The People’s Cider Co. doing its part to define identity of hard cider industry

Story by Wes Eaton

Jason Lummen, cider maker and owner of Grand Rapids-based The People’s Cider Co., started fermenting cider nearly 10 years ago. But, his experience with the fermented fruit beverage goes back much further.

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Jason Lummen and some of his magic barrels

When dating his now-wife and business partner Katie, the couple would head to the basement to quaff draft cider from Katie’s father’s kegerator. Lummen’s father-in-law was, along with local cider legend Jeff Carlson, one of the founding members of Primetime Brewers, a Grand Rapids home brew club. He liked to really push the limits, creating a sort of “white lightening” from fresh cider.

Years before, Lummen recalls hiding near the oaken barrel of cider his grandmother kept in the cellar. His identification with cider was cemented with a semester spent in the UK, where cider was already a mainstay, whereas its popularity during the colonial period has waned here. Later, drives from the city to his grandmother’s house north of the city took him through what fruit-conscious Michiganders refer to as “The Ridge,” a stretch of orchards with amicable soil between Grand Rapids and Newaygo. The Lummens have managed to bring all of these elements together in creating The People’s Cider Co.

But, before branding, barrels and distributors were pressing matters, Lummen was a home brewer who discovered the joys of making hard cider. Unlike many home producers, Lummen made a lot of cider — 50 to 100 gallons at a time. He’d bring this to parties where friends encouraged his then hobby.

It’s just as easy to make a lot as a little, Lummen explained, pointing at the 50-gallon Italian stainless fermenter holding a corner spot amongst a modest number of others in his Grand Rapids winery. He used this to home brew before “going pro.”

Lummen’s winery (cider is technically a wine), opened in March 2013, and is located at 600 Maryland Drive on the city’s northeast side, next to some small-ish industrial sites. He’s there every night and most weekends and will happily fill your growler. His products are currently available in draft form only. There’s a small front room he hopes to turn into a seven-seat taproom in the near future, and a back room full of several of the smaller fermenters, two larger stainless fermenters, and perhaps a dozen-and-a-half bourbon barrels.

“I have Jim Hill to thank for my discovery of bourbon barrels,” Lummen explained over the rowdy Irish punk coming through the speakers.

Aging cider in oak barrels that formerly held spirits (he does not discriminate) provides, well, magic, transforming what can be a one-dimensional product into a spiral of flavors.

Hill of Hill Brothers is a central figure in the apple wine/cider products produced across the state, supplying dozens of wineries with a proprietary blend of acidic and sweet apples. Hill has also supplied home brewers from across the region with, not only fresh cider, but bourbon barrels as well, especially for old-timers that don’t know the category “home brewer” and are, instead, simply doing what their fathers and grand fathers had done in the old country. This process consists of filling a barrel with fresh cider, letting it ferment naturally, and enjoying it off the wooden spigot. Lummen’s line up takes off from this heritage, each product starting in stainless, but finishing in oak.

Lummen describes his ciders as “scrumpy” style, an old-fashioned term American colonists used to describe the processes of amending their ciders with regional sugars, molasses and dried fruits.

We first shared some of my own cider (also pressed by Hill Brothers), and then moved on to Lummen’s dry draft cider, inspired by Irish products. The magic of barrel aging was immediately apparent. Lummen’s cider was a dark yellow, almost thick in the mouth while dry at the same time.

Mrs. Sally Browns was next, a darker product, and my favorite. We stayed on this for the rest of the night. Lummen poured from a “corny” keg, a five-gallon vessel formerly used by the soda industry before they transitioned to bags to hold their syrupy concentrates. To me, this demonstrates the way he organically transcends the line between home brewer and professional, keeping one foot in both worlds.

The key take away from our discussion is that craft cider has yet to be definitively defined. It’s meaning is open, and in some ways, contested. Is cider a lighter alternative to ale? The missing link between wine and beer?

Beer enthusiasts and other insiders have their opinions on this, but cider’s booming popularity and visibility in West Michigan — helped immensely by folks like Paul Vander Heide and his Vander Mill Ciders — means others, too, are taking part in constructing craft cider’s identity.

Lummen’s products will certainly build this discussion. They are dry — harking back to colonial era and UK styles — but distinctly American in that they are oak and/or bourbon barrel-aged. In the words of Lummen, “If you like a cold alcoholic beverage, you’re going to enjoy this!”

The People’s Cider is currently available on draft at a few locations in Grand Rapids: Harmony, Georgio’s Pizza and Aperitivo at the new Downtown Market. Also, every Wednesday night from 4 to 7 p.m., Lummen is at the weekly evening Fulton Street Farmer’s Market, pouring samples, as well as filling both growlers and howlers. n

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