8.5% ABV, Draft

Appearance: Clear gold with virtually no head.
Aroma: Some cinnamon and apple.
Taste: Hint of beer flavor, but otherwise lots of fall spices…very warming.
Mouthfeel: Light to medium bodied.

You’d never know this brew was aged in Founders Backwoods Bastards barrels, as Founders Keepers is light on the tongue, crisp and clean on the taste. With just a hint of beer flavor, this brew sings fall and winter with its warming spices that pull the entire drink together. This is right up there as being one of my favorite hard ciders on the market today — if only it was bottled!

~6.6% ABV, Draft

Appearance: Looks similar to apple cider, with a small to medium head.
Aroma: Smells exactly like fresh apple pie.
Taste: Apple pie qualities, but not overly sweet.
Mouthfeel: Medium bodied with low carbonation.

A blend of Harmony’s Jackson’s Joy and Vander Mill’s hard apple cider, Autumn Joy is a semi-sweet brew that can be best described as apple pie. While the sweetness isn’t too strong, Autumn Joy is quite the fall spectacle — cinnamon and apple make this brew shine. A great introductory brew, as it’s very drinkable, but still retains the qualities of a solid beer from one of Grand Rapids’ newest breweries.

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.”

SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — With an expanded brewery and winery lineup plus more food options, VanderFest returns to West Michigan this Saturday.

The third annual event combines the best of cider to go along with specially-brewed Michigan beers infused with Vander Mill’s sweet apple cider. Although the event comes during the busiest season for cider, for the same reason the timing couldn’t be better for the Lakeshore cider mill and winery.

“It’s our season,” said Paul Vander Heide, owner of Vander Mill. “If we’re going to showcase hard ciders and collaboration beers, there’s no better time than the fall.”

Represented during the festival, which runs 4-10 p.m. at Vander Mill, 14921 Cleveland St. in Spring Lake, are:

Wineries – Ciders

  • Vander Mill
  • Northville Winery
  • Blackstar Farms
  • Uncle John’s
  • Northern Natural
  • Robinettes
  • Virtue Ciders
  • Sietsema Orchards

Breweries – Specialty Beers

  • Founders
  • New Holland
  • Arcadia
  • Greenbush
  • Old Boys
  • Oddside Ales
  • Brewery Vivant
  • Hopcat
  • Jamesport Brewing Company
  • Michigan Beer Cellar

“We’re excited about about our collaboration with new participants Founders, Arcadia and Greenbush this year,” Vander Heide said. “We have up-sized everything else — music, sound, stage.”

Founders added cider to its Pale Ale for the event, spicing it with all-spice berries fermented in two firkins. All beers use Vander Mill’s sweet cider uniquely crafted by each brewery. Vander Heide would only share the name of the Greenbush brew — VanderBush — perhaps a clue. Meanwhile, New Holland will feature two different Wit-style beers fermented in cider while Odd Side Ales takes a wheat approach.

VanderFest marks the debut of Vander Mill’s new food menu, under the direction of chef Stephanie Luke. The fall-friendly menu has four specialty macaroni and cheeses, pizza, salad and soups. All food sales are cash, including four additional vendors — Public Zeeland, Saburba, Standard Pizza Co. and What the Truck. Per tradition, free freshly baked donuts are likely to make their annual appearance.

“There might be a showing of donuts at some point in the evening,” Vander Heide said.

As for entertainment, Organisssimo and Social Bones headline the live music for the afternoon and evening. As is custom, VanderFest will also include a laser light show.

Tickets — selling online and on location at Vander Mill, Oddside Ales, Public Zeeland, Siciliano’s Market and The Winchester — are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Admission includes a printed 12-ounce festival glass with five cider/beer sample tokens with additional tokens $1 each. One token gives patrons a 6-ounce pour of beer or cider.

Proceeds from VanderFest benefit the Holland Chapter of Ambucs, an organization that creates mobility and independence for the disabled.

“This is not intended to be a money-maker for us,” Vander Heide said. “There is a local charity receiving the benefits of the money brought in.”

8.5% ABV, Draft

Appearance: Golden clear with a foamy white head.
Aroma: Hints of apple, sweet scents with an overall yeast-forward smell.
Taste: Malty, roasted with a tail end of apple. Malty dominance is well-complemented by the Belgian yeast.
Mouthfeel: Thin bodied with minimal carbonation.

This is quite the brew in that it makes me think Vander Mill has been on the brewing scene for much longer than eight months. Encompassing individual flavors without a bland feel, this beer delivers. The 20 percent cider injection works perfectly with the Belgian yeast. Vander Mill delivers again with a fruit beer (not a fruity beer).

6.5% ABV, Draft

Appearance: Cloudy golden with a medium to high foamy head.
Aroma: Fruity, sour and some slight cinnamon.
Taste: Fruity but not sweet. Apple and malts blended well.
Mouthfeel: Medium bodied and creamy.

Vander Mill’s Snakebite — a mix of cider and Half Pint Lager — is what you would expect from a lager, but rides the fence of a traditional ale. With fresh apples added into the mix, this brew holds the essence of the fruit instead of just artificial flavoring. A very balanced brew.

SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — Paul Vander Heide knows the best way to profit is to get patrons walking into the door of his West Michigan cider mill.

Donuts and desserts? Check. Hard cider for adults and regular cider for the kids? Check. Beer? Check. Food? Check.

Friday evening marked the launch of that last piece with the grand opening of Vander Mill’s kitchen.

“This is the grand unveiling of our menu,” Vander Heide said. “This is the first summer we’re doing food. We really want to encourage people to come out here to have a cider.”

The menu features food that is 100 percent local and farm fresh. Take the Michigan Grilled Cheese — cheese from Coopersville, bacon thick sliced on site and bread from the nearby Village Baker.

The menu keeps it simple: Appetizers, soups, salad and sandwiches (served with donut chips). A few of the popular sandwiches served Friday were Cider Braised Pulled Pork, Smoked Turkey, Michigan Cherry Chicken Salad and VanderLoaf.

The event was celebrated with music by Organissmo. In addition, patrons had the opportunity to try Vander Mill’s new beer, which debut at the Michigan Brewers Guild’s Winter Beer Festival in February. Currently, the store has two on tap — Half Pint Lager and Chapman’s Golden Strong.

“They’re an addition to diversify,” said Joel Brower, cider maker, brewer and operations manager.

Brower, who started as a home brewer, said the Half Pint Lager is appropriately named, as it was designed to mix with the hard apple cider (half pint of each) to create a snakebite. Meanwhile, the Chapman’s Golden Strong uses Belgian yeasts and is fermented with 20 percent apple cider.

“Adding cider fits the profile of the beer,” Brower said, saying that most fruit beers add fruit flavor at the end whereas he ferments it during the brewing process.

“Joel came into this business as a brewer,” Vander Heide said. “He understands building a beer recipe. At the same time, he knows what fruit does. We’re making fruit beers, not fruity beers.”

For Vander Heide, the diversification is reason enough to stop into Vander Mill, located at 14921 Cleveland St. The store is open during the summer Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday noon to 7 p.m.

“The biggest thing for us is we’re here to come and drink a cider, drink a beer,” he said.

SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — Cider collided with beer Saturday as Vander Mill hosted its second annual beer and cider festival.

Vander Fest serves as both a beer and hard cider festival with lots of emphasis on the cider. Now in its second year, the event featured five different cider producers this year, as well as 10 breweries with special one-offs that mixed sweet cider with beer.

“We’ve really tried to reach out throughout the state,” owner Paul Vander Heide said. “Anyone that is willing to do a one-off just for the festival we’d like to invite here to make it a very fall-centric festival.”

Participating breweries — each fermented 50 gallons of Vander Mill’s sweet apple cider with beer — included Old Boys’ Brewhouse, Odd Side Ales, New Holland Brewing Company, Jamesport Brewing Company, HopCat, Brewery Vivant, Saugatuck Brewing Company, Michigan Beer Cellar, Mount Pleasant Brewing Company and Walldorff.

Vander Fest also featured four of Vander Mill’s hard ciders on tap as well as hard ciders from Robinette’s, Black Star Farms, Northville Winery and Uncle John’s.

“We wanted to do a festival that was heavy in promoting Michigan ciders,” Vander Heide said. “A lot of the festivals around Michigan, you’ve got limited access to different cider producers.”

According to the owner, Vander Fest is the most cider-driven beer festival in the state. And with around 400 in attendance, the event shows the increasing demand for hard cider and apple-based products.

“I think it’s going to continue to increase,” Vander Heide said. “We’re just trying to do our part to raise the awareness of a great Michigan agricultural product.”

In addition to creating Vander Fest, the mill has continued its growth by increasing distribution over the past five years, including the recent purchase of new fermenting and carbonation tanks. In an effort to promote more on-site consumption, Vander Mill in July opened its more than 2,000 square-foot outdoor garden where patrons can enjoy a hard cider and deli-style lunch or dinner outdoors.

Vander Mill, 14921 Cleveland St., is en route for beachgoers to Grand Haven State Park or Ottawa County’s North Beach Park. Those taking I-96 and exiting on M-104 pass the mill on the north side of the road.

Some of the festival’s highlights:

  • Old Boys’ Apple Harvest Ale — Coming in at just over 9 percent ABV, this high-gravity Belgian ale was fruity and very drinkable. The apple aroma and taste was upfront and trailed into light hoppiness and a biscuity-malt aftertaste.
  • Odd Side Ales Apple Pie — Of the two featured “pie” brews, Odd Side wins the prize with a crisp, not overpowering flavor/aroma. Smelling just a hint of apple and spice, the taste was very well-balanced with an excellent amount of carbonation that brought it all together. The other pie brew, Michigan Beer Cellar’s Granny’s Apple Pie Spice had the right aroma, but didn’t deliver as much on the taste. Still, its tartness was quite unique.
  • New Holland aged some cider in a rum barrel, but with no carbonation it had more of a wine-like taste and feel, which certainly pleased most tasters.
  • Vander Mill’s own latest cider flavor featured was its Sangria cider. A mix of apple cider, sweet and tart cherry juices, blueberry juice, peach juice and high-proof apple brandy, this cider was yet another stroke of genius from Vander Mill.
  • Brewery Vivant fermented its Farmhand Ale with sweet cider to make a delicious one-off called Apple Barrel, aged in an oak barrel. It seemed the Belgian yeasts blended well with the cider (as with Old Boys’ brew) to make one of the day’s best beer-cider combos.
  • Saugatuck Brewing Company’s Apple Ale had plenty of apple and spice to which one member of the BrewCrew responded, “It tastes like Thanksgiving.” Guess Grandma’s famous pie does come in a liquid form.

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