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Michigan Hard Cider News

Restoring a tradition

Hard apple cider has room to grow

By Dick Lehnert – Fruit Growers News

Posted here with permission from author and the Fruit Growers News

The days of apple cider rolling out of cider mills in 53-gallon used oak whiskey barrels are largely gone, and if you want to make hard cider that way, it'll take some effort.

But if you want to buy a bottle or mug of hard cider, it's getting easier than it's been since Prohibition put the kibosh on the industry a century ago.

While the revival is said to be nationwide and even greater in Europe, several cider makers in Michigan are looking at it as a way to add value and zest to the Michigan apple industry and make good use of Michigan's historic apple varieties. The market for plain apple juice has been damaged by cheap imports from China , so this special apple juice may be a way out.

Working with consultant Patrick O'Conner, former executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, producers have started the Michigan Hard Cider Club as a way for potential hard cider makers to get educated, compare notes and promote and restore the apple cider tradition. They have a new Web site called www.michiganhardcider.org.

They had a half-day session on hard cider during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO last year and are having another at EXPO this December. And this year, along with EXPO, they're sponsoring a cider competition to get everybody sipping and tasting like wine connoisseurs.

So what exactly is the hard cider tradition?

Part of it is high consumption. Jim Koan, from Al-mar Orchards near Flushing , Mich. , says Europeans drink about 24 gallons of hard cider per person per year ­– and that's small by comparison to what American's drank before Prohibition. He cites the number, 35 gallons per year. Restore even part of that and apple usage would soar.

For Herb Teichman at Tree-Mendus Fruit near Eau Claire , Mich. , tradition has a lot to do with special treatment of special juice from special apples. He's teamed up with the Rich and Sherrie Moersch family at Round Barn Winery near Baroda . He will provide juice that he believes can make superior hard cider – and he's leaving the cider making to them, the experts.

“I have access to 250 varieties of apples, some known to do best in apple cider,” he said.

These trees are the lucky result of a project he started in 1976, the year of the American bicentennial. His interest in heritage apple varieties, spurred by the national celebration, led him to assemble apple varieties and plant a Bicentennial heritage orchard – 200 varieties for 200 years.

“We now have several blocks of heritage apples,” he said. “Some of the varieties were prone to fire blight and other diseases. We kept those alive, but didn't plant more. But those that were grower friendly and salable, we planted more of.”

Today, his “blend” isn't a constant or secret recipe. It's mostly made up of sort-outs from heritage variety apples packed for fresh market.

That's a key part of the tradition, too. Hard cider was traditionally made from Number 2 apples.

“We don't harvest our drops,” Teichman said. “I sometimes feel bad about the waste, especially with the high pick-your-own losses, but we can't take the risk.”

The pressure is on to spray less, he added, and that results in more apples that are less than perfect.

He doesn't press wormy apples. “If we see frass on an apple, we discard it,” he said. “We also discard any apples with open cuts. But we use apples with stings and blemishes for making cider. As we look apples over at the cider mill, we keep a jackknife in hand and cut out bad spots.”

This conservative idea of making use of what you have is part of the cider tradition. It is also a natural for growers who use organic practices. Cider is the perfect place for less than perfect apples.

But it's also important to have the right apples – russeted apples, especially, Teichman said, naming Hoople's Antique Gold, Golden Russet, Roxberry Russet and Fall Russet. He also likes Kingston Black, Foxwhelp, Grimes Golden, Rhode Island Greening, Northern Spy and Winesap.

Jim Koan is an organic apple grower, and he agrees with Teichman that apple cider and organics fit together.

“To grow organically, you need to keep some level of bad guys (pests) in the orchard to keep the good guys (beneficials) interested,” he said. “So you're going to get some damage. We need an avenue, a means, to use less-than-perfect fruit, and that's one of the reasons we went into cider.

“Organic consumers want it both ways. They want it organically grown, but they want perfect fruit.”

He uses pheromone disruption and viruses that attack moth larvae, but the virus takes three or four days to kill. During that time, pests make minor stings and marks that take the fruit out of the fresh pack. Apples with minor damage from tarnished plant bugs, leaf rollers, oriental fruit moths, codling moths and plum curculio and apples with scab make perfectly fine cider, he said.

He's developed the name Misteguay Creek for his hard cider, selling it in 750-milliliter bottles over the Internet, at the farm store and to restaurants. He's also developed a refillable container and sells cider on draught.

Koan says that the varieties Michigan has historically grown – Jonathan, MacIntosh, Northern Spy, Cortland – make good quality cider, something that the Pacific Northwest with Delicious and other sweet varieties can't compete with.

Now, he says, if we could just get back to a fraction of the traditional consumption, “we could use every apple Michigan can grow and still not make a ripple in the market for beer and pop.”

He brings that up because one house of the Michigan Legislature recently voted to make direct sales of wine, including hard cider, illegal. He is flabbergasted that legislators would do that to Michigan 's wine industry, which the state had promoted for 30 years. “I vowed to trash Bob Emerson's name every chance I get for sponsoring that bill,” he said of his local senator, who is the primary sponsor in the Senate of the bill to prohibit direct shipment of wine from producers to customers.

Another budding cider maker Leelanau Brewing Company and Charles and Joe Psenka. They've done well with Whaleback White beer and plan to add cider, made from Michigan apples they buy from others.

After being bitten by the cider bug, he volunteered his services to create the Hard Cider Club's new Web site.


Complex tradition

The apple cider tradition is more than one tradition. Besides the old English, Spanish and French varieties favored in making hard cider in Europe, there are the descendents of these apples brought over by the colonial settlers – and then their descendents, the old non-varieties like those planted by John Chapman – Johnny Appleseed.

This apple pioneer is reputed to have planted 100,000 acres of apple orchards across the eastern Midwest in his lifetime (1774-1845). Planted as seedlings from seeds he obtained from cider mills in Pennsylvania , they were not named varieties. But they spread the cider tradition west until it reached drier prairie land where apples don't grow well.

After the Women's Christian Temperance Union began its crucade against in 1874, Carrie Nation, six feet talk and carrying a hatchet, became the symbol for saloon busting. But, Koan said, the axe was also applied to Johnny Appleseed's orchards, many of which were cut to get rid of the source of hard apple cider, the most consumed alcoholic beverage of the era.


By the barrel

One place that still makes barrels of cider is Hill Bros. Orchards and Cider Mill north of Grand Rapids . Jim Hill serves a clientele that includes central Michigan farmers of German descent from around Fowler and Westphalia . Another mill in central Michigan that provided that service closed two years ago.

Jim Hill sells barrels of cider made from his apple blend. “We don't do custom crushing,” he said. “We sell the barrels and we crush our apples. We don't use drops or apples from abandoned orchards.”

It makes cider more expensive to make, costing about $170 for cider and barrel, but it's still pretty cheap for a mildly alcoholic beverage.


Flowed like water

Before Prohibition, people drank hard apple cider as if it were water. Just like the French drink wine. It was safer than the water.

“ Hard cider became the traditional drink of New England not long a fter the first settlers arrived,” according to a Web site on the history of cider. “ It was on the table with meals in town houses and farm cottages. Presidents and farm hands drank it. Cider was trad ed between countryside and town. Orchardists looked for apple varieties suited for cider. The apples were than pressed in the neighborhood, put in casks and brought to the cellar to ferment and age.”

Like wine, cider is fermented and can capture the complex flavors of fruit. Like beer, cider has under 6 or 7 perce nt alcohol, half as intense as wine but with a tang.

When the Romans arrived in England in 55 BC, they reportedly found the villagers of Kent drinking apple cider, a practice they adopted and helped spread across Europe .

Join the club

A number of companies now make hard cider in Michigan , said Patrick O'Connor, who listed some of the apple cider club members. Some of them are:

Almar Orchards – ( www.almarorchards.com ); Blackstar Farms – makers of hard cider, wines and distilled fruit brandies ( www.blackstarfarms.com ); Uncle John's Fruit House Winery – maker of a “farmhouse” fermented cider, perry (pear cider) and fruit wines ( www.ujcidermill.com ); Kalamazoo Brewing Company (producer of Bell's beers) – makes a "cyser" made from organic apple cider mixed with local honey, for sale only at Bell's Eccentric Café ( www.bellsbeer.com ); Robinette's Apple Haus – launching a new hard cider ( www.robinettes.com ); Round Barn Winery – makers of Michigan wine and distilled fruit products, now developing hard cider ( www.roundbarnwinery.com ); Leelanau Brewing Company ( www.leelanaubeer.com ); Jollay Orchards, Coloma ( www.jollayorchards.com ); Stoney Creek Microbrewery and Kuhnhenn Brewing Co ( http://www.kbrewery.com )., both in southeast Michigan.
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