Taking a hard look at hard ciders and fruit wines

It's harvest season in northern Michigan--and almost everywhere else in the Great Lakes state. Lately, that includes some newcomers to the specialty brew scene--hard ciders.
Calling all Michigan wine-lovers--especially those with fruity palates. Harvest time is upon us and your favorite flavors are nearly ready to be poured.
And it's time to break into your happy dance, hard cider fans. There are more flavors and brands to be had in the area, no matter where they're produced,  including flavors for nearly everyone's personal tastes.
More and more brands are being created and are more accessible than ever due to skyrocketing demand. It's not hard to tell with a look at any grocery store shelf.
Angry Orchard's wildly popular Crisp Apple hard cider, for example, hails from Cleveland. But Michiganders have no trouble getting their hands on it at markets, party stores, gas stations, eateries and bars in dozens of locations. It's abundant for the tasting just about everywhere.
Like many hard ciders, Angry Orchard's Crisp Apple is naturally gluten-free. There are a few exclusions, so always check labels before imbibing.
Green apple and apple ginger are among the hard cider flavors Angry Orchard cranks out for massive distribution. Redd's Apple Ale is another new fall favorite to be found in several varieties on shelves everywhere, brewed by Miller, and a little closer to beer than cider.

There are entries into the popular hard cider category closer to home, too. 

Tandem Ciders in northwest Michigan near Traverse City is growing its own apples and making artisanal ciders from them. Among their varieties are cherry cider, apple brandy cider and several specialty blends, even one using crabapples--the Crabster. Favorites are the Smackintosh hard cider and the Ida Gold, and there are even handcrafted ginger and apple sodas on offer. 

Owners Nikki Rothwell and Dan Young pattern their tasting room after the homey English pubs that first introduced the pair to cider, but there's a distinctly northern Michigan vibe about the place, which welcomes tourists and locals alike.

"As apples come in all different shapes, size, and flavors, Tandem Ciders hopes to capture and bottle all the mystery, splendor, and diversity of the apple in our ciders. Our ciders will also reflect character of the land where the apples are grown," they write on Tandem's website.

Or, if you'd like to try a Michigan cider from a little further afield, JK's Scrumpy is a fast-expanding local brand "grown, crushed, fermented and bottled" at Almar Orchards in Flushing in Genesee County. Scrumpy's offers three distinct hard ciders in the bottle, two of which are organic. It's distributed at specialty retailers in 36 states including Michigan.

Almar Orchards is owned by Jim and Karen Koan, and Jim describes their approach on the JK's Scrumpy website.

"I strive to make the best cider possible using these old methods and the traditional family recipe. There will be slight variations from bottle to bottle and year to year. This is a natural product. The bottom line is that it could not be made anyplace else. It is reliant on the soil," he says.
If you're not sure what the difference is between hard cider and wine, here's the rundown. Hard cider, as defined at Dictionary.com, is "the juice pressed from apples (or formerly from some other fruit) used for drinking, either before fermentation (sweet cider) or after fermentation (hard cider) or for making applejack, vinegar, etc."
Wine, however, is "the fermented juice of grapes, made in many varieties, such as red, white, sweet, dry, still, and sparkling, for use as a beverage, in cooking, in religious rites, etc., and usually having an alcoholic content of 14 percent or less."
Speaking of wines, don't forget the fruit wines this winter--something the Traverse City-area vintners do very well. For instance, the Peach Crémant from 45 North in Leelanau walked away with the double gold best in class award in the fruit portion of the 2014 Michigan Wine Competition according to Michigan Wines. Apple, cherry, blackberry, currant and even more exotic varieties are on offer from area wineries.
The widespread demand for hard cider isn't simply a Michigan phenomenon. David Trone, who co-owns and presides over the national retail chain Total Wine & More, says sales have tripled in his 107 stores in 16 states.
"Cider has expanded its role from a holiday-driven product to a year-round drink," he says. "It seems to be bridging the gap between beer and non-beer drinkers. We also see wine drinkers adding cider to their baskets as well."
Sweet hard ciders and award-winning fruity wines--some created here and others available here--await.
Give 'em a try.

Kelle Barr is a Michigan-based freelance reporter who can be reached at Kellebarr@gmail.com or on Twitter at @BarrKelle
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.
Signup for Email Alerts