Core Business: Cideries Spring up Across Region

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the next big thing is here. What started as wine country and has also become a haven for craft brewing is now developing a taste for cider. From Peninsula Cellars on Old Mission to Short’s in Bellaire to a host of cideries on the Leelanau Peninsula, hard cider has rapidly become another reason to tout the region’s culinary prowess.

Looking back, it seems only natural. The plethora of apple orchards and the experience of area vintners and brewers make for a beautiful marriage of convenience. One of the most respected locally is Tandem Ciders north of Suttons Bay. Husband-and-wife owners Dan Young and Nikki Rothwell first discovered the joys of cider while bicycling through the English countryside on their two-seater. When the two moved to northern Michigan following that trip, Young, who had previously opened and operated a brewery in Massachusetts, was struck by the amount of fruit grown here.

He tagged along when Rothwell, who works for Michigan State’s Extension program, went to an agricultural meeting in Grand Rapids. One of the sessions was about creating hard cider.

“I was interested in fermentation and brewing,” said Young. “I bought some apples from Kilchermans (owners of Christmas Cove Farm, which produces more than 200 varieties of apples). There was a plentiful supply and it’s an old tradition. It just made sense.”

Today, Tandem features a number of cleverly-named ciders, such as Crabster (with crab apples), Ida Gold (Ida Red, Rhode Island Greening, and Yellow Delicious), and its flagship brand, Smackintosh (McIntosh, Rhode Island Greening, and Northern Spy).

Another pacesetter is Left Foot Charley at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City. Self-styled wine Sherpa Bryan Ulbrich was one of the first to see the possibilities, making his first 200 gallons of cider in 2008. Last year Left Foot Charley produced over 20,000 gallons of cider. Varieties include Perry, made exclusively from pears, Henry’s Pippin, and Cinnamon Girl.

“It’s grown significantly for us,” said Ulbrich.

One of the challenges of the industry is the fact that hard cider is typically made from specific varieties of apples that are only just now gaining support from growers. Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious and Galas are shunted aside in favor of the likes of Kingston Black and Brown Snout.

“We just don’t have the bitter or tannic varieties. Kingston doesn’t grow well here,” noted Mike Laing, who creates the sparkling ciders for L. Mawby.

The winery currently makes three varieties: Bright made strictly from apples; Wild, with cherries; and Centennial, adding hops. According to Laing, the decision to branch out into cider from wine was more or less made for them: “We had two bad grape harvests (2014 and 2015). We wanted to diversify.” Owner Larry Mawby had a history of making ciders, and the winery began producing its own about a year ago.

Laing said one advantage of making cider rather than wine is that apples will keep much longer than grapes.

“We sat on the apples and processed them after the grapes,” he said. Another, of course, is the abundance of apples. “Because apples are around it makes sense to explore cider in more detail. It’s a product we can make from locally-sourced fruit.”

Chris Guest seconds both those thoughts. A 20-year veteran of the wine scene in Leelanau, he teamed up with his high school friends Mark and Madelynn Korzon at Suttons Bay Ciders.

“Apples are a fruit that can be stored, processed and held. With grapes, as the harvest comes on you take the process straight through,” he said. “Apples can be pulled out of storage, and you can work throughout the year.”

While Guest knew the drill, the Korzons did not. The recession had proven difficult for their downstate landscape and design business, plus they had been burglarized three times. So they decided to move north from Ann Arbor. While their first thought was to open a winery, people told them cider was an up and coming beverage. So they talked with Guest and friends from Willow Vineyard and opted for apples and cider.

“It took three years to get through all the permits, from township and county to state and federal,” said Madelynn. That was a year ago, and they are already pleased by the amount of business they’ve seen. “It’s been as successful as we’d hoped and the reviews and wows have been so gratifying.”

Most of the ciders are lightly carbonated naturally through the fermentation process.

“It’s about like beer,” said Paul Salvatore of Taproot Cider House in downtown Traverse City. He’s the general manager for Taproot, owned by his longtime friend Jen Mackey. It serves cider from a number of Michigan cider producers, including Tandem, Northern Natural in Kaleva, Aurora Cellars in Lake Leelanau, and Blake’s Hard Ciders in Armada near Detroit. Among other local operations, Green Bird Cellars in Northport is an organic cidery, while 45 North outside Suttons Bay; Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery in Cedar; and Black Star Farms of Suttons Bay and Old Mission Peninsula are all producing cider.

Then there’s Short’s Brewing of Bellaire. The well-known craft brewery has expanded in the past couple of years with spinoff company Starcut Ciders. “Its novelty and potential were too much to pass on,” said Gillian Cobb, the company’s marketing coordinator. “We’re always looking for something different and saw it as a new endeavor. At the pub we only serve what we make, so if someone didn’t want beer, they were out of luck.”

No more. Now Short’s offers two flagship ciders and a number of rotating flavors, including Squishy, a cherry flavored cider, and Immortal Jelly, which Cobb described as inspired by the popular brew Soft Parade, featuring raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. The Erraticus series of wild ciders is fermented with the wild yeast found on the apples, which acts as the catalyst for the fermentation process, so it’s impossible to accurately predict exactly how it will taste.

So for vintners and brewers, as well as oenophiles and beer lovers, the allure of apples has given rise to a new passion, the apple of their eyes, as it were. Taproot’s Salvatore admits to some skepticism when Mackey first approached him about opening a tavern specializing in cider. Not only has it been successful, he now says it is typically his first choice in beverages. “I still have a craft beer or bourbon from time to time, but cider has become my go-to,” he said.