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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.

SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — Envision the best fall party you have ever attended.

Then add high-quality ciders and apple-infused brews from across the Midwest, local handcrafted food, a loud rock band, and, of course, lasers.

VanderFest 2013 offered that type of party to about 600 attendees who invaded Vander Mill’s grounds in Spring Lake on Saturday evening.

Despite an early rain delay, the festival went on, attracting guests of all ages, so many, in fact, organizers were worried the slick complimentary VanderFest glasses might run out.

Celebrating its fourth year, VanderFest has developed into the go-to festival for the emerging hard cider market, a market Vander Mill is sitting atop of. Organizers say VanderFest is a perfect balance of showcasing the company’s work and introducing people to newcomers in the industry.

“It’s awesome. I am loving it,” Organizer Christina Strange said as she took in the flurry of activity around her — a bonfire to her left, the laser-dominated rock show down the hill behind her and the circus tent of hard cider tasting in front of her. “We want to make people aware of who we are and where we are. We are a local company that loves to promote and work with other local companies.”

She said Vander Mill has found a sustainable niche in the market: Not too sweet like some national hard cider brands, yet not so dry that the fruit taste is sacrificed.

“You can have more than one without being overwhelmed by sweetness,” Strange said.

Her assessment was spot-on. A taste of Chapman’s Blend (6.8% ABV), a semi dry cider with mild carbonation, was pleasing but not too sweet.

Another notable cider at the festival was Ida Gold (4.8% ABV) from Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay. The cider was very refreshing and sweet with a golden complexion.

Old Boys’ Brewhouse in Spring Lake and the new Big Lake Brewing Company in Holland also featured special brews incorporating an apple ingredient.

Ondrea Kamp and her husband, Matt, visited VanderFest for the first time and were impressed by the atmosphere the event offered. Her group agreed they would come back next year.

“A lot of people were quite friendly,” Ondrea said. “It’s a good couples event.”

Vander Mill Owner Paul Vander Heide and his wife, Amanda, enjoyed VanderFest with the rest of the crowd. Like Strange, Vander Heide said collaborating with breweries, wineries and cideries makes VanderFest one of the best events along the lakeshore.

“We want to get as many of those people as we can,” he said.

SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — Envision the best fall party you have ever attended.

Then add high-quality ciders and apple-infused brews from across the Midwest, local handcrafted food, a loud rock band, and, of course, lasers.

VanderFest 2013 offered that type of party to about 600 attendees who invaded Vander Mill’s grounds in Spring Lake on Saturday evening.

Despite an early rain delay, the festival went on, attracting guests of all ages, so many, in fact, organizers were worried the slick complimentary VanderFest glasses might run out.

Celebrating its fourth year, VanderFest has developed into the go-to festival for the emerging hard cider market, a market Vander Mill is sitting atop of. Organizers say VanderFest is a perfect balance of showcasing the company’s work and introducing people to newcomers in the industry.

“It’s awesome. I am loving it,” Organizer Christina Strange said as she took in the flurry of activity around her — a bonfire to her left, the laser-dominated rock show down the hill behind her and the circus tent of hard cider tasting in front of her. “We want to make people aware of who we are and where we are. We are a local company that loves to promote and work with other local companies.”

She said Vander Mill has found a sustainable niche in the market: Not too sweet like some national hard cider brands, yet not so dry that the fruit taste is sacrificed.

“You can have more than one without being overwhelmed by sweetness,” Strange said.

Her assessment was spot-on. A taste of Chapman’s Blend (6.8% ABV), a semi dry cider with mild carbonation, was pleasing but not too sweet.

Another notable cider at the festival was Ida Gold (4.8% ABV) from Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay. The cider was very refreshing and sweet with a golden complexion.

Old Boys’ Brewhouse in Spring Lake and the new Big Lake Brewing Company in Holland also featured special brews incorporating an apple ingredient.

Ondrea Kamp and her husband, Matt, visited VanderFest for the first time and were impressed by the atmosphere the event offered. Her group agreed they would come back next year.

“A lot of people were quite friendly,” Ondrea said. “It’s a good couples event.”

Vander Mill Owner Paul Vander Heide and his wife, Amanda, enjoyed VanderFest with the rest of the crowd. Like Strange, Vander Heide said collaborating with breweries, wineries and cideries makes VanderFest one of the best events along the lakeshore.

“We want to get as many of those people as we can,” he said.

SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — Call it clever or call it cliché, but a look at the fruits of their labor was appropriate Monday for Vander Mill Cider and Winery owners Amanda and Paul Vander Heide.

The cider mill is producing 200 times more hard cider than cider-maker/brewer Joel Brower’s first year of producing hard cider. What was 500 gallons then has doubled every year with the cider mill expected to produce 100,000 gallons this year.

“The growth is obviously very exciting for us and for other people to see,” Amanda Vander Heide said. “We have definitely put in a lot of our personal money, time.

“It’s been a lot of ups and downs, so it’s become very personal to us. It’s exciting that it has gone where it’s gone.”

Vander Mill opened in September 2006 and began producing hard cider in 2008. The cider makers essentially own the Chicago cider scene (and Chicago loves its cider) and are one of the most well known and highest producing cider mills in the Great Beer State.

This year, Vander Mill invested $600,000 in an expansion that included 3,000 square feet off the backside of its building, adding four fermenters (130-barrels each), three brite tanks (900 gallons each), a lab and two offices. The business also added a canning line.

“This year with this level of investment, we will be close to three times the volume of last year,” Paul Vander Heide said. “I’ve always said my primary goal on this business is first and foremost to support my family and, second, to try to realize all the opportunity that is reasonably in front of me.

“We see that there is more opportunity. We are taking some near term steps to create opportunity for future investment.”

Vander Mill’s latest expansion wrapped up in March in time to begin use of its canning line in early April. Three mainstay ciders — Blue Gold, Apple and Totally Roasted — were the first to hit retail shelves in late April. Sales have proven to be more than favorable.

“The cans have been a great success,” Amanda Vander Heide said.

“So far it’s gone really well,” her husband added. “The can packaging allowed us to get our price point down. Canning is a very unique thing to do in the cider world.”

Vander Mill cider sells in four-packs of 16-ounce cans. The Vander Heides said they plan to add a fourth option in cans by spring, starting with its mainstay Ginger Peach. Other mainstays like Apple Cherry and Apple Raspberry will be put in rotation before some specialties are added to the canning line. In the meantime, Chapman’s Blend and various cysers will be released in large bottles.

A number of other specialties will be rolling out in the next few months at the mill.

This month, Cyser VanDoom, a cyser aged in imperial IPA barrels is being released. Another barrel-aged product will be mass released. The cider maker is currently aging 70 barrels of a cider aged with Michigan wild flower honey in New Holland Dragon’s Milk barrels, to be distributed throughout Michigan and Illinois.

An additional collaboration with New Holland will use Vander Mill’s sweet cider with a beer to be distributed in four pack, 12-ounce bottles in 18 states.

“It will start to tickle the markets where we aren’t at yet with our brand name,” Paul Vander Heide said. “I feel like it’s good for both of us (New Holland and Vander Mill). To do a collaboration to this size with a cidery has not been done with a microbrewery to my knowledge.”

As Vander Mill expands in its existing market and gets its name out into multiple other markets, the greatest hurdle is waiting for the overall cider market to grow. According to Paul Vander Heide, cider comprises just .3 percent of the beverage market with analysts seeing it grow almost 100 times to around two percent in the next decade.

“It’s a very young, young category — we were fortunate to be in it when there weren’t many in it,” he said. “We’re ahead of the curve.

“There are definitely a lot of markets out there. Cider still has a long way to go before it’s mainstream.”

As the cider market grows, Vander Mill is poised to grow with it. The combination of the husband-wife duo and cider-maker/brewer Brower has already shown there are fruits of their labors.

“Limitation is always time, capital and having the physically manage growth,” Paul Vander Heide said. “For us it’s not so much limited by sales, it’s how fast can you grow a healthy organization.”

Vander Mill is located at 14921 Cleveland Street in Spring Lake Township.