Apple of my eye: Husband and wife team make Tandem Ciders a success

Most folks touring Leelanau County wine trails are on the hunt for the signature beverage of that gorgeous peninsula, wine. Yes, there's lots of world-class wine in Leelanau but there's also world-class cider. Cider, you say, really? In Leelanau County? It's true: Since 2010 Tandem Ciders has been producing a variety of award-winning hard ciders to please your palate. No less an authority than Bon Appetit magazine named one of their creations, "The Sweetheart," one of its four favorite hard ciders in 2011. Wow, that's nationwide competition you're talking about!

This cidery not only makes great ciders, there's a wonderful love story behind the business. Dan Young and Nikki Rothwell are the owners of Tandem Ciders. They are also husband and wife. Their romance and cider business are woven together tighter than an Irish fisherman's sweater.

Dan met Nikki while he was brewing beer in Massachusetts. She was a "really good customer" at the brewery, says Dan. The two began biking through the New England countryside and spending quite a bit of time together. Friends noticed the budding relationship and one of them loaned the couple a tandem bicycle. Can you guess where the name of the cidery originated?

While planning a vacation, the happy couple decided to tour England on that tandem bike. As they traveled the country seeking great beer, they quickly discovered cider was as, or even more, popular than beer. As their love of each other grew, so did their love of cider. After moving to Michigan, Nikki and Dan married in 2004.

After working as a cheesemonger at Leelanau Cheese at Black Star Farms, Dan, at Nikki's encouragement, attended a seminar on cider. Dan knew he wanted to produce local products using his brewing skills, and voila, cider was the answer to his quest.

He found his brewing experience translated in interesting ways.

"Beer, cider and wine all share commonalities, but with significant differences," Dan says. Cider and wine reflect the terroir where they are grown, while beer depends primarily on the ingredients used, regardless of their origin. Leelanau County is home to many superb vineyards, apple orchards and wineries. Fortunately, it's also home to Tandem Ciders.

Commercially-produced cider has been around since the early 1700s, but its origins are ancient. Cider has probably been around as long as wine. In the 1800s a man named John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed traveled throughout the Midwest planting over 100,000 apple trees. In the early 1900s, Americans drank an average of 35 gallons of hard cider per person; it was much more popular than beer or wine.

Cider is made much like wine. Apples for Tandem Cider are crushed with a traditional rack and cloth press, and the juice is then fermented with traditional methods to create distinctive ciders. Most large scale cider producers use huge presses that don't squeeze the apples as gently as Nikki and Dan press the local apples.

As grapes are to wine, the key ingredient in cider production is the apples used. Tandem Ciders makes cider using exclusively Michigan apples. One of the fun features of these ciders is that each of the apple growers is identified as a producer of the apples in the final product.

Nikki and Dan currently offer six ciders for tasting at their tasting room, a big white barn with a red tandem bicycle over the front door. The most popular cider is the Smackintosh, a blend of MacIntosh, Northern Spy and Rhode Island Greening apples. With a rich golden color, this cider is both sweet and tart. As Dan says, "This one is like eating a candy apple in the fall."

Next up is the Crabster, a crazy concoction of wild apples, classic apples such as Cortland, Northern Spy, MacIntosh, and some red crab apples. A dry cider, this has great aromas. Early Day mixes Sheep's Nose (yes, an apple that looks a little bit like a sheep's nose), a couple of red apples, the famous Fameuse apple and a couple of others to create a complex, deep flavored cider. This one is big. The Sweetheart is sweet and tart with hints of citrus in the nose.

Scrumpy Little Woody is a sweeter style cider aged in a bourbon barrel. Scrumpy? It's a term traditionally used to describe strong ciders from western England. Perfect to warm you up on a cold winter evening.

Pomona is a blend of apple brandy and sweet cider called a Pommeau. Pommeaus are traditionally from northern France in the Brittany and Normandy regions. Coming in at 17 percent alcohol, this unique sipper is named after Pomona, the goddess of the orchard. This luxurious liquid was aged in oak barrels for almost a year.

We're very fortunate Nikki the student moved to Massachusetts, loved craft beer, met Dan the brewer, toured cideries in England on a tandem bicycle, fell in love with and married Dan, and moved to Leelanau County. Whew. We're also lucky Dan was a brewer in the right place at the right time, loves biking, fell in love with Nikki and cider, followed her to apple country and makes artisan sipping cider for us to enjoy. Cheers!

Michael Schafer, Esq. Sommelier aka The Wine Counselor is a writer, educator and consultant whose trademark phrase, "I taste bad wine so you don't have to" embodies his humorous approach to wine. You can reach him by email.
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