Michigan’s burgeoning hard cider industry is a tribute to settlers who relied on cider to quench their thirst in the 18th and 19th century.
Seeds and grafted apple trees planted by French settlers grew to bear fruit that, once crushed and juiced, naturally fermented. English settlers of the 1800s continued the trend, and Detroit recorded an impressive cider export business in the mid-1800s. When Michiganders voted in their first election in 1840, they rowdily cheered on Gen. William Harrison for presidency with swigs of hard cider.
Though cider is not quite at the forefront as in bygone days, the nationwide production growth is impressive, with Michigan among the top three producers. The market grew 65 percent between 2011 and 2014 and continues to grow at an impressive rate of more than 50 percent.
Inspired fruit growers and libation artisans have spurred the boon in hard cider production, gaining a stronghold in the early 2000s with the backing of the Michigan Apple Committee and Michigan State University.
To supply the growing need for apples with intriguing characteristics, cider makers are planting specific apples on their own farms or in conjunction with apple growers.
Mike Beck of Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns was at the forefront of this renaissance and is now leading the U.S. Association of Cider Makers in its quest to alter the federal government’s definition of cider.
So, what is hard cider?
Hard cider is fermented juice from crushed apples with alcohol by volume (ABV) of less than 7 percent. Natural, wild fermentation can spike cider to a greater percentage of ABV with higher carbonation, which is then taxed at a higher rate.
The USACM hopes its CIDER Act (Cider Investment and Development through Excise Tax Reduction) will change the definition of hard cider to up to 8.5 percent ABV and a higher carbonation.
Naturally gluten free, the taste of hard cider ranges from refreshingly dry, tart and crisp to sweetly balanced.
With more than 40 hard cider producers in Michigan, including winemakers and brewmasters, the range of flavor profiles is exciting. You’ll find ciders crafted from a single variety of apples to those made from blends and even some infused with lavender, hops, ginger and other ingredients.
To supply the growing need for apples with intriguing characteristics, cider makers are planting specific apples on their own farms or in conjunction with apple growers. These apples offer interesting aromas, tannins, acidity, sharpness or sweetness. For instance, the apple called Hubbardston Nonesuch, an 1800s American original, has long been favored for its sweet aroma while the French-born Nehou packs a bittersweet punch.
“The Nehou is a great apple, and the tree is vigorous,” says Nikki Rothwell, Michigan State University horticultural specialist and owner of Tandem Ciders of Suttons Bay with husband Dan Young.
This is the first year of harvest, and Rothwell is hopeful about the Nehou’s impact on future cider offerings.
“We have a high-density planting of cider apples with 220 trees of 11 different varieties,” she says.
This orchard complements the apples collected from nearby farms. Tandem Ciders’ Smackintosh — a “party pleaser”— is a great example of a blend of regional apples.
Thanks to industry leaders like Rothwell, Young, Beck and more, Michigan is getting noticed for its apple libations. This year, Beck’s entry of Uncle John’s “Melded” cider in the centuries-old British Cider Championships at the Royal Bath and West Show in Somerset, England, earned a highly commended honor. Every September, Beck hosts a cider festival on his St. Johns farm, a festive tasting event.
While Beck grows most of the fruit for his cider on his family’s multi-generation farm, some cider makers rely solely on apples grown by others.
Jason Lummen of The Peoples Cider Co. in Grand Rapids taps into nearby Hill Bros. Orchards for freshly pressed apples.
“We get the juice within an hour of pressing,” says Lummen.
Growing the business “slowly, but surely,” Lummen has an appreciation for Hill Bros.’ sixth-generation farm. He believes apples from older trees are key to distinguishing his ciders, like the bourbon-barrel-aged Mrs. Sally Brown.
Cider is the quintessential libation of Michigan. Good news: Hard cider pairs beautifully with fresh fare. Tandem Ciders’ Rothwell says pork is a perfect companion.
“We love to slow cook pork shoulder with garlic and carrots in cider.”
Upcoming Cider Events
Oct. 6: “The Journey of the Apple: How its Seeds, Scions and Ciders Became Rooted in Michigan History,” a lecture by writer Sharon Kegerreis, 6:30 p.m., Charlevoix Public Library.
Oct. 9-11: 37th Annual Charlevoix Apple Fest. Michigan hard ciders on tap at Bridge Street Tap Room, 202 Bridge St. visitcharlevoix.com/Apple-Festival
“Michigan Apples” author Sharon Kegerreis is a native Michigander who is passionate for “all things” Michigan. Get in touch at sharonmk.com.