Michigan is one of nation’s leading fruit producing states, ranked third behind Washington and New York for apple production in particular. Part of this success has to do with the state’s climate, moderated by the Great Lakes, especially Lake Michigan. West Michigan in particular provides an ideal climate for fruit growing.
According to Michigan State University Extension, the lake prevents temperatures from getting too cold in the fall and too hot in the summer and provides for the frequent rainfall that we are experiencing especially this year. Moreover, the geological history of the state has provided for sandy (loamy), fertile soil ideal for growing fruit. All of this provides ideal conditions for the state’s booming craft cider industry we are now privileged to enjoy.
I recall about 10 years ago, while working at Sicilinao’s Market, the sad state of craft hard cider. There simply were no retail options. Woodchuck was on the shelf, but this was the equivalent of a wine cooler — sickly sweet, unlike the crisp dryness of a traditional cider. My first cider experience was homebrewed. Local homebrew guru Jeff Carlson (who, amongst numerous accolades, recently brewed his barrel-aged American Rye IPA recipe at Founders for the brewery’s American Homebrewers Association special release) shared a bottle, and I was hooked.
What I found so fascinating about making cider was the simple elegance of the process: the yeast required to ferment the juice into cider was on the skin of the apples. All one needed to do was press apples into juice and stand back. Generations ago, farmers would press their apples into juice and package this in a barrel stored in their cellars, enjoying drafts right off the wooden tap. Today’s cider makers take a bit more care. Homebrewers often at least note the sugar content and level of acidity (malic acid in apples) and may sanitize the must (unfermented juice) with sulfites — much like winemakers — and forego the risk of wild yeasts, instead inoculating with a trusted strain.
Professionals take even more care, their aim being to produce a consistent and recognizable flavor profile. The dearth of retail options mentioned above is now on the mend, and cider is again gaining popularity. Part of this surely is the increased availability of cider on draft. In my experience, bar managers are increasingly making room for a draft cider — many of these being local offerings.
And part of this, too, is the number of craft beer and wine producers expanding their line-ups with cider. I strongly recommend sampling offerings from The People’s Cider Company (available on tap at Harmony in Grand Rapids’ Eastown), Vandermill’s (of Spring Lake, widely available in a slick 16oz can four-pack) and Forty-Five North (of Leelanau Peninsula). As always, follow Einstein’s advice and taste with “a child-like mind.” That is, recognize your taste preconceptions and then set them aside.