GRAND RAPIDS — Many people — perhaps the majority — don’t begin thinking about cider until the leaves start to turn. That spicy, apple-cinnamon flavor is quintessentially autumnal. You wouldn’t think of visiting an apple orchard before harvest time, before there are things like corn mazes and hayrides to enjoy. And when it comes to hard cider, you may either think that it’s too sweet to drink, or that it’s just an alternative for people who don’t like beer.
Andy Sietsema believes that if that is the way you are thinking about cider, you are dead wrong. He is working along with the rest of the crew at Sietsema Orchards and Cider Mill to quell some of the misconceptions surrounding hard cider and the orchard-cideries that make it.
“Most people think we take off the months from November until right now, but no, we don’t,” said Sietsema.
Right now, the crew at Sietsema is keeping up on insect control, spraying the trees before and after it rains. They’re also training the younger trees and preparing the grounds for next year’s plantings. Throughout the year, up until and after harvest, they’ll be working on the orchard to make sure the conditions are conducive to good apples.
But just because most of the spring and summer seasons are spent nurturing apples into their delicious, full-grown forms doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy cider all summer long. Sietsema would argue that that is exactly what you should be doing.
“Summertime, to me, is when cider really should be drank,” he said.
Cold fruit storage, or controlled atmosphere, preserves the freshness of apples for months after they’ve been harvested. Sietsema makes some of his ciders during summer by sourcing apples and juice from larger facilities like Belle Harvest, which have the capacity to store apples in this way. This technology means that Sietsema can find apples and juice that are viable for cider throughout most of the summer season.
Sietsema believes cider’s light and crisp qualities give session ales a run for their money when it comes to choosing a beverage on a hot, humid summer afternoon.
“Cider is even lighter and more refreshing,” he said. And, he added, “It doesn’t have to be a sugar bomb.”
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To show the public just how light and refreshing a cider can be, Sietsema Orchards and Cider Mill has opened their market for the spring and summer. On Wednesdays through Fridays from 3-8 p.m., the cidery is serving a variety of hard ciders well suited to summer imbibing alongside their donuts, cheese plates, and meat plates.
“A good funky cheese and some cider — ” Sietsema paused, shaking his head approvingly, “I’m set then.”
Sietsema also encourages those visiting the orchard during the summer to bring their own food and enjoy the picnic-like setting.
“Saburba is open until eight on Wednesday — order some take out, bring it here and have a good time,” Sietsema said.
Visitors can also get take out from Vitale’s, The Schnitz, River House, Nonna Cafe or The Honey Creek Inn.
Sietsema also hosts cider dinners. Like beer dinners, these meals pair Sietsema’s ciders with dishes that complement them. And no, cinnamon-sugar cake donuts do not constitute a meal in this scenario.
Sietsema can’t show Michigan the potential hard cider has on his own though, which is why he is one of the founding members of the Michigan Cider Association (MCA). The group has “taken a page” from the Michigan Brewers Guild in hopes of creating an alliance that broadens the possibilities for cideries throughout the state.
“What we’re trying to do is educate the public,” said Sietsema, “but we’re also trying to create a platform and a place where we as producers can communicate more with the industry people.”
The MCA has dubbed this year “The Year of the Second Tap Handle.”
“There’s usually only one cider handle in bars with 10-12 handles,” said Sietsema. “Our goal this year is to get the next one.”
Sietsema hopes that by showing the public the true potential of hard cider, MCA can open a profitable avenue of growth for orchards and cideries around the state, as well as make craft cider more readily available for enjoyment by the public.