Manzanita Cider

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manzanita berries on the bush
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

If you live in the West, you’ve seen the mystical manzanita: It is a captivating shrub, if such a thing can be said with a straight face.

Manzanita leaves are perfect ovals, thick to hold in moisture and colored a luminous, silvery green; under the full moon, the leaves glow eerily. But it’s the wood that is so unique: Bright red and gnarled, when the bush grows into its adulthood, its bark will burst and flake off like the aftermath of a bad sunburn.

Come upon a manzanita in spring and you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a weird blueberry bush. It’s not, as manzanita is in the arctostaphylos, not the vaccinium clan, but both shrubs have very similar urn-shaped flowers.

A close up of a manzanita flower
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Come upon a manzanita later in summer and you will understand its name: Manzanita means “little apple” in Spanish. Look at the top picture: They really do look like little apples.

Ever since I moved to California I’d read that the berries were quasi-edible, that someone — Indians or Spaniards — did something with them at some point. I even bought a couple of manzanita bushes to plant in that blast furnace I call my front yard. But I bought them because manzanita is a beautiful bush, not because I had designs on the berries.

That was a decade ago. My bushes are big and beautiful, and they set many hundreds of “little apples” every year. What to do with them? As it happens, the Franciscan friars, who were the first European settlers of California, made a sort of cider from the berries. The California Indians did the same thing, plus they made a meal from the dried, ripe berries they’d later use for porridge in winter.

Cider, eh? I like cider. But really? I’d eaten a berry or two, and I can tell you manzanita is definitely not something to munch on while walking a trail. The unripe berries are loaded with tannin, which sucks all the moisture from your mouth and replaces it with a coating of felt — or at least it feels that way. The red berries do get nice and sweet, but they are powdery dry and you need to not eat the seeds, which are hard as rocks; the powder does remind of of Pixie Stix from my childhood, though…

There is very little information on manzanita as an edible plant. Charlotte Bringle Clarke mentions it in her excellent book Edible and Useful Plants of California, as does Sylvia Ross in her book Seaweed, Salmon, and Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast.

Opinions and instructions vary wildly. Best I can suss out, the Spaniards liked the berries greenish, while the Indians waited until they were brown and dry. Being of European descent, I decided on picking my manzanita berries green, but with a little rosy blush on them.

manzanita berries in basket
Photo by Hank Shaw

I got four cups from one bush, and I did not even pick it clean. Definitely enough to play with.

The berries are dry. So I first decided to boil them for 20 minutes, then smash them with a potato masher. I then let this cool overnight and poured it into a Mason jar. I let the solids settle for a day. Next day I poured off the liquids through cheesecloth into a clean Mason jar. I noticed a lot of fine sludge. I tasted it. Ack! Pure tannin, dry and bitter.

I tasted the cider. Um, ick. It was just like the sludge. Undrinkable. But, there was hope embedded in the loss: I could definitely taste an apple-y, acidic flavor that was indeed tasty — before the tannins clubbed me in the forehead.

Back to the drawing board. I thought, hmmm… If you boil sumac, you get the same bitterness. Sumac “lemonade” is made by just pouring room temperature water on the berries. Now manzanita is way too hard to do this, so I compromised by pouring boiling water on the berries, letting it steep for 20 minutes, and then smashing them with a potato masher.

After an overnight steep, I put everything back into a Mason jar.

manzanita cider in jar
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

I strained this through cheesecloth and took a sip. Bingo! Light, crisp, just a tiny bit tannic, and even ever-so-slightly sweet. It tastes disturbingly like a non-carbonated hard cider or a Pinot Grigio, only without the alcohol. You can sweeten this if you’d like, but I like it as-is.

So, here’s what you need to know to make manzanita cider:

  • For a white cider, pick the berries when they are blushing, late June in the lowlands, September in the high Sierra. You want them green with a bit of blush, at least where the berries have been exposed to the sun; berries in full shade won’t get the blush. For a pink cider, wait until the berries are fully red and dry.
  • Wash the berries, which will be dusty and might have cobwebs and other debris on them.
  • Your ratio is 1 cup manzanita berries to 4 cups water.
  • Boil the water and pour it over the berries. Wait 20 minutes.
  • Crush the berries with a potato masher. Don’t wail on them, just bruise and lightly break the berries.
  • Let this steep at room temperature overnight.
  • The next day, pour the cider through a fine sieve into a mason jar. Now do it again, this time through cheesecloth. Save the berries, because you can make another batch of cider with them. Now let your cider sit in the fridge overnight. More sediment will fall to the bottom. Carefully decant the good cider from the jar, leaving as much of the fine sediment in the original jar as possible. The sediment is loaded with tannins, so you want it out of your cider.
  • Drink some. It will taste a little like a dry hard cider. Sweeten to taste for a cooling drink. I’ve added 2 tablespoons of sugar for every pint of cider, but I often just drink it plain.

Can you do something with manzanita cider other than drink it? You bet. Mix it with an equal volume of sugar to make manzanita syrup. You can then make ice cream, sorbet, or just use it as a concentrate for a cooling drink.

Where can you find manzanita? You’ll find these bushes growing in great profusion in the Sierra Nevada of California, but various species will grow as far north as British Columbia and as far east as Texas. They are, for the most part, lovers of arid places. It doesn’t matter which species you come across – all manzanita berries are edible. I should note that a few species of manzanita are endangered, so pick from large masses of the plants, not isolated individuals.

A glass of manzanita cider.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Is the drink worth this effort? I’d say yes. Manzanita is all over the place out there, and the berries store really well in the fridge, up to 2 months. Some will burst and release their little black seeds, but no biggie. I have had no mold problems, and the cider tasted just as good as when fresh-picked. The drink is really quite elegant-tasting. I’d be proud to serve it in a wineglass to someone who does not drink alcohol — or, for those who partake, mixed with vodka. Manza-tini, anyone?

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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42 Comments

  1. Hank, you are one of the best. The mad scientist of the forest foraging. I thought i was a bit nutty and I’m glad to see that there is someone out there a bit nutty too. I can’t wait until late summer to try this. Mine may end up in a Manza-tini!

    Thanks!
    Cindy

  2. Great info and writing, thank you! I grew up foraging in Pa, now live in the San Bernardino nat’l forest. Every year I learn more about the plants here. I’ll make a wild cider with these. My house is surrounded!

  3. Very good info. Thank you. I live in Central Arizona, Payson area, and we have millions of Manzanita bushes. I’ll have to try your recipe.

  4. Please share the recipe for the cider Dianna. Since we were fortunate to get the rains we have a super supply of manzanita berries. Thank you.

  5. Hey Diana, that’s awesome please share your recipe, and any extra information such as varieties and times for picking. This information should be respected as I can tell our irrigated farms are struggling! Thank you:)

  6. I am a native California Indian who is descended from the Nisenan Maidu who were slaughtered by the original 49ers. Fortunately, I still know how to make manzanita cider the way my Grandmother taught me, who wad a full blooded Maidu/Patwin. Our people used this berry for ceremonies and sustenance. The disconnect of the knowledge of this berry is not hidden, it’s ignored by history.

  7. I have a TON of manzanita on my property and had no idea I could make anything edible out of the berries! Big plans for spring now 🙂 Thank you, thank you!

  8. I loved this. Beautifully written and full of great information. I am a massive fan of the manzanita and appreciated this description of cider making. I’m going to do this come spring. Thanks!

  9. You can actually skip the hot water if you have a really good juicer. I’ve discovered I can throw the berries right in the juicer and get several tablespoonsfuls of juice from each cup of berries. Then, for each cup of manzanita, I pour 4 cups of cold water through the juicer too, to extract more flavor. The juice that results is bright green.

    Add about 2 tablespoons of sugar per cup of water, stir, and enjoy.

    (Note: The juicer I use is a vintage one from the 1970’s and has very powerful motor in it. I am not sure how a dinky modern juicer would fare in a manzanita vs. juicer contest …)

  10. I grew up in the Sierras and used to such the nectar from manzanita flowers every year as a bored child (you are lucky to get a quarter drop out of every bell-flower, and they usually come with ants), but I never considered that the berries would be eatable. This is a great page. I think I’ll give it a try.

  11. I have a made manzanita jelly for years, but have never considered cider. Living close to the land has always appealed to me and we have acres of manzanita bushes. This sounds wonderful. I think I’ll give it a try!

  12. Nate: Yep, I know. But I prefer making cider from half-ripe berries I do something else with the ripe ones. I’ll post on that soon…

  13. You may want to try the ripe berries instead of the green ones. When ripe they taste like apple and are sweet.

  14. hmmm…if one happy hippo says the flowers are sweet and honeysuckle like, what about a flower syrup like the elderflower syrup? the season is upon us!

  15. In the spring time the flowers can be eaten right off the bush by the hand full & taste like honeysuckle. Very sweet & floral.

  16. Sounds like an interesting recipe, sounds a little tart! I have found that when you wait till fall and pick the berries when they are dry and powdery all the sweetness is concentrated and all the bitter, tart tannin is totally gone. At this point the berries are very sweet when you suck on them. Just collect the dry berries, mash them up and put them in a fine strainer. Heat some water in a bowl and swish the strainer around for a while until the water turns a brown cider color. The resulting drink is very sweet with an apple like flavor, very reminiscent of apple cider. Use about 3/4 cup of berries to 1 cup of water, drink it hot or refrigerate before drinking.

  17. I’ve made some from a large tree (probably 15ft tall) this weekend. Very green, but large fruit (cherry sized). Strong green apple taste, but a bit tart. Will keep it in the fridge a bit longer.

  18. This is really awesome! I wonder if we could find any up here in Washington? And thanks for the elderberry liqueur recipe. I’ve got a half-batch steeping as of today; scored them for free at the Seattle Tilth Harvest Fair. Can’t wait to taste it in a few weeks!

  19. Good stuff! Keep an eye out for mushrooms too when you’re skulking around in the manzanita. Manzanita boletes (a species of Leccinum) and black trumpets both have a thing for the “little apple.” Nice photos Holly.

  20. Now I know why big California black bears love to fill up on those manzanita berries during early bear season to get fat enough to survive winter…also why bear meat is so tastey from an early bear with a belly full of them!