For well over a century, the mountain orchards in and around Julian boasted a reputation for producing fine, flavorful apples and pears. More recently, the area's become better known for apple pie and hard cider, and — somewhat controversially — for not always growing enough apples to support the demand for either.
Rain has had a lot to do with that — rather the lack thereof. Just ask Calico Cidery. The family business has been producing cider commercially for two years now, made exclusively with fruit from its own orchards. However, at first the certified organic cidery wasn't able to produce much quantity.
"That was a killer drought for us," acknowledges David Young. "We were basically trying to hunker down and keep trees alive." Young spent several years making wine at his Minassian-Young Vineyards in Paso Robles — which he still owns — and returned to San Diego to make cider. To date, Calico has released only three ten-barrel batches of what he deems "bone dry" cider. With no tasting room for public consumption, it's primarily distributed in kegs to a handful of craft beer destinations.
Calico takes its name from the Calico Ranch, a century-old orchard near Wynola Junction that Young's parents bought in 1985. David's father, Conrad Young, who has been making cider as a hobby during most of the intervening years, has watched his own apple yield decline drastically, along with others' in the area. "In the past 30 years," he says, "everybody's been abandoning orchards, because you cannot make money growing apples up here." While seasonal U-pick events at Calico and other orchards attract tourists during apple-picking season, the apples are often small, and yields unreliable. "We've had zero crop years," he notes.
However, things have been improving, and Calico has been able to produce enough this year that it's signed up with a distributor and plans on a spring release of a dry-hopped cider in cans. "Last year, we only got about 116 bushels," David says of the 2015 harvest. "This year, we've gotten ten times that."
And thanks to this winter's barrage of rain storms, the coming year should yield quite a bit more. As Conrad points out three creeks that naturally irrigate the 30-acre property, he notes, "These creeks haven't flowed in five years."
The ranch is named for the patchwork of pine and oak trees growing in the mountains above it. When the oak leaves change color in autumn, the mottled colors resemble a calico pattern. Its two acres of pear trees date back nearly a hundred years, while its 22 acres of apple orchards feature 125 different varieties, and more than 4000 trees. "When we have normal rains," Conrad says, "we produce over 10,000 bushels."
Currently, each numbered batch of cider features a blend of whichever fruits managed to grow. As this year's yield develops, however, David aims to get creative. For example, noting that pears tend to harvest at the same time as hops, he hopes to make a wet-hopped perry featuring hops from Star B Ranch later this summer.