Dana Bushouse has a family history with booze production — her great uncles were big moonshiners during Prohibition. “Rumor was they worked with Al Capone, and they were running all of southern Michigan and northern Indiana,” she said. “It was a big family shame, nobody talked about it. I could never get details. My grandfather disowned that side of the family.”
But instead of hiding from her ancestors, Bushouse found inspiration in their less-than-legal profession. She originally wanted to get into beer brewing, but a stint on a cleansing diet turned Bushouse onto naturally gluten-free hard cider.
“Cider was refreshing at first, but it was so sweet. The stuff that was on the market, I could drink two, and then I was just like, ‘I’m going home, sugar crash, done,’” she said. “So I started wondering if I could make my own. I started researching and traveling. Every vacation I went on was based around visiting a cidery.”
After taking a cider-making class in Bellingham, Washington, Bushouse started producing her own. Eventually she quit her day job in nonprofit volunteer management and launched Crooked City Cider. The name is an ode to both her family and her adopted hometown of Oakland.
“Part of it [is about] my family — the crime and the crookedness and the secret-ness,” she said. “And living in Oakland, I’ve had a few experiences that have been less than straight.”
But her cider is anything but crooked. Since racking her first ciders last fall, Bushouse has experimented with 20 different flavors, each made with fresh-pressed apple juice and not much else. Most of her flavors are infusions of herbs, ginger and fruit. Her un-aged ciders have no added sugars and definitely no flavorings, artificial or otherwise. All Crooked City Ciders are unfiltered and unpasteurized, which means “you get some of the good live yeast still active in there,” she said.
Most of the hard ciders on the market aren’t as virtuous.
“Right now the FDA governs the ingredients in cider under 7%. You’re supposed to list them all, but there’s not really a checks and balances system right now, so some people list them, some people don’t,” said Bushouse. “They can use natural flavorings, which covers a plethora of horrible things that you don’t want to be drinking.”
So far, East Bay residents have only been able to taste Crooked City Ciders at Bushouse’s speakeasy-style pop-ups with food companies Prickly Pig Barbecue and S+S Gastro Grub, but that is soon to change. She will be launching her ciders in a couple of Oakland bars any day now.
“I’m for places that are welcoming to kind of all walks of life. There’ve been some posher bars that could carry my price point, but I don’t want to be prohibitive. I don’t want to have my nose in the air,” she said.
Plus, Bushouse adds, it is important for her ciders to be served in bars that can provide education around her cider-making methods. Her dream list includes Beer Revolution, Lost and Found and The Good Hop. (She’s currently in talks with all three.)
“If you order a Golden State Cider, which is one of my favorite ciders to get, it looks almost like a water. And if you get mine, it looks, well, different,” she said. “It’s because we don’t filter or anything like that. You will get some little floaty bits from the apples. So I feel like if I just have it on tap anywhere, people wouldn’t understand it.”
Each keg of Crooked City Cider also has its own personality. “Because it is artisanal, the recipes are constantly changing, so it’s not like we have one cider that will always be the same,” said Bushouse. “It will always be a little bit different.”
Part of the uniqueness of Crooked City comes from Bushouse’s crowd-sourced method for recipe development. At each of her speakeasy events, she has asked guests to get involved and provide feedback on her ciders.
“I can take the things that I’ve played around with and put them on tap. People vote and they can leave comments,” she said. “It’s fascinating to me because I haven’t ever made a cider that is has something [technically] wrong with it. I’ve made cider that’s not my favorite. But there will always be a handful of people that love it. Tastes are so varied.”
Her crazy-gingery bottle-aged cider got its flavor profile from those tastings, and her dry-hopped ciders are also crowd favorites. NOSH tasted both of these ciders and can vouch for their distinctive flavors. The citra-hopped cider, in particular, stands out for its are-you-sure-this-isn’t-an-IPA bite.
“It’s probably one of the drier, more bitter hopped ciders that I do,” said Bushouse. “A lot of the hopped ciders don’t have that bite, but this one I double-hopped and it gives it more of an IPA bite.”
Crooked City also has a dry hopped cider for those, like Bushouse, who like hop aroma but not its bitterness.
“I love the smell of an IPA, but I can’t deal with the bite,” she said.
Currently, Bushouse’s favorite cider is a simple one infused with a touch of lemongrass and ginger. While we couldn’t pick out the flavor of the infusions, the resulting cider has a warm and pear-like sweetness.
Bushouse’s ultimate goal is to open her own tasting room in the style of an outdoor beer garden. She is currently looking for a site.
“The plan is to open a cider taproom in Oakland, ideally, so we would still do production off-site, just to keep costs down initially, to provide mostly to our bar. We’d be featuring 20 taps of cider, more than just our ciders, but other ciders as well.”
She also hopes to expand out of her current manufacturing facilities to a larger space where she can experiment with different styles of cider-making. (Barrel aging is on the table.) Currently, Crooked City operates out of Eno Wines in at 805 Camelia St. in West Berkeley, but Bushouse hopes to move south to Oakland as soon as the right spot opens up.
Regardless of where she’s making her cider, Bushouse already has a growing fan-base — some of whom come from the home of hard cider.
“The biggest compliments I’ve ever received were from three English couples that had come to my pop-up events. They’d said, ‘Thank you. This is what we’ve been looking for.’ [My reaction was] wow, because I’m not aiming for a traditional English cider,” she said. “But it’s not messed around with. People who want a good cider and know what good cider can be, they can appreciate it.”
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