Not all cideries grow apples, but those that do have a unique control over the quality and inimitability of their product. They also have a lot more work to do all throughout the year. Over the next few months, MittenBrew will be publishing a series of articles that highlights the pre-harvest work that must be done at these tree-to-tap cideries.
Before the autumn harvest, tree-to-tap cideries like Crane’s Winery in Fennville must work closely with farm personnel to make sure the apples develop optimally for use in cider.
“As the season progresses, we can see what the changes [in the apples] are,” said Eric Heavilin, the man in charge of wines and ciders for Crane’s, “and that’s going to be a huge benefit in the long run, having the farm attached to the [cidery].”
Crane’s Orchards, which spans over 100 acres and includes 17 varieties of apples, has been growing apples since the 1880s. The orchard was purchased by the Crane family in 1916, and the Cranes have owned and operated it ever since. Over those 100 years of operation, Crane’s has expanded to include a restaurant, bakery, winery and, since November 2014, a hard cidery.
Rob Crane, owner and operator of Crane’s Orchards, will be working hard throughout the summer to make sure the trees are growing to develop the best fruit for cider. Right now, in the midst of spring, pest control and regulation are at the forefront.
“We just finished our first spray,” said Crane. “We’ve got a few scab sprays and mildew sprays coming up.”
Prior to that, when the trees were blossoming, pollination was the chief concern. Crane brings in honeybees to make sure he gets a good fruit set.
“That is an issue a lot of people are dealing with right now, because pollination was so tough,” said Crane. “We had a lot of cold weather and a lot of wet weather. If you had bees you were going to do better than if you didn’t.”
Now the blossoms have fallen, and the workers at Crane’s are taking measures to make sure they bear the best fruit. In the upcoming months, Crane will have to inspect every tree to make sure it’s growing a balanced crop, and then trim them as necessary.
“For the health of the tree, as well as the cider and the apple itself, you have to balance that tree out,” said Heavilin. “You can’t get greedy one year and grow a lot of fruit, because the quality of fruit will be lower, and it will offset that tree to be biannual.”
An orchard can’t afford to let that happen and risk missing a year of production from some of their trees.
“Right now, it makes it really tricky at this point to figure out from block to block which ones I have to thin and how hard, and which ones I better leave alone,” said Crane. “It’s not an easy time.”
Even then, their work won’t be done. Crane will continue regulating pests, trimming trees and insuring that the soil around them is providing the nutrients they need throughout the summer. But all that hard work is what enables Heavilin to make the best products for Crane’s.
“You have to have good fruit to make good wine or hard cider,” Heavilin said. “We can have a signature Crane’s hard cider that’s grown right here that no one else on this planet can emulate. It starts in the dirt.”

Not all cideries grow apples, but those that do have a unique control over the quality and inimitability of their product. They also have a lot more work to do all throughout the year. Over the next few months, MittenBrew will be publishing a series of articles that highlights the pre-harvest work that must be done at these tree-to-tap cideries.

Before the autumn harvest, tree-to-tap cideries like Crane’s Winery in Fennville must work closely with farm personnel to make sure the apples develop optimally for use in cider.

“As the season progresses, we can see what the changes [in the apples] are,” said Eric Heavilin, the man in charge of wines and ciders for Crane’s, “and that’s going to be a huge benefit in the long run, having the farm attached to the [cidery].”

Crane’s Orchards, which spans over 100 acres and includes 17 varieties of apples, has been growing apples since the 1880s. The orchard was purchased by the Crane family in 1916, and the Cranes have owned and operated it ever since. Over those 100 years of operation, Crane’s has expanded to include a restaurant, bakery, winery and, since November 2014, a hard cidery.

Rob Crane, owner and operator of Crane’s Orchards, will be working hard throughout the summer to make sure the trees are growing to develop the best fruit for cider. Right now, in the midst of spring, pest control and regulation are at the forefront.

“We just finished our first spray,” said Crane. “We’ve got a few scab sprays and mildew sprays coming up.”

Prior to that, when the trees were blossoming, pollination was the chief concern. Crane brings in honeybees to make sure he gets a good fruit set.

“That is an issue a lot of people are dealing with right now, because pollination was so tough,” said Crane. “We had a lot of cold weather and a lot of wet weather. If you had bees you were going to do better than if you didn’t.”

Now the blossoms have fallen, and the workers at Crane’s are taking measures to make sure they bear the best fruit. In the upcoming months, Crane will have to inspect every tree to make sure it’s growing a balanced crop, and then trim them as necessary.

“For the health of the tree, as well as the cider and the apple itself, you have to balance that tree out,” said Heavilin. “You can’t get greedy one year and grow a lot of fruit, because the quality of fruit will be lower, and it will offset that tree to be biannual.”

An orchard can’t afford to let that happen and risk missing a year of production from some of their trees.

“Right now, it makes it really tricky at this point to figure out from block to block which ones I have to thin and how hard, and which ones I better leave alone,” said Crane. “It’s not an easy time.”

Even then, their work won’t be done. Crane will continue regulating pests, trimming trees and insuring that the soil around them is providing the nutrients they need throughout the summer. But all that hard work is what enables Heavilin to make the best products for Crane’s.

“You have to have good fruit to make good wine or hard cider,” Heavilin said. “We can have a signature Crane’s hard cider that’s grown right here that no one else on this planet can emulate. It starts in the dirt.”

Dan Young of Tandem Ciders sits down with Pat Evans to discuss the growing Michigan cider scene, and to talk about the inaugural Michigan Cider Week.

GRAND RAPIDS — This isn’t your ever so popular sweet apple juice with the word ‘hard’ thrown into the mix, these hard ciders that are easy to find.

Where did traditional hard cider go? Cider that isn’t sweet, that isn’t ‘fruity’ and that certainly isn’t classified as a ‘feminine’ drink.

Somewhere during the last 200 years hard cider has lost it’s roots. Even Jason Lummen’s wife, in 2009, claimed, “No one is going to drink just cider”.

Not to say things don’t improve with age and more practice, but there’s something more raw and rigid about cider’s history that Lummen, owner of The Peoples Cider Co., was drawn to.

After an inspiring trip to London, Lummen set out to rebirth his father-in-law’s homebrewing system. He set out to create a hard cider like those he loved across the pond. Something with more masculinity and dryness — something that makes a perfect wingman to any hard liquor, or something that can stand alone that won’t leave you with dreaded gut rot.

The Peoples Cider Co. conspired from an involuntary happy dance that Lummen’s body experienced after he drank his first sip of bourbon barrel aged cider. You too can experience your involuntary happy dances — every cider made by Peoples sits cozily in bourbon barrels months before it hits your lips.

“It is the paths paved by Bell’s and Founders for craft beer that has inspired me as well,” says Lummen.

“Without this great local craft beer and local supportive community, my success wouldn’t be where it is at.”

Nor would his wife be challenged to experiment with different infusions to create sought after unique one off varieties of Peoples Cider.

And Peoples Cider is just that — for the people by the people. Everything involved is all local, from the apples, barrels and glassware — it’s all made with Michigan love.

And recently, Peoples Cider expanded its love for Michigan, by setting up shop at Fulton Street Farmer’s Market, taking advantage of a state law allowing visitors to sample its cider while shopping for delicious local produce.

Peoples Cider is at the market on Saturdays during the winter, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. But it also runs shop at 600 Maryland Ave. in Grand Rapids, and is open to the public Wed. to Fri. 4-8 p.m. and Saturday from 2-5 p.m.

Just off of the corner of Mound and Chicago in Warren, you will find the humble and hidden Kuhnhenn Brewing Company bustling at capacity most days of the week.

In that brewery, you’ll discover the Kuhnhenn family still doing business in their original location.

The location where Eric Sr. ran his hardware store. The location where brothers Bret and Eric began selling homebrew supplies and eventually the beer being drank today. Kuhnhenn Brewing Company started out as, and still remains, a family owned business in the Old Village of Warren.

Where a hardware store once served a generation of fixers and doers, the brewery now serves a generation full of craft beer drinkers in a different manner.

Beginnings

During the 1990s, Brett and Eric Kuhnhenn took over operations of Lutz True Value from their dad, Eric Sr. Their management of the store coincided with their new found hobby of brewing.

Unfortunately, it also coincided with the opening of many big-box home improvement stores in the area, putting a strain on their business. Foreseeing how the story would play out, Bret and Eric started selling homebrew supplies out of the store, eventually converting it fully to homebrew supply retail shop in 1998.

“There was a time where you could get your screen repaired and get a beer. You could wait for your screen and drink,” explained Bret Kuhnhenn. “It was hard to give up the sales of the hardware shop. In the beginning, hardly anyone would come in.”

In 2001, the brothers officially launched the brewery. But not without the hard fought battle of convincing their father it was the way to go.

“He was against it. He did not like that idea,” Bret said. “We had to drive him around the local breweries and at the time there weren’t very many. We drove him to the local places to get the experience.

“I think after the third place we finally convinced him.”

Supply

As the brewery came of age, so did the beers. Brews like Simcoe Silly and Penetration Porter have been around since the beginning, while newer and award winning beers like DRIPA and 4D have helped round out their flagships and truly establish the Kuhnhenn name.

Jon Piepenbrok, VP of Marketing and Sales for Kuhnhenn Brewing Co., said the brewery’s reputation often precedes itself, especially with its customer base.

“While we may appear to be huge, 99.99% of people who come through these doors think we’re so much bigger than we are,” he said. “We’ve kind of unintentionally had this puffer fish or peacock attitude without even realizing it.”

For comparison, Piepenbrok used Founders Brewing Co. as a basis.

“Last year we produced right around 2,000 barrels of beer. This year we’re on track to produce somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 barrels,” he said. “If you compare that to Founders, for example, if I’m not mistaken they’re close to 200,000. So we’re just a fraction the size of Founders. And still just a drop in the bucket compared to ABI or Miller-Coors.”

Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. also feels they face certain geographical challenges that the west Michigan breweries may not.

“In southeast Michigan, it’s been a little more difficult,” Piepenbrok said. “I’ve said throughout my time in the industry, the west side of the state is at least five to seven years ahead of where we’re at in Detroit.”

However, Piepenbrok feels the tide may be turning in their favor.

“Something really strange has happened over the last two years especially,” he said. “The west side of the state has seen it gradually increasing over the last four to six years. Metro Detroit has only really seen it the last 18 to 24 months.”

Along with the perception of being a large brewery, Kuhnhenn is also dealing with the old economic principle of supply and demand. While supply has remained on the same trajectory, the demand trajectory has skyrocketed.

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Demand

Because of the production pinch they’re in, the brewery has answered with the purchasing and revamping of a new facility in Clinton Township. But the expansion hasn’t come without its hold ups.

“Anyone who’s ever embarked on an expansion project or any type of construction effort can tell you whenever you think you’re going to open, it’s going to be way later than that,” Piepenbrok said. “Because we’re such a heavily regulated industry there are so many additional governmental bodies that have a say on what we do on a daily basis, it definitely adds challenges.”

Originally scheduled for a 2014 opening, the new Clinton Township location, formerly a home and garden center, will feature a full view into the brewhouse and bottling line, as well as a huge outdoor patio. The brewpub and production facility will feature a full kitchen with a concept menu of gourmet sausages and sides.

“With the production brewery open, that location will produce our core brands not only for distribution, but for both pubs as well,” Piepenbrok said. “That includes DRIPA, Fluffer, Penetration Porter, Loonie Kuhnie, Simcoe Silly, White Devil and maybe a handful of others.

“The Warren brewery will focus on single-batch beers, draft only and more experimental beers.”

Even with the new facility poised to open in 2015, Pipenbrok said it will merely help keep up with the demand Kuhnhenn is facing.

“We’re at capacity now. There’s literally no more physical space in [the Warren] building, which is why we needed the expansion to the new facility,” he said. “Probably within five years of opening the new brewery, we’ll already need another facility. Because there’s no end in sight for the growth of craft beer and locally produced beer as long as it’s good. And we’ll continue to make good beers.”

Beers so good, Piepenbrok and the rest of the crew aren’t shy when it comes to talking about quality.

“I like to walk the fine line of confidence and arrogance. Arrogance is ugly, no one likes that. But, there’s nothing wrong with being confident in what you do and what you produce,” he said. “I have no qualms saying we produce some of the best beers in the world.”

Not only good beers, but meads as well. With the rise of meads across the country, Kuhnhenn plans to stay ahead of the curve.

“We bought two 1,000 gallon fermenters to expand our mead production, with the possibility of using our other fermenters for production,” Bret said. “I see us in the future as possibly being one of the largest mead producers there is.”

Bottling and distribution are very much on the radar for Kuhnhenn. Currently, the brewery does special releases every so often throughout the year. The hold-up for the brewery is the measly four beer bottle filler, which also requires four people to run it.

“We’re, on average, filling nine bottles a minute. We’re talking a ridiculous amount of man hours. There’s a physical toll on our guys,” Piepenbrok said. “They’re waiting on the new place to open because of this sexy new bottling line we have over there, which will bottle up to 250 bottles a minute with three guys running it.”

In order to get ready for a 2015 opening, Piepenbrok said its all hands on deck to get things ready.

“We’re still a very small, family owned company. And the owners are involved on a daily basis,” he said. “Most of the hours of the week, Bret and Eric are over at the new facility getting their hands dirty, wrenching on equipment, installing plumbing, running electrical. That’s what we do. We do what needs to be done.”

Roots

While the brewery’s collective eye is on the prize of growing the Kuhnhenn name and getting their beers into the hands of more consumers, the corner of Mound and Chicago will always be home.

“It’s amazing to think that we’re coming from this little pub on the corner of the Village in Warren with a tiny little brew system to going full-scale production,” Piepenbrok said.

“We want people to know where we’re from. This is the Michigan mentality, this is the Detroit mentality, the Macomb County mentality. We’re hard working, blue collared and that’s not a dirty word. That just means we make things and we’re passionate about making them. We don’t do jobs half-assed. We start things and we finish them. We’re just a bunch of normal dudes making some good beers.”

GRAND RAPIDS — Andy Sietsema is not one to toot his own horn — he even told us that. We had to drag out of him all the good work he does, and it’s well worth noting.

Apple farmer, businessman and driving force behind Sietsema Orchards and cider, he is a family man who loves what he does and shares his successes with those who could benefit from it. “We know that we are very fortunate, and it wasn’t always like that. When we needed help, people helped us — what goes around comes around,” Sietsema shares.

The community at large is important to the Sietsema family — that’s just how they were raised. Apples are regularly donated, for a variety of causes, from school groups to fundraisers to the JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes. Space in the orchards and time have also been generously given for Suburba’s JDRF fundraiser dinner — a cause advocated by the owners of Ada restaurant and fully supported by Sietsema Orchards.

Donations for Christmas dinner to Forgotten Man Ministries carries a history. “My grandfather started donating apples to them. We always do Christmas dinner,” says Sietsema.

Apples make delicious hard apple cider, and the Orchard turns its fermented product into charitable giving as well. Recently, they’ve teamed up with Mercy Health-Saint Mary’s to raise money for their labor and delivery unit, a cause very near and dear to Sietsema’s heart.

“All my daughters were born there. All five of them, though now we only have four. I had a daughter pass away shortly after birth — she would have been three this fall,” he explains.

With a special, limited edition cider called ‘Maggie’s Reserve’ made of a variety of heirloom apples you can’t get anywhere else in the country, Sietsema honors his daughter and provides funding to the hospital that helped support the family through the hardest of times. This 10.5% ABV corked cider sells for $25 a bottle, with $10 of each bottle sold going to support the labor and delivery services at Saint Mary’s.

“As the quantity of heirloom apples we have grows, we envision this going statewide and raising even more awareness for Saint Mary’s,” Sietsema says.

This special, limited edition cider is available only at Sietsema Orchard’s store. Go and visit, enjoy a glass of hard cider while you explore the orchards and enjoy the surroundings in this welcoming, intimate, laid back environment and support a good cause at the same time.

MittenBrew sat down with Virtue Cider head cider maker Ryan Burk at the Downtown Market for a nice fall afternoon discussion.

While on the upstairs patio, Burk discussed cider, his background growing up in upstate New York and how he ended up at Virtue Cider and the future of the company.

Listen here:

The Mitten Cider

Virtue Cider has its work cut out.

On a nice 48-acre chunk of property in Fennville, the cider maker is trying to lead a change in perception about the fermented apple beverage.

The company’s two big barns fit on the property as if they’d been there for decades. The young sapling trees on the property are the only hint the land was only recently rescued from a potential commercial development.

It’s the cider-making operation of former Goose Island Brewery brewmaster Greg Hall. Following the Anheuser-Busch buyout of Hall’s father, John, it was a perfect opportunity for the son to branch out and pursue a project he had thought about in the years leading up to the deal.

Hall located in Michigan because of the apple growing climate and its proximity to cider-loving Chicago, a market he knows well from his years with Goose Island. Michigan is the nation’s third-largest apple producer, though it could pass New York to become the second this year. Both are well behind Washington.

Hall believes West Michigan has the chance to become the “Napa Valley of cider” because of the agricultural community that has thrived in the state. The Lake Michigan coastal region resembles the great cider regions in England, France and Spain.

Virtue’s head cider maker Ryan Burk grew up in northern New York on an orchard and explained the growing climate.

“We get an extended summer — extended fall really — where a lot of the apples are grown on the coasts,” he said. “It’s on the water, so as it gets cold outside, the warm air on the lake keeps the coastal region a little warmer a little longer so those hearty varieties can stay on the trees a little longer.”

Both in the apple growing and drinking communities, the cider industry has an uphill battle. Michigan is great for apples, however, the growth of cider-specific heirloom varieties is a work in progress. When cider was a drink of choice prior to Prohibition, orchards grew a lot of apples that we meant for cider — high in tannin and a large variety of acidity. Most consumers are familiar with “dessert apples” such as Golden Delicious and Granny Smith, but Burk said cider makers look for apples that don’t look pretty or taste great, but have high tannin, high acidity and lots of sugar.

“Those are the more interesting apples to use, that’s how we layer complexity,” he said.

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Virtue and the state’s other cider makers are working to see orchards plant more cider apples into grown. Many growers in Michigan are third and fourth generation, and some still have cider apples on their property in small quantities. Burk said those apples provide a unique twist to ciders.

“There are apples in the ground in this state that don’t exist anywhere else,” he said. “We’ve had great luck of being connected to those farmers.”

Growers are jumping on board, while drinkers are continuing to discover the complexity of cider.

“People just say cider and that somehow encompasses all of it. Just like there are a million craft beer styles, and there’s just as many cider styles,” Burk said. “There will be the person that says, ‘I don’t like cider,’ but they haven’t explored what that is. There probably is something in cider that they do like, they just haven’t tried a dry cider. Maybe they just don’t like sweet stuff.

“Maybe they really love French saisons. OK, that’s a dry beer. Maybe they should try a dry cider. It’s probably in line with their tastes and what they like.”

The company’s staples of RedStreak, Lapinette, Percheron, The Mitten and The Ledbury have popped up increasingly across the state. Burk, however, is more excited in the new Orchard series — the first of which will soon be released.

The ciders are made from apples sourced from a single Michigan orchard and fermented with wild yeast.

Virtue also is working to grow more trees onsite, eventually having thousands of trees. The Virtue orchard wouldn’t be nearly enough to satisfy the company’s demand, but it would allow for a unique estate cider.

Also in the works this winter is a hopeful project to expand the orchard’s modest tap room. Burk said they hope they’ll be able to have concerts in the near future.

For now, Virtue will continue to focus on getting consumers to taste the product.

“You just have to get it in front of people,” he said. “It’s just like what craft beer had to do and has to do. The experience, people want to come out and taste stuff and try new stuff, and we have to be on the forefront.”


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