Already famous for its wines, craft brews and distilled spirits, this Lake Michigan resort mecca seems to be carving out a reputation for yet another beverage. Hard cider
Need proof? There’s already a week-long cider festival scheduled here in August. (And when this town gets serious about something, they create a festival for it.)
The inaugural Traverse City Cider Week will be held Aug. 16-23 and will feature tap takeovers in local taverns, orchard tours, workshops for home cider makers as well as industry professionals, and an Aug. 19 “Cider and Sausage Salon” at the newly renovated Cathedral Barn at the Grand Traverse Commons, with live music, games, and tastings of Michigan ciders and sausage varieties.
Traverse City Cider Week follows on the heels of a similar event held in Grand Rapids in April. Both are the work of the Michigan Cider Association – a group of apple growers cider-makers and interested amateurs organized in late 2014. Michigan already ranks third in the U.S. in terms of cider production, with 9.3 percent of the nation’s cider makers.
Unlike the familiar sweet cider sold in plastic jugs each fall at farm markets and fruit stands, hard cider is a clear, fresh-flavored slightly carbonated beverage that’s usually served in bottles or fresh from the tap. Like wine, it can be sweet or dry, and its alcohol content can be anywhere from 3 percent to 7 percent or more, and it’s increasingly popular with consumers who are looking for a fresh-tasting alternative to beer or wine.
All across the country, cidermaking is booming. Not since Johnny Appleseed wandered across Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois planting cider apples in the early 19th century (yep, that’s what he was really up to) has this refreshingly potent beverage enjoyed such popularity. In the past five years, U.S. cider sales have gone from $35 million to $266 million – a growth rate far outpacing that of craft beer.
A great place to taste local ciders in downtown Traverse City is the Northern Natural Cider House and Winery tasting room. Northern Natural got its start in the small Manistee County village of Kaleva, but opened this downtown taproom in 2013. Here, in cozy rustic surroundings one can sample Northern Natural’s original House Cider (a dry traditional cider) and nine other flavors: Northern Star (a semi-sweet), Elderberry, Cherry, Blueberry, Lavender, Orange Blossom, Cranberry Ginger, Cinnamon Spice, Apple Shandy, and a rotating seasonal tap.
“This is pretty much a family business, and being completely organic is really important to us,” says manager Chris Gregory. “Our food menu is basically farm to table, too, and we’ve tried to sort of bring the farm into the city a little bit with all the barnwood and other décor we use.”
The popular turn to cider fits in well with Traverse City’s agricultural ethic, since it encourages partnerships between cidermakers and nearby farmers. That’s particularly evident at the region’s only fully-dedicated cidery, Tandem Ciders, just northwest of Suttons Bay in the steep orchards of northern Leelanau County, which prides itself on its “artisan hard ciders.”
In spite of its isolated location, Tandem has been attracting a steady stream of customers since opening in 2008. From two original ciders, owners Dan Young and Nikki Rothwell have expanded to a dozen “true to the fruit” blends (their menu lists the orchards where the apples in each blend come from) as well as pear, plum and Balaton cherry ciders and a barrel-aged pommeau made from sweet cider blended with apple brandy.
Thanks to its proximity to the cool waters of Lake Michigan, the Grand Traverse Bay region has been one of America’s most productive fruit-growing areas in the U.S. And while the area’s growing reputation as a wine-producing region has prompted some farmers to replace their apple and cherry orchards with vineyards, there are still many areas that are better suited to apples.
In fact, it was a local winery, Black Star Farms, that created the first Leelanau Peninsula cider to grab national headlines by winning a gold medal in the 2006 INDY international wine competition, where it elicited praise from Eric Felton of the Wall Street Journal, who declared it “far and away, the best cider out of more than a dozen I tried.” Now cider is offered at many local wineries, whether it’s the traditional heirloom-style hard cider at Forty-Five North or the Spirit Cider at Bowers Harbor Vineyards, which also comes in cherry, raspberry, peach and mango blends.
The Good Neighbor Organic Vineyard & Winery near Northport has gotten even more exotic, with fruit-blended ciders (peach, pear, cherry) spiced ciders (coffee and chai) and one called Ciderye, which is aged two years in rye whiskey barrels. “It’s like the next Bond girl,” says owner Ben Crow. “Soft, but dangerous.” Verterra Winery in Leland has created a secondary label, Chaos Ciders, that includes cherry, peach, raspberry and blackberry ciders and a spicy “apple pie” cider flavored with caramel and cinnamon.
But the standout among the area’s cider-making wineries is Left Foot Charley, Traverse City’s first “urban winery,” which started dabbling in cider in 2008 with a small 100-gallon run. This year, winemaker Bryan Ulbrich expects to bottle some 60,000 gallons. Ulbrich makes his cider in small batches, so the menu in his Grand Traverse Commons tasting room changes regularly – like a recent strawberry-apple blend called Strawppleberry. But there are some hardy standbys like the bone-dry Classic Hard Cider, which relies on heirloom apple varieties.
The biggest seller? It’s always been Cinnamon Girl, a lightly-spiced, slightly sweet cider that manages to evoke the ghosts of apple pies past without overpowering your taste buds.
Not too many local microbreweries have gotten into the cider game. One is North Peak Brewery’s Nomad, a dry English-style cider made from Old Mission apples. Another, more significant entry is Short’s Brewery of Bellaire, which has created Starcut Ciders, a new brand that’s available at many local restaurants – and even at games of Traverse City’s hometown baseball team, the Beach Bums.
The company name is based on the delicate five-pointed star that appears in an apple’s center when you slice it horizontally. Starcut Ciders was launched last winter and is gradually ramping up from a modest distribution to restaurants and bars in northern Michigan to a more ambitious statewide distribution later this year.
For more information about Traverse City Cider Week, contact the Michigan Cider Association at https://mca30.wildapricot.org/event-1929407. To learn more about other activities and attractions in the Traverse City area, contact Traverse City Tourism at 1-800-TRAVERSE or visit their website at www.traversecity.com.