A Tale of Two Cideries
For Michiana hard cider makers, this may be the best of times. Demand for the apple-based craft beverage is up, this fall may bring a bumper crop of apples, and the nature of cider making is such that it can be a truly local beverage.
Two Michigan cideries—Lehman’s Orchard in Niles and Virtue Cider in Fennville—come to cider making from very different perspectives, but both have an intensely local focus and personal style of crafting their ciders.
But first, a taste of hard cider history.
The process of making fermented apple juice, simply called “cider” by the rest of the world, came to this country with the European colonists. Cider had been made in Europe for centuries so they knew a thing or two about which apples to plant. Cider was safer to drink than much of the available water and enjoyed by children and adults. Widely available on these shores from the 1600s through the early 1800s, it moved west as the continent was settled, likely aided by Johnny Appleseed’s efforts planting orchards as far west as Illinois. Despite its popularity, several trends came together to virtually eliminate it by the mid-20th century. First, tastes changed as increasing numbers of German immigrants, who preferred beer, arrived in the early 19th century. Second, crafting beers and distilled spirits became more prevalent. Growing methods for wheat and hops improved, and the time from planting to harvesting these crops was much quicker than getting a crop from a newly planted apple orchard. Third, the temperance movement, at its height in the late 19th century, caused many to stop imbibing completely and led many farmers to cut down their orchards. Prohibition, the federal ban on booze in effect from 1920 to 1933, was the final straw, nearly wiping out hard cider completely.
Fast forward to today. Europeans have continued to make and drink hard cider and to grow apples specifically for that purpose. In this country, however, most apples grown since Prohibition were eating apples, not prized heirloom cider apples with evocative names like Spitzenbergs, Kingston Blacks or Cox’s Orange Pippins. Currently a single New Hampshire orchard produces half of the cider apples used in this country. And demand for them is going through the roof since heirloom varieties are the “colors” blended on the cider-making
palette to craft distinctive hard ciders.
Fortunately for Michiana, local weather matches that of the most prolific European cider-producing areas (Southwest England, Wales, Normandy and Brittany in France, and Asturias in Spain), which are all coastal with an average 40 inches of rain per year and sandy soil.
Steve Lecklider, owner of Lehman’s Orchard, is the fourth generation of a farming family with deep roots raising tree fruit. However, he only started making hard cider recently.
In 2008 Lehman’s Orchard, established in 1929, had a surplus crop of apples. Rather than throw away or compost the unsold ones, Lecklider decided to invest in making hard cider. It was a good decision, both for his bottom line and for cider drinkers. That first effort was rewarded with a silver medal at the 2009 Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition, “perry” being the pear equivalent of apple cider.
In the four years since, Lecklider’s cider business has expanded. He upgraded the size of his press, and he has increased the number of ciders he makes on the premises each fall. He also did research on the apple varieties that were historically used to make hard cider. He sought out apples to add to his orchards that would create the complexity and other qualities that distinguished traditional ciders. This year he planted 18 varieties including three from the 17th century: Red Gravenstein from Italy, Rhode Island Greening, and Roxbury Russet from Roxbury, Massachusetts.
His farming roots show in Lecklider’s long-term commitment to the family farm. Lehman’s Orchard participates in Michigan’s Environmental Assurance Program, which helps farms voluntarily prevent or minimize agricultural pollution risks. He makes cider using only his own apples, blueberries, cherries and pears.
“The apples we use can vary annually based on seasonal factors affecting a crop. But you just can’t get more local than using fruit from a single farm,” says Lecklider quietly and with a smile.
Virtue Cider is Greg Hall’s new craft beverage undertaking. Hall previously brewed award-winning beer at Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago. And while it was satisfying to him, he found a new challenge in cider making and found the farming aspect more appealing than brewing. As he put it, “Cider making gave me more farm days.” Selecting hops was the only farm day in his prior job. Now he spends his time on his newly planted 400-tree, 48-acre farm and cidery, established in June 2012.
Hall’s timing was unfortunate. Last year’s apple crop in Michigan was virtually wiped out, forcing him to purchase apples and juice from outside the area to make his first cider. Going forward he plans to use 100% local apples, first from nearby farms and then his own when they mature in a decade or so. Another indication of his commitment to the product and the location is his gravitation here from Chicago. In addition to the trees planted, he has built a cidery and bottle shop (tasting room), and Virtue broke ground in June for an expansion. Its second building will house production tanks in a geothermal environment to minimize energy use. And plans are in the works to plant more trees and build caves behind the current cidery. The caves will serve as a temperature-stable place to age wooden casks of cider. And as hard cider pairs well with cheese, Hall hints they could also be a place for a local cheese maker or two to age cheese.
Hall studied cider making in England and France, visiting long-time cider makers and orchardists. “There is no one way to make good hard cider,” Hall notes.
Why aren’t there more cideries in the area? There is room for growth in Michiana as well as in the country overall. According to Hall, the market share of hard cider still is only 0.2% of the beer category. Both Lecklider and Hall expect demand to grow rapidly in the near future. In fact, Hall predicts “cider pubs” in the next five years following in the steps of small craft beer breweries.
To complete the allusion started at the beginning of this story, what about today is the worst of times? Only that finding local cider can take a bit of work and looking. But it is well worth the effort.