For the past three years, the owners of Blindwood, a small East Bay-based, family-run cider company, have worked to get their products into bars and restaurants by educating as many people as possible about cider. They talked to restaurateurs, bartenders and anyone who would listen to give cider a shot. And while speaking to the public and successfully convincing listeners to become cider drinks is what its owners live for, their modus operandi has certainly been hampered by the pandemic.
And, to add another wrinkle, in June, Blindwood started production in a new facility, moving the business from Berkeley to San Leandro, in the middle of the crisis.
“We moved at the worst time possible,” Cathy Gabel, who runs Blindwood’s sales, joked.
A passion project that turned into a gig
Blindwood’s story starts seven years ago, before the whole world turned topsy turvy. Drew Gabel was working on a farm in Santa Cruz. Using leftover and cosmetically flawed apples that couldn’t be sold at farmers markets, he began experimenting with the fruit to make cider, the fizzy alcoholic beverage. He became instantly hooked on cider making.
“I got really excited about it,” he recalled. “I even got in trouble [by my employer] for making too much cider instead of selling apples.”
After the farm, Drew became a paramedic, but he still managed to find time in his busy schedule to continue his cider-making hobby. He took classes to learn everything he could about the craft, including with renowned cider maker Peter Mitchell. In 2017, while still working full-time as an EMT, he launched Blindwood Cider in Berkeley.
“It was definitely a passion project that turned into a gig,” Drew said. But according to Drew’s wife, Cathy Gabel, his passion stems from a long line of agriculturally gifted family members.
“[Drew’s] entire family has a big agriculture background, and his great grandpa was brilliant when it came to working with things that grow,” she explained, “and I think that sparked Drew’s passion for farming and gardening.”
Family is actually a huge reason why Blindwood even exists. Every aspect of the cidery — from production to sales and marketing, customer service and outreach — is run by just three family members: Drew at the helm, Cathy leading sales and Drew’s sister, Erin, guiding day-to-day operations.
“As a family, Cathy and I are supporting Drew’s dream and vision. This entire business is us working super hard to get things done and to make it happen,” said Erin. “We are a small family that loves each other and wants to support each other.”
Being a small operation, Blindwood makes a point to source locally, especially from nearby growers and vendors. Its apples are hand-selected from several orchards in Sonoma County, near Watsonville in Pajaro Valley, and even the antique apple orchard at Garin Regional Park. Blindwood’s honey comes from Pirate Creek Bees in Sunol, its hops from California Beer Farms in Sacramento and Hops-Meister in Lake County, its sage is from Jacobs Farm in Half Moon Bay and its bay leaves are from the Gabel’s own backyard. (While the recent LNU, SCU and CZU complex fires are burning close to many of their partner suppliers, Erin said, “So far, everyone is okay!”)
Another point of pride for Blindwood — it fresh-presses all of its apples and does not use additional sugars or fruit from concentrate. Because of this, its ciders — which includes three flagship ciders and several seasonal and limited-editions — are on the drier side, only slightly sweet, with additional flavors from an infusion of herbs and botanicals. Gabel said most commercial cideries, and even some California craft cideries, use sugar additives which can make them sickly sweet, and consequently, turns a lot of people away from cider.
“Drew works really hard to find balance and pays tribute to the apple, and our flavors are really different,” Erin said.
One of Blindwood’s flagship ciders, Ginger Peppercorn has herbal notes from bay leaf and spicy flavors from ginger and a sweet-peppery kick from pink peppercorns. The Gabels say it’s a perfect introductory brew for cider newbs.
Its seasonal Hashtag cider is dry-hopped with Lupulin hop hash from Sacramento’s California Beer Farms, making it an easy pick for beer drinkers. The citrusy flavor from the hops is complemented by the apples’ fruitiness, and has strong aromas of orange with a slight bitter note.
And for wine-lovers, Blindwood’s seasonal Dry Apple and Zin ciders are good options. Eliciting flavors commonly found in a nice, crisp white wine, Dry Apple is an every day, all year kind of cider, while Zin uses Zinfandel grape skins from Berkeley-based Lusu Cellars.
A support system they never knew existed
With most of Blindwood’s sales stemming from keg orders, since COVID-19 reared its ugly head, Blindwood (like so many small businesses) had to completely shift its model, moving to an online ordering system and increase its bottling production.
“With COVID, it’s really been about adapting,” said Drew. “Yes, we’ve changed our model by doing more bottling, adding the online store, doing home deliveries. The move [to San Leandro] handcuffed our production a bit, but we are coming out with more seasonal cider soon.”
While it was hectic moving in the middle of the crisis, Blindwood’s new San Leandro facility is an improvement.
“Our space is 1200 square feet, we could do with more, but this is huge compared to our shared production space with Lusu Cellars and Whistler Vineyards in Berkeley. We operated out of 200 square feet,” Cathy said.
Despite the madness, the Gabels — who live in Hayward — are grateful, to a certain extent, for the pandemic because it’s forced them to discover a community and support system they never knew existed.
“The whole thing with COVID is that it’s actually made us grow deeper into a community we didn’t even know was around,” said Cathy.
“That’s really been the only benefit of COVID is finding these people who are genuinely interested in our product,” added Erin. “Now, we have people placing orders week after week, and have met amazing people; those who care about [Blindwood] as much as we do.”
At some point, the trio hopes to open a tasting room at their new San Leandro base and continue their mission to educate people on cider’s delicious versatility.
“We love the East Bay,” Erin asserted, before Drew added, “We want to take care of our home.”
Blindwood Cider sells customized 6-packs ($39.52) or 12-packs ($79.02) online, over the phone (510-969-5139) or via email (email@example.com) for delivery to the East Bay.