A version of this story appeared in Sun-Times Splash
Every child who’s spent a fall in the Midwest knows: ‘Tis the season for apple-picking and cider-chugging. Adults seeking the same seasonal escape can do so with the added benefit of this fall’s must-sip spirit: hard cider. A far cry from the sweet and spicy stuff you grew up sipping, the grown-up version is crisp and refreshing, influenced by its predecessors in England, France and Spain.
In nearby western Michigan, production of the stuff is thriving; there, fruit farms are reviving dozens of varieties of heirloom apples ideal for juicing and fermenting. “It’s a great time for cider in Michigan. [And] a really great time to be a cider-drinker, because there’s so much more variety than there was even six months ago,” says Greg Hall, owner of Virtue Cider, one of a collection of new cider producers along what’s being called the Napa of the Midwest — Michigan’s Cider Coast.
Two-hundred miles of changing leaves separate Virtue and other southern cideries — easily accessible by car from Chicago — including Vander Mill as well as The Peoples Cider and Sietsema from a cluster of northern cideries near Traverse City — a five-hour drive or one hour flight. Each offers its unique approach to cider-making as well as the ability to tour orchards, cider presses and, of course, sample ciders from the traditional dry cider to more experimental verities.
Virtue Cider: Fenneville, MI
2170 62nd Street, virtuecider.com, 2 hours from Chicago
Hall, 49, is considered a forefather of the Chicago cider movement. The former Goose Island brewmaster underwent a cider epiphany during a trip to France in 2000, when he learned that there was much more to cider than the sweet stuff. It wasn’t until 2011 when he recreated the dry and funky drink he discovered fermenting in barns and served at bars throughout the region in a Norman-style farmhouse erected on a 48-acre farm in southwest Michigan.
Redstreak, a dry English-style cider that drinks like champagne, was the first product he introduced onto the Chicago market, with a little help from the connections he established while working in the beer industry. It quickly became a mainstay at bars and restaurant around the city, followed a year later by others such as Lapinette, a Norman-style cidre brut that’s aged in French oak barrels, as well as chef collaboration including an Asian pear perry for Next.
Ciders can be sampled and purchased by the bottle. Ideally during the fall, when heirloom apples are gathered by the bushel and pressed outside, under a wood canopy. The juice is fermented and matured the barrels, a process unique to Virtue that gives its cider a touch of oak and rounder flavor. “Dry ciders with some good acids, tannins and complexity can really [combine] the refreshment of a beer and the refinement of a wine,” he says of his product.
While you’re there: Visit a Randolph Street-worthy restaurant tucked away in Michigan agricultural belt. Salt of the Earth offers a true farm-to-table experience — think whole hog pizza and wild caught Sockeye salmon with sweet corn succotash — in a rustic setting. 114 East Main Street, saltoftheearthfennville.com, approx. $25 per entrée.
Vander Mill Cider: Spring Lake, MI
14921 Cleveland Street, vandermill.com, 1 hour from Virtue
Among the cider founding fathers is also Paul Vander Heide, 36. The enthusiastic cider-maker has been a leader of the hard cider scene since 2008, when he began pressing and fermenting local apples in his cidery. “We attempt to make them representative of the apples here in Michigan,” Vander Heide says. “With no bitter sharp varieties available, we largely have fresh eating apples to work with.” That will change over the next few years. Vander Mill is working with Dietrich Farm to plant 20-acres of “bitter sharps and bitter sweets” that are more suited for cider.
The commitment to using local apples means creativity is the name of the game at Vander Mill, known for Totally Roasted, a cider steeped with cinnamon-roasted pecans, as well as seasonal offerings such as Nunica Pine, made with Columbus hops and distributed around Michigan, Illinois and Ohio in 16-oz. cans. At the bar — made from reclaimed apple crates — you can sip 10 hard ciders and one apple wine out of mason jars or as part of a flight of four. The tasting room doubles as a restaurant, where chef Stephanie Luke incorporates your beverage of choice into cider-battered Lake Michigan whitefish tacos served on housemade corn tortillas with carrots — which, of course, are also pickled in cider. She even makes those cinnamon-covered donuts that taste just like a childhood trip to the local apple orchard.
Stop by soon to enjoy it all with a side of live music: On Oct. 4, the cidery is celebrating its fifth annual Vanderfest The event, held from 4 to 10 PM, featured local beers side by side with ciders from half-a-dozen producers.
While you’re there: Sleep off the cider buzz before heading north at the JW Marriott Grand Rapids. The luxury hotel is complete with waterfront views, a pool and close proximity to Peoples Cider and Sietsema Orchard. 235 Louis Street NW, Grand Rapids, marriott.com, rooms start at $215 per night.
Left Foot Charley: Traverse City, MI
806 Red Drive, leftfootcharley.com, 2.5 hours from Vander Mill
Ten years ago, the vacant Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane was converted into a mecca of residences, restaurants and one city-center winery. What was once the laundry facility now sources apples and grapes from 18 nearby growers to produce 6,000 cases of wine and cider annually.
Stop by the winery’s taproom, where floor-to-ceiling windows overlook a patio dotted with wine barrels and where three varieties of cider — two year-round and one seasonal — are poured. To taste what Left Foot Charley’s Bryan Ulbrich and other cider-makers around the region refer to as “Michigan terroir” — the flavor of the region that is a result of how soil and climate condition affect apples — opt for Relic, a dry cider made with Winesap, Baldwin, Rhode Island Greening, Jonathan and Hubardston Nonesuch apples. Cinnamon Girl, a spunky cider worthy of its name, starts light but ends with a gentle sting thanks to whole Sumatran cinnamon sticks. And if you’re lucky, Hopfel Apfel will be in season: This unique cider is made with fresh Michigan hops, seasoned with ginger and only available from late September through the fall.
With cider making up half of the winery’s business, distribution outside of Michigan is next on the horizon. The team has set their sights on Chicago to receive upcoming shipment of all three ciders.
While you’re there: Wander the rest of the possibly haunted halls of the former insane asylum across the courtyard — it houses several acclaimed restaurants including Trattoria Stella and Pepenero for Italian or Spanglish, a manifestation of Anna and Vicente Serrano’s love for each other as well as Mexican cuisine using Northern Michigan ingredients. 830 Cottageview Drive, thevillagetc.com.
Forty-Five North: Lake Leelanau, MI
8580 E. Horn Road, fortyfivenorth.com, 30 minutes from Left Foot Charley
You might have a “pinch me” moment at this vineyard, reminiscent of Bourdeaux — which, in fact, reside on the same latitude line as this winery (hence the name). Similar soil conditions to France allow rows of grapevines set in front of rolling hills to thrive.
The winery, owned by the Grossnickle family, specializes in soft Rieslings and Peach Crémant — a slightly sweet white wine blended with cold-pressed peach juice. The family dapples in the other fruits that also thrive in the area — think cherry wine as well as apple and pear ciders that drink like vino. Stop by the tasting room, which showcases corrugated metal and exposited beams that smell like fresh-cut timber, to try three of their varietals, including a new wild fermented cider made from 25 different types of apples with a process similar to brewing sour beer. The cloudy, full-bodied liquid has an intriguing earthiness compared to the clean finish of the traditional hard cider. Don’t be surprised if you run into a fall bride at the bar or on the patio — the picturesque locale is a popular destination for weddings.
While you’re there: Continue the wine crawl at Bluestone Vineyard, another slice of wine paradise with 8,000 grapevines sprawling over a hill and leading to the intimate winery. 4828 Spring Creek Road, bluestonevineyard.com.
Tandem Cider: Suttons Bay, MI
2055 N. Setterbo Road, tandemciders.com, 10 minutes from Forty Five North
A tandem bicycle ride through England during the summer of 2003 to survey the local beer scene led Dan and Nikki Young to discover the magic of hard cider. Not only did they bring the cider-making back to the states, but they brought the tandem bicycle, too. In, 2008 the bicycle built for two was affixed over the door of a white barn surrounded by fledgling cider apple trees, marking the entrance to the tasting room of Tandem.
Replicating the charm of that English countryside visit, Tandem serves draft and bottled hard cider at a six-seat bar. Try a free tastings or purchase a pint of Smakintosh, their flagship cider, which tastes like the first bite of a ripe Macintosh apple, or rarer ciders, such as Ice Caves, made from frozen apple juice to create an in-your-face funky cider, and Scrumpy, a barrel-aged cider spiked with apple brandy. “Making good cider is the priority,” Dan says, but replicating the charm and comfort the cideries they experiences across the pond is important too. So when in a cidery modeled after an English pub, eat as the British do: hard-boiled and pickled eggs are the house specialty, served with a side of Saltine crackers.
While you are there, pick up a few bottles of Pretty Penny, an intoxicating blend of 30 apples that come together in a complex yet smooth cider, Crabster, a contrasting cider with face-puckering tartness, or any of the five others only sold in northern Michigan.
While you’re there: The Inn at Black Star Farms is one part bed-and-breakfast, one part winery in the form of a brunt red mansion with white columns flanked by horse stables. Conclude your cider crawl with a night that starts with a sunset wine tasting and ends in the comfort of a country-chic suite. 10844 E. Revold Road, blackstarfarms.com, rooms start at $225.