The world of craft cider in North America is where craft beer was about 15 years ago. And for me, that’s a great thing. I know this because I’ve just returned from the beer-soaked city of Grand Rapids where myself and Tara were judges in North America’s largest cider competition (this year over a 1,000 entries came in from cideries around the world).
Last time I visited Grand Rapids, it was all about the great craft beer (HopCat and Founders remaining my favourite city haunts), but this time you had to be blind not to notice all the buzz around local cider. We stopped in at Blake’s on the way, a huge restaurant and cidery in the middle of farm country, breezed past award-winning fruit cidery, Uncle John’s, and into Grand Rapids proper where we hit a cider salon hosted by the Michigan Craft Cider Association. There we tasted everything from a dry, complex beauty crafted with 108 different types of apples from Forgotten Ciders, to a cinnamon-spiked beauty from Left Foot Charley, to a Galaxy-hopped cider from Northville Winery to a dry “Cidre Brut” from Virtue Cider.
What I love about the cider scene is its intimacy — we judged with some of the finest producers in the world, the youthful energy of the community, and the openness and willingness to teach (all judges sat through a 5-hour sensory training by AeppelTreow cider maker, Charles McGonagal, and cider expert Gary Audey).
The state of Michigan has offered support to enable start-up cideries like Vander Mill Cider to grow from a 5,000 square-foot cidery in Spring Lake in 2006, to their new Grand Rapids behemoth production cidery that is 400 percent bigger, with mammoth tanks, distribution to four states and growing. I was with a number of Ontario cidery owners at GLINTCAP and they walked around the new Vander Mill facility slacked jawed, snapping pictures and saying, “They’re never going to believe the size of this place back home.”
That’s not because the makers aren’t innovating and growing to the best of their abilities. It’s because the federal and Ontario governments badly needs to reform its tax regulations on cider (because it was a forgotten beverage for so long in Canada, taxes haven’t been reformed to give local cider the same benefits as local beer). In the U.S., the similar historical roadblocks existed at a federal level, says Michigan cidermaker, Andy Sietsema. But cider makers formed the United States Association of Cider Makers in 2013, and lobbied successfully to get the beverage redefined on a federal level. A national association wouldn’t be a bad idea for Canadian cider makers either, eh?
Here in Ontario, it’s really expensive to open a cidery — anything you sell into the LCBO is taxed by them at 58 percent (holy cow!). And even if you don’t put your bottles in the LCBO, but you sell direct to bars and restaurants, you’re slapped with a 32% LCBO tax (brewers pay no LCBO tax on direct sales). Because cideries are licensed like breweries, the only way around the tax is to not only put up the cash for hte building and all the equipment, but also plant or buy five acres of apple trees. “These taxes mean that we are unable to invest that money back into our own company,” says Chris Haworth, owner of West Avenue Cider Company in Hamilton, Ontario, “and the growth of our company is much slower than the public demand.” And guess what? Not every cider maker wants to be a grower. A few cideries have made it over the hump here in Ontario — we have a little over 20 local producers.
In Michigan, where you can build a small production cidery without apple trees, there are about 35 cideries. Like Ontario, that state has a lot of apple farmers who need a market for their juice — so why not let any cideries buy the juice, but sell the product they make at their own retail store without the heavy taxes?
And if you want more locally-produced artisanal cider, made with full juice from Ontario apples instead of apple concentrate and “natural flavours” (ever wonder why Angry Orchard tastes like Apple Jolly Ranchers? Or how Molson Canadian Stone Fruit’s cider gets its Fuzzy Peaches note? It ain’t just juice), then vote with your wallet and buy local. Despite all the barriers, Ontario cider makers are knocking it out of the park — West Avenue Cider Company was the only outfit to take TWO Best In Show Awards home out of all the makers in the competition, and Ontario craft cider makers took home 46 medals in total.
Consumer support for local cideries and continued governmental lobbying on the part of our local cider makers will bring about a more level-playing field that enables local cider to enjoy the same tax breaks as local beer. It’s just a question of when.
Ok, now that you’ve got that Ontario craft cider in hand, how do you decide whether the cider in your hand is in top form? Click here for some hot tips on evaluating cider.