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.

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 — Cider throughout the U.S. is booming. But in Michigan?

“It’s been pretty fast [growing] for a good three years running now,” said Paul Vander Heide, president of the Michigan Cider Association (MCA) and owner of Vander Mill in Spring Lake.

The Michigan cider industry is growing so fast that Vander Heide teamed up with several other cider producers from across the state, to produce the first-ever Michigan Cider Week, which ran through Sunday.

The week culminated with the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, April 10-12.

“A lot of Michigan producers that are here are experiencing growth rates beyond what national producers are,” said Vander Heide, pointing to the fact that national producers are receiving average growth rates of 60-70 percent, while Michigan producers are often far exceeding that number.

The week-long event, held in Grand Rapids, highlighted the MCA’s 12 producer members, as part of in-store tastings, education seminars and cider dinners, all of which introduced new and interesting ciders to the public.

According to Vander Heide, creativity is blossoming and helping to form new cider drinkers state-wide.

“Dry hopping is becoming really popular; we’re seeing a lot of producers start to use hops and we’re seeing a lot more creativity,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of success in the consumer really enjoying that — people are seeking something a little different.”

While sweet ciders are still very much prevalent in the industry, producers are starting to make ciders that incorporate new flavors.

Blake’s Hard Cider Co., which entered the market roughly a year and a half ago, has already started to feature ciders towards this new group of cider drinkers, featuring Wakefire (Michigan cherries / orange peel) and El Chavo (habanero / mango) ciders throughout the week.

“Right now, people are really up for experimenting and trying new things — whatever’s new and exciting,” said Dave Blake, Manager at Blake’s Hard Cider Co. in Armada. “I think it’s fun that we can experiment with a lot of those new flavors.”

Other cider producers highlighted during the week included Tandem Ciders (Suttons Bay), Uncle John’s Hard Cider Cider (St. John’s), Sietsema’s Hard Cider (Ada), The Peoples Cider Co. (Grand Rapids) and FarmHause Cider Co. (Hudsonville).

For more information on the Michigan Cider Association and its upcoming events, visit michiganciders.com.

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.”

SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — Knowing the quality of Michigan apples, Paul Vander Heide is investing in the superiority of Michigan fruit.

It’s not just buying apples from local farmers that has the owner of Vander Mill Cider and Winery investing — now he is investing in the farmers who produce the fruit.

Along with three other hard cider makers, Vander Heide has recently formed the Michigan Cider Association, a non-profit association with a two-fold purpose. MCA is a registered non-profit in the state and waiting federal processing.

“We’re going to be doing work within the Michigan agricultural industry, reaching out the different growers and trying to explain to Michigan apple growers what kind of things we are looking for as cider producers,” Vander Heide said. “(What we are looking for) may be different than what they’re used to producing for, which is largely the fresh market.”

The second purpose of MCA is to pool the resources of hard cider producers in an effort to educate consumers, according to Vander Heide who acts as president of the Association. He is joined by Nikki Rothwell of Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay, Andrew Blake of Blake Farms and Andy Sietsema of Sietsema Orchards and Cider Mill in Ada. But MCA is open to more members, especially on the Mitten’s east side.

“We’re really looking for folks that are energized to use time and resources making this collective effort worthwhile,” Vander Heide said. “So many times in business, you’ll see an association or guild with not a lot coming out of it. We want to make it worthwhile. We think the opportunity is there.”

The opportunity MCA hopes to capitalize requires building relationships with farmers.

“We’ve noticed that the farming community is kind of old school in the way it does business — establishing those relationships is very meaningful,” Vander Heide said. “We may be asking them to change the type of crop that they’re planting.

“It takes a good amount of trust because it takes a good amount of investment for them, both in time and in capital to start changing over to crops that may be more cider specific and less interesting, or less marketable in the fresh market.”

Step one to firming this relationship with apple growers will be an event MCA is hosting during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo in downtown Grand Rapids on Dec. 9-11.

“We’re going to reach out to all of our growers,” Vander Heide said. “We’re going to bring cider makers and apple growers into one room. And just start to network with each other — talk about needs and how they differ for cider.”

The idea, Vander Heide explained, is to educate small orchards in a way that optimizes crop growing for both the apple producers and cider makers. Hard cider usually requires sweeter apples than typically sold in a grocery store. The right level of acid and tannins also help produce better cider.

Overall, MCA hopes to create a team approach with farmers.

“Apple farming in Michigan has become very much commodity-based,” he said. “That really puts a strain on the smaller orchards.

“This is a real opportunity for some diversification for things apple farmers know how to do — grow fruit.  If they have another outlet in a growing industry like cider, then that’s good for everybody.”

Nationally, Michigan ranks third in apple production and the state is a national leader in the growing hard cider market.

“We have a lot of producers coming up, we’ve got a thriving wine industry, which really helps encourage people to get into cider,” Vander Heide said. “There’s no doubt Michigan has some of the best fruit in the world.

“We’ve got very rich soil, we’ve got a lot of natural irrigation. Some of these other apple-growing states, they might produce a lot of apples, but it’s heavily irrigated. We’ve noticed, in having some history with out-of-state apples, Michigan really has the ability to a supply a superior quality product. “

For now, MCA is focused on the upcoming Fruit Expo. The Association will follow up with Michigan Cider Week, April 6-11, 2015, which culminates with the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, April 10-13. The Michigan Cider Association hopes to engage the competition event in a way that includes more consumers and increases public appeal — not merely relegating it to just a competition in small room.

Supporters of the Michigan Cider Association can like the organization on its Facebook Page.


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