By FRANK SABATINI JR.
The flavor choices posted above a long row of taps flaunting custom-made wooden handles give the impression you’ve walked into an ice-cream parlor.
On any given day, visitors might encounter selections such as chocolate-coconut, caramel-apple, butter-pecan and mango. There’s also the flagship “Cinville,” which ties together the essences of cinnamon and vanilla in what turns out to be hard ciders made from the juice of apples.
Poochie’s Hooch Urban Cidery at 7559 Mission Gorge Road is the brainchild of Mary Paulson, a retired firefighter who holds a special place in her heart for one of the dogs she fostered from Labradors and Friends Dog Rescue Group in Mission Valley.
Now deceased, the dog’s name was Poochie. She serves as the mascot for the cidery, which Paulson opened on New Year’s Eve weekend after committing to donate 20 percent of ongoing sales to the dog-rescue organization.
The spacious structure encompasses a five-tank production facility as well as a tasting room replete with a copper-top bar, two seating areas and a front patio.
“I designed everything entirely myself,” said Paulson, adding that she even built the tables, chairs, bar stools and tap system without the support of contractors.
Most impressive is how she gradually mastered the skill of cider making after buying a basic do-it-at-home kit from Bed Bath & Beyond.
“I was looking for an activity after being in physical therapy for 11 months because of health issues. So I used the kit to make a gallon of cider — and it turned out terrible,” she recalls. “I’m not a quitter, so I was determined to get it right.”
Paulson then proc eeded to buy 10-gallon jugs and turned her kitchen into a “laboratory,” as she described.
“I began figuring out the apples, the sugar, the yeast and all of that while getting my flavors down. And I haven’t stopped making it since.”
A batch of cider takes Paulson one month to produce. It’s a process that generally begins with juice extracted from Washington state apples (Paulson doesn’t reveal whether she juices the apples herself) before proceeding to creating a yeast starter, sterilizing the equipment, brewing the juice to kill bacteria, and finally monitoring it through fermentation.
In flavoring the ciders she uses “all natural” ingredients — particularly dried spices and various woods — which have led to a portfolio of ciders spanning 56 flavors that rotate through the tasting room on a sporadic basis. They range in alcohol from 7.09 to 7.35%.
Paulson is a fan of keeping the sugar levels low. Her ciders contain only 8 grams of sugar per 16 ounces compared to many commercial versions that give consumers twice as much or more. As a result, her ciders carry slightly sour finishes that most customers quickly acclimate to.
Such was the case before she started the business, when she threw “happy hooch hours” in her home backyard in University Heights for close friends. The hosted gatherings were held every other month over the course of two years.
“It was my way of being part of society after retirement. I had fun with it. And everyone would give me ideas as we tasted and compared the ciders,” she recalls.
At the tasting room, the ciders are sold in $12 flights, which give visitors four 5-ounce glasses of any available flavor. They can also be enjoyed in half and full pints, for $4 and $6 respectively.
As of this month, Paulson began bottling the Cinville cider in pint-size quantities. They sell for $6 apiece through a program that requires buyers to return the empty bottles, whether or not they want to swap them out for subsequent full bottles for the same price. When new flavors are eventually bottled, customers will be alerted through email.
The dog-friendly establishment isn’t licensed to prepare and sell food, but visitors can tote in snacks and meals from anywhere. And as a show of generosity to her customers, Paulson offers “cold pizza night” every Thursday. The pizzas are delivered at 5:30 p.m. from various pizzerias around town. They start out hot and remain up for grabs without any reheats until the cidery closes at 9 p.m. There’s no charge, although donations are accepted.
Paulson says women of all legal ages comprise about 70 percent of her customer base.
“They sometimes drag in their boyfriends and husbands after they’ve joined them at the breweries. But for anyone, it’s very difficult to come in here and say you don’t like at least one of the ciders,” she added, citing an array of other flavors such as spicy ginger, chocolate-peanut butter, coconut-pineapple and apple-bacon. The flavors come and go based on demand.
Paulson also emphasizes that she isn’t in business to compete with the nearly nine other cider makers sprinkled throughout San Diego County.
“I did my 26 years with the Federal Fire Department of San Diego and retired at age of 50 as my birthday gift. I’m here today to raise money for the dogs and because I enjoy figuring out how to create different cider flavors.”
Poochie’s Hooch Urban Cidery is located at 7559 Mission Gorge Road. For more information, call 619-414-4495 or visit poochieshoochcidery.com.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.