict

We can’t recommend this gem of a cider house enough. We learned a great deal about the ciders from one of the friendly brewmasters who was acting as bartender for the day, and it really opened our eyes to the wide array of flavors that ciders have to offer.


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