Michigan's hard cider renaissance: Orchards, entrepreneurs, and the future of an age-old beverage

In the orchards of Michigan, where the air turns crisp and the leaves herald the arrival of autumn, another transformation is underway: the rise of hard cider. 

As the third-largest apple producer in the United States, Michigan has become a fertile ground for this age-old beverage, now experiencing a modern renaissance. In fact, Michigan leads the nation with 192 active cideries, marking a 3.2 percent increase from the last known count and a staggering 110 percent increase over the last decade.

From established brands to innovative newcomers, Michigan's cider scene is as diverse as it is delicious. Blake's Hard Cider in Armada, for instance, is the second-largest hard cider producer in the country and expects to sell approximately 1 million cases in 2023.

The apple orchard at Alber Orchard and Cider Mill in Manchester. The farm also produces hard cider.Hard cider has been around a long time, of course, harkening back to colonial days. It was once the largest consumed drink in the country, before Prohibition. It has regained popularity in recent years, for a variety of reasons, including the explosion of craft beverages and buying local movements. 

Cideries can be found across the state, especially in rural areas. What’s more, breweries and wineries also have added hard cider to their options. It’s not uncommon to stop in a winery and find hard cider on tap or available by the can or bottle. Many wineries began turning to cider a few years ago, to diversify and appeal to a variety of drinkers. It’s another revenue stream for small businesses, including farmers.

“Michigan has more hard cider producers than any other state in the U.S.,”  says Michelle McGrath, CEO of the American Cider Association.

And it’s what customers are on the hunt for.

Paula Englin, the newly appointed executive director of the Michigan Cider Association, attributes the growth in the Great Lakes State to the quality of Michigan's apples available to producers. “Because we have such great apples to work with, we have some of the best ciders in the world,” she says. 

This growth has also translated into significant sales, with 60 individual brands accounting for $241.9 million in total sales over the past 52 weeks, placing Michigan eighth among all states.

Michigan is also home to the world's largest international cider competition, known as the GlintCap, the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, held annually in Grand Rapids. The most recent competition was held in May.

Part of the appeal of hard cider is its versatility, Englin says. “So if you're a wine drinker, there's cider for you,” she says. “If you like really sweet stuff, there's cider for you. If you like really dry stuff, there's cider for you. If you're a beer guy or gal, there's cider for you.” 

On the health front, Englin observes, “As consumers were asking for beverages that are mindful of alcohol content, calorie content, and carbs, everyone in the beverage industry was trying to think about how to meet these demands.”

Interest in hard cider products can also be attributed to the various specialty ciders, with producers adding everything from lavender and jalapenos to traditional fruits like cherry, peach, blackberry, pear and raspberry.

 “What I love also is the vast majority of cider makers in Michigan, if they're adding cherries or hops or lavender or whatever, they are sourcing most of those ingredients from Michigan, ” Englin shared. 

Chris Schaefer’s family has grown apples since 1855 and has a 300-acre orchard in Conklin, a rural area northwest of Grand Rapids.

Schaefer says the family decided to get into the hard cider business after seeing People's Cider in Grand Rapids and Vander Mill, also in Grand Rapids, having success with the beverage. They planted heirloom and cider apples on their farm and began by producing small batches of cider.

Their focus has been on using apples grown on their farm and nearby orchards -- about 125 apple cultivars, ranging from American dessert apples to French and English cider apples. They sell ciders under the Pux brand. They also create blends with other local products, including tart cherries, pears and hops. 

Inside the Ore Creek Craft Cidery and Taproom in Pinckney.In southeastern Michigan, Ore Creek Craft Cidery and Taproom got its start with one of the owners making ciders in his basement, using generations-old family recipes. Sharing hard ciders at family events and camping trips gained the ciders a following and awards soon followed, prompting the opening of a brick-and-mortar location. 

Today, Ore Creek sells a variety of ciders, including the one that started it all, its Base Camp, described as a crisp, amber cider, “not too sweet. Not too dry.”

“There is a strong movement, so when you walk into a restaurant, you are going to see a beer list, you're going to see a wine list, and it is a goal of the cider industry for you to see a cider list,” says Brandon Bond, one of the owners of Ore Creek Cidery. “It's a goal. For the simple fact that cider pairs very well with a large amount of food. And the other is that it's naturally gluten-free.” 

Wineries across Michigan also have hopped on the hard cider train.

Among them is Amoritas Vineyards on the Leelanau Peninsula, outside Traverse City. The winery introduced its line of ciders in the summer of 2018, shortly after opening, inspired by the mix of wild and homestead apples on its vineyard property.

Amoritas Vineyards in Lake Leelanau has been making hard ciders since the first summer the winery opened."We wanted to share some of the rich apple-producing history of Michigan with our customers while expanding our small starting menu. There was a big demand for the fun and easy drinking beyond wine at the tasting room," says Emily Goodell, winemaker for Amoritas and also part of the family that owns the winery.

Its lineup includes Royal Rubus and Scorch ciders, both inspired by the names of their favorite cocktails. Royal Rubus is one of its more popular products; blackberry and a touch of basil are added to a hard cider base. Scorch is a sweet peach cider base with a hint of habanero, "our summer star after its July 4th release," she says.

Royal Rubus, center bottle, is a popular hard cider at Amoritas Vineyards. "We are always looking for the next set of flavors to explore but we love these two house specialties so much that we had to start bottling them as well as selling in refillable containers," Goodell says. 

Nick Van Court, co-owner of Barrel + Beam in Marquette, who also makes hard ciders for his establishment, believes cider is here to stay.

“I think alcohol consumers are getting back to basics after years of getting bombarded by an anything-goes producer mentality. A simple, natural product is, once again, appealing. The fact that cider is also gluten-free has helped it regain popularity these days,” he says.

 “We started making cider, not because it was easier, but because we wanted to have more delicious examples of Michigan terroir to provide to customers, and the fact that apples are naturally gluten-free helped our confidence that it would be a great compliment to our beers,” he says. “I really think the regained popularity is due to the fact that cider is naturally delicious.” 

As for the industry's growth potential, Van Court is optimistic. "I think the growth potential is huge. We're likely nowhere near the peak. Although it may not experience a boom like microbreweries and brewpubs, I hope for a slower, more market-driven growth," he says.

Plans for Michigan 

The Michigan Cider Association’s Englin has a strategy for boosting the state’s cider industry, emphasizing the role of large public events to attract new cider enthusiasts. 

She also stresses the importance of expanding the Glintcap event. This international gathering attracts a global audience and is an educational platform for various cider and perry (made with pears) styles. She adds that Cider Week GR will return in 2024, featuring ten days of tap takeovers, restaurant pairings, and educational classes.

 “It will be a similar experience for people who have attended a Michigan Brewers Guild festival. You'll get a number of tokens to try a bunch of ciders from Michigan cider makers. We'll have live music and some food trucks,” she adds.

Education, she says, is also important. The Michigan Cider Association has received a grant that allows the organization to offer specialized courses through the Cider Institute of North America. The Certified Cider Professional program, run by the American Cider Association, is also a valuable resource for those in the hospitality industry. This educational push aims to benefit consumers and cider producers, helping them expand their businesses and innovate confidently.

Englin also points out there is a need for legislative reform. She notes that Michigan's liquor laws are among the most restrictive in the nation and need modernization. She advocates for collaboration among craft beverage producers to lobby for more sensible and updated regulations, contrasting the current liquor laws with the less restrictive rules governing the marijuana industry.

Meanwhile, Englin encourages people to set aside any preconceived notions they may have about cider, “Go to your local cider maker, ask them to explain kind of their range of profiles to you in terms of dry to sweet and give them another try because I would be shocked if you don't find a hard cider that drinks like your favorite beverage.” 

Brenda and Chuck Marshall have been chronicling the beauty and culture of Michigan for over ten years. Their stories, filled with local insights and experiences, are published on LifeInMichigan.com. In addition to his writing, Chuck is passionate about photography and has become a prominent documenter of Michigan's vibrant music and craft beer scenes. Together, they promote Michigan one story at a time
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