SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — Summer lingered this year but has finally gone, and with it the season’s beer festivals.
But no matter. On Saturday, VanderFest 2012 offered Michiganders the perfect way to celebrate — or perhaps survive — the change of seasons.
On a truly autumnal evening, Vander Mill Cider Mill and Winery in Spring Lake opened its backyard to hundreds of festival-goers.
The weather was cold and gray and damp, but between the fire pit and the cider taps, everyone found a way to keep warm.
“Considering the weather, it was a pretty successful day,” said co-owner Amanda Vander Heide. “We were pleased with the turnout.”
The festival, now in its third year, featured both wineries and breweries, all local and each with a special seasonal product — many of which involved apples, of course — designed for the festival. For $25 (pre-sale), about 600 guests enjoyed five samples in a customized VanderFest glass.
But how can a cider festival survive in a state with so many successful beer festivals?
“Three years ago, cider was weird to most people,” said co-owner Paul Vander Heide. “It was a struggle to get craft beer people to drink craft cider.”
Rather than fight craft brewers and their fans, the Vander Heides — husband and wife — have partnered with them. A number of cider mills had booths at VanderFest, but even more breweries were represented. Most vendors offered drafts of both cider and beer — although the beer was likely to have some Vander Mill cider in it, thus helping the beer crowd to expand palates.
Two popular examples at the event were Greenbush Brewery’s Vanderbush — a mixture of American trippel beer and Vander Mill’s apple cider — and Walldorff Brewery’s Apple Pumpkin Ale.
VanderFest differed from typical beer festivals in other ways, too. It wasn’t downtown or near the beach, but adjacent to the small highway that connects Spring Lake and Grand Haven.
The venue was contained and intimate, the food innovative and eclectic. This was a point of pride for Paul Vander Heide, who confessed that although he likes a turkey leg “as much as the next guy,” he’s delighted that his festival boasts Korean barbecue tacos and pork-and-apple macaroni and cheese (Vander Mill’s own “special recipe”).
His wife added, “This is the opportunity to try different types of things that aren’t necessarily prevalent on the Lakeshore — unique food and craft beverages.”
If you plan to enjoy the ciders next year and you want the guidance of a master fermenter, you might consult Vander Mill’s cider-maker, Joel Brower.
When asked what his favorite cider was, he chuckled and asked, “You mean, what’s my favorite kind?” But even though he creates the novelty ciders at Vander Mill, Brower admitted that he always returns to more traditional apple cider for himself: “It’s the base of it all.”