How about them apples? Metro Detroit's craft cider industry

It is officially fall, and in metro Detroit that means exactly one thing... well, one thing other than football.. cider season! 

"Cider" used to strictly mean that particular kind of extra-special apple juice made from fresh-picked apples and pressed fresh for you inside an adjoining mill, sold by the gallon and served alongside hot cake doughnuts fresh out of the fryer, usually in a place where there are also U-pick orchards, a petting zoo with pony rides, and corn mazes. It is a Michigan tradition and a rite of passage, and one of the best things about Michigan's fickle four seasons. 

But as Michigan's craft beverage industry has exploded – the state currently ranks number five in the country for number of craft breweries and number four for craft distilleries – "cider" has taken on a new meaning. Now brewers, winemakers, mead makers, and dedicated cider makers alike are getting into the "hard cider" game, and these alcoholic ciders are seeing a surge in popularity. 

While there are a number of cider producers in Michigan, some of whom have been at it for many years – including J.K.'s Scrumpy in Flushing, Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns, Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay, Vander Mill in Spring Lake, and the celebrated Virtue Cider in Fennville – metro Detroit's own local cider industry is just starting to take off. 

Midtown Detroit's Motor City Brewing Works has been producing a cider once a year since 1998 – way ahead of the curve as far as hard ciders (and really, craft beer) go. Co-owner John Linardos got a winery license for Motor City in 1998 specifically so he could make cider. (An aside: a winery license is required to make cider, as fruit is the fermentable in the product. A lot of people think cider is beer. It is not. It is a wine.) 

Co-owner Dan Scarsella says Linardos was going out to Romeo to get cider pressed and making about 300 gallons of cider once a year in the fall, just to do something different. Linardos was really passionate about English-style beers when the brewery first started and modeled his beer after that, so his cider was a dry English cider. 10 years later, Motor City Brewing Works started producing cider year-round, and now churns out about 300 gallons a month. Over the years they have played with the recipe, but have ultimately fallen back on that original dry English cider. 

Scarsella, who is himself passionate about the urban farming movement happening in Detroit proper, hopes that one day they will be able to use apples from orchards grown within in the city. A founding member of People for Palmer Park, Scarsella helped plant a 700-tree apple orchard in the nearly 300-acre historic park. It is an experimental demonstration orchard run entirely by volunteer labor, and a way for them to learn how to grow apples and "sink our teeth into what it would actually be to manage an orchard." 

While Motor City Brewing Works Orchards may or may not be something we see in the future, Scarsella still pictures passing fields of orchards while riding his bike through the city, and using those locally-grown apples in their cider. 

"It would be wonderful for us to buy apples from people growing apples in the city," he says. "There's no one growing apples in the city and it's hard to do it. We're just one cog in the whole machine. We can have beautiful orchards in the city. They were part of the industry in Detroit until it was more [lucrative to build housing]. [With all of the vacant land here] we could have beautiful green spaces and rolling orchards, and they would also pay for the land by generating tax dollars and creating [jobs]."  

It's hard to argue the economic impact potential of city cider when the craft beer industry as a whole in Michigan had a combined direct, indirect, and induced economic impact of $609,900,000 in 2013. 

In the markedly less urban city of Northville, the Northville Winery and Brewing Company originated in Paramenters Northville Cider Mill in 1982. The Nelson family has owned the winery since 1991, and Rob Nelson has been making cider under the Northville Winery label for over 10 years now.

 "He started making cider because apples are everywhere at the cider mill and since the winery was already there, why not make hard cider?" says co-owner Carina Nelson. After the husband and wife team took over the winery from Rob's parents in 2006 they started to once again make all of the wines themselves from Michigan-grown grapes and continued making the ciders from Michigan-grown apples. "He was already [making wine] and home brewing on the side, so it seemed like a natural progression to make apple wine – cider."

Nelson says that ciders were never really a hard sell, but now people are definitely seeking them out. "We were making hard cider before it was fastest-growing beverage in state," she says. "Now the gluten-free [movement] is driving it even more."

The Northville Winery and Brewing Company – which just added a brewing and small distillery license earlier this year – makes a variety of ciders, including their signature double gold-winner Rockin' Cock, the bourbon-barrel-aged BBC, and the "Half Nelson" hopped hard cider. They also make ciders that incorporate other fruits, seasonal ciders, and small-batch features they test out in their year-round tasting room that just opened in 2012. Bottles and kegs are self-distributed to area bars, restaurants, and stores, and are also sold out of the tasting room. 

And in the definitely not-urban Armada, Blake Orchards Cider Mill opened the 10,000-square-foot Blake's Cider House and Winery last year, making it the first cider house and winery in southeastern Michigan that uses their own apples grown on the family farm. According to co-owner Andrew Blake, after the catastrophic apple crop loss of 2012 they decided to re-evaluate their business model and diversify their product offerings to offset future loss and be able to utilize extra apples in bumper crop years, such as this one, for future cider production. For them, it is a matter of evolving with the times and with demand, spurned by economic necessity. Three of their ciders are currently bottled and widely distributed throughout metro Detroit. 

Miller's Big Red Farms in Washington Township is also seeking winery and brewing licenses and is also looking to make fortified spirits with local distilleries. 

As more and more breweries and wineries start adding cider to their list of product offerings and more and more consumers begin to appreciate the complexities of craft ciders, this craft beverage will continue its massive growth alongside other lesser-known boutique boozes Michigan is becoming known for (like mead). As Michigan ranks third in the country for apple production, cider has the potential to become a specialty product that is pure Michigan. 

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer extraordinaire. She is primarily known for her former blog, Eat It Detroit.

http://www.davelewinski.comAll Photos by David Lewinski Photography