Project Description

Quench magazine, 04/14

Cider’s comeback

Planting an apple seed will produce a more random result than pulling the handle on a Vegas slot machine. Apples grown from seeds are “extreme heterozygotes,” often only distantly related to their parent DNA.

It was these zany apples, born from seeds brought over from England and France by early settlers, which made up Canada’s first hard ciders. Because of the ease of harvesting the ingredients, cider was the tipple of choice for English and French settlers. It was a farmhouse drink: besides apples settlers would chuck in raisins, molasses, and other miscellaneous sugar to up the booze factor, often maturing it in a spare rum or port barrel.

That scrappy cider is a far cry from the commercial Strongbow or Somersby’s ciders that dominate the market today. Commercial ciders are commonly made up of 10 to 30 percent apple juice with concentrate, water, malic acid and sugar making up the difference.

But recently—nearly 100 years after our cidermaking heritage was crushed by the rise of breweries and prohibition—artisanal ciders are making a comeback, driven by a triumvirate of local-foodism, a thirst for craft booze and gluten aversion. And the small-batch makers at the heart of the boom are adopting that same freewheeling, experimental approach as the early settlers.

In 2000, Charles Crawford and his wife, Susan Reid along with their 5- and 6-year-old children, moved from Montreal to the country looking to simplify their lives. The couple fell in love with a 450-acre 1859 farmhouse nestled on apple orchards on the slope of Pinnacle mountain. So they became residents of Freilsbierg, a village of 1,028 people on the Vermont border.

Little did they know that by 2013 their ice, still and sparkling ciders would be awarded over 100 gold medals worldwide.

Cidre de glace, or ice cider, is a Quebec invention that is coveted worldwide. Today, the majority of Quebec’s 80 or more cideries produce at least one of these sweet and tart, high-alcohol sippers. And while the icy stuff put Quebec cideries on the map, these days producers are experimenting with a wider range of hard ciders.

Domaine Pinnacle’s Verger Sud is a good example of the unique imprint that Quebecois makers are bringing to ciders. “We press fresh apples like Courtland and McIntosh, ferment it for about six weeks and add ice cider to it for added smoothness and sweetness,” explains Charles. “We’ve had wine experts taste it blind and asked what grapes it’s made with.”  Indeed, the still cider is an exercise in elegance: candied apple, honey and orange blossom aromas give way to a full-bodied stunner of sweet apple, tropical fruit, fresh hay and bright, lemon acidity.

Domaine Pinnacle is part of a revival of cider that started in Quebec in the late ‘90s and is characterized by world-class offerings from leading cideries like Michel Jodoin, who borrow heavily from vitners.

In the rest of Canada, the cider tradition is even younger, with most outfits sprouting up in the apple belts Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia over the last decade. These new makers are looking not just to wine, but to English, Norman and early North American cider traditions for inspiration.

“My focus is to produce a really good North American style cider,” says John Brett, a film editor and cider-lover who partnered with farmer Andrew Bishop to start Tideview Cider in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia eight years ago.

Brett has researched which apple varieties were being favoured for cider production along the eastern seaboard from Delaware to Nova Scotia in the Colonial period. “Very few of them were traditional English cider apples, which are great for adding tannins, but not great for much of anything else,” he says. “In North America, there wasn’t that same degree of divergence between a multi-purpose apple and cider-specific apples,” he explains. “But we did favour certain varieties for cider. Out East the Golden Russet the basis of most good ciders, then you would add others like Ribston Pippin.”

Tideview grows and uses these and other heirloom varietals. And rather than using English cider apples to tannin and acids, Brett’s been biting into crab apple trees in the valley to find one with promising traits. Last year he discovered a Golden Crab apple in a nearby orchard and blended it into the latest vintage of his flagship cider, Heritage Dry. Next year he plans to buy every apple on that tree.

With aromas of tart apples, strawberry and hints of vanilla, the Heritage Dry feels like a sparkling wine with layered notes of apple, grassy tannins and a hint of limestone, finishing clean and dry.

Besides a few private orchards, North American heirloom and Old World varietals are hard to come by for Ontario’s fledgling cider industry. But the Ontario Craft Cider Association is working to change that by talking numbers to apple growers: a 2013 Economic Impact Study commissioned by the Association predicts craft cider sales will continue as one of the fastest growing categories at the LCBO, with sales rising from $1.13 million last year to $35 million by 2018.

It was this potential that convinced Spirit Tree Estate Cidery’s founder, Thomas Wilson, to sell his family’s pick-your-own fruit farm in Caledon, Ontario nearly a decade ago, buy a nearby orchard, and train to be a cidermaster in England.

Wilson opened Spirit Tree Estate in 2008 on an orchard nestled among farms and ranch-style homes of wealthy Torontonians (chef Michael Bonacini of Oliver & Bonacini is next door). Under the roof of a sprawling, strawbale, A-frame farmhouse is the cidery, a tasting room, brick oven bakery and a farm shop selling locally-produced sausages, milk and house-made pies and terrines. Like most of the new cideries opening up, Spirit Tree isn’t just a production facility, it’s a destination, seducing visitors with a heady aroma of apple sauce, fresh-baked bread and damp earth.

But what brings most people here in the first place is the drink.  “When we launched in 2007, we wanted to do a true English scrumpy cider,” says Tom, a trim, baby-faced 42-year-old, who wears a baseball cap, rectangular glasses and a blackberry on his belt, “but we knew Ontario’s palate wasn’t ready for that as our flagship.”

Still, Spirit Tree’s Draught Cider and Pear Ciders nod in the scrumpy direction. To achieve this, Tom keeps a tank or two of wild-fermented cider and blends part of it into the main batch, which uses an English Cider yeast strain containing a hint of Brettanomyces. He lets those secondary flavours develop over four to six months of cellaring. The results are some of the most complex ciders in the province, like the Pear Cider with flavours of sweet, overripe pear, a crackling, lemony acidity and backing notes of earthy funk and white pepper.

In the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, British Columbia’s oldest working cidery, Merridale Estate, has a lot in common with Spirit Tree—including a brick oven for artisanal baking, a line of English-style ciders and a farm shop.

But Merridale’s Mediterranean-like climate, sloping terroir and Old World cider apples make for two very different products. A hint of alcohol warmth is the only signal that Merridale’s incredibly smooth, clear amber Scrumpy clocks in at 11 percent ABV. The drink packs cider vinegar aromas and a sour apple taste with lots of tannins and a long, dry finale.

Janet Docherty who bought Merridale 14 years ago with her partner, Rick Pipes, says she’s happy to be experiencing the cider boom first-hand: “We’ve seen huge success over the last year, the demand from bars and restaurants really took off—craft cider is incredibly appealing, and it’s not just a fad,” she says.

Across the Saanich inlet, Victoria’s Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse, is also making waves for its crisp, certified organic sippers. A trim, 45-year-old brunette with strands kissed by long days on the farm, Kristen Jordan was an international development aid worker before starting Sea Cider eight years ago.

As cidermaster Jordan’s inspiration comes from her extensive travels: “Looking at cider traditions around the world, whether it’s Heredforshire, France or Spain inspires me,” she says. “North America has this forgotten cider tradition and we’re trying to bring that back to life which is inspiring in itself.”

Jordan’s ciders are as worldly and varied as the 1,000 English, French, German and new world apples that she planted in her seaside orchard in 2004. One of the few ciders in the world made without added sulphites, Sea Cider’s Flagship is a thing of restrained beauty: apple, lemon and fennel dominate the nose and carry into the palette with a slight hint of sea salt and a lightly effervescent feel.

Other rising cider makers are taking a leaf from upstart brewers in Canada, many of whom are starting up by renting tanks in larger breweries before investing in bricks-and-mortar.

British-born chef Chris Haworth launched West Avenue Cider last year without a cidery—let alone an orchard. Moving here from London, England eight years ago, the 40-year-old chef noticed the dearth of artisanal cider in Ontario and spotted an opportunity. Last year he took the plunge, quitting his job as head chef at Spencer’s at the Waterfront in Burlington, Ontario and renting space from Pommies Dry Cider in Caledon.

Haworth loves to experiment: he’s got ciders aging in everything from Tawse Merlot to Bourbon barrels, and fermenting with beer, wine, wild and champagne yeasts. In December, he took over the taps at Momofuku Noodle Bar pouring a custom cider made with pear, shiso, yuzu, ginger, amazake, and a sake yeast. This year he’s planning collaborations with a number of Ontario craft breweries.

In Canada’s craft cider renaissance nothing is off limits, and Haworth relishes that fact. As for the few rules that do exist—like don’t make a single varietal cider from the rogue North American crab apple—Haworth mostly ignores them. His Schoolyard Crab, made only with Dolgo Crab apples (which he picked off of two trees in his daughter’s schoolyard) and is currently aging in Cabernet Franc barrels from Fielding estate in Niagara.

Meanwhile, in B.C.’s interior, two sisters have turned an unlikely spot into one of the most buzzed-about craft cideries in the province. Theresa Pedersen, 42, and Kate Garthwaite, 29 operate Left Field Cider Company from their family’s cattle ranch in Mamette Lake.

After studying cidermaking in England, Garthwaite brought her skills back home where the family turned its barn into a ciderhouse and the family launched Left Field Cider Co. in 2011.

Their signature cider, Big Dry, is a clear, straw-coloured sparkler with a clean, crisp fresh apple aroma and flavour, it finishes dry with a hint of sweetness thanks to the addition of B.C. dessert apples, which Garthwaite blends in with traditional English and French cider varieties.

Canada’s emerging craft cideries make products where fresh-pressed apple juice makes up 80 to 100 percent of the cider. “It’s our job to increase the awareness of what a full juice cider is,” says Garthwaite. “We’d like to get a designation like VQA that distinguishes a juice cider from a commercial one.”

So while Canada’s nouveau ciders are as just artisan as those of North America’s early colonists—their business savvy and passion for the art of cider making mean this is no ordinary renaissance, it’s the beginning of a whole new era.