As the last few weeks of summer pass by, it’s time to start thinking of cozier thoughts and crunching leaves.
This means trips to the apple orchard, hayrides, donuts, and apple cider for many Michiganders. Although apple orchards are commonly thought of as simply a fall tourist destination, they have more to offer the state throughout the year than you might think. Regional cideries, like West Michigan’s Vander Mill, depend on local orchards to supply them with large quantities of quality fruit for year-round cider production.
Michigan’s climate and geography provide great conditions for hard-working apple growers to produce quality, flavorful fruit. The state, known worldwide for its tasty apples, ranks third in apple production in the U.S., with more than one billion pounds of apples harvested in 2016. There are more than 11.3 million apple trees in commercial production across the state, covering 35,500 acres on 825 family-run farms, including orchards right here in West Michigan. Apples generate almost $293.5 million in gross income, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research.
While Michigan is third in quantity, many believe the flavor of Michigan-grown apples to be the best in the world. Sunshine provides the energy trees need to produce flavorful, sweet fruit. Moderate night temperatures regulate fruit growth, and the right balance of moisture helps trees yield good-sized apples. Documented by Michigan Apple News in “Nothing Compares to Michigan Apples,” the Fruit Ridge is “the area from Grand Rapids to Hart along the shores of Lake Michigan with ideal nutrient-rich soil in which apple trees thrive.”
The rise in popularity of craft beverages in the last 20 years has fueled a cultural and industrial revolution within the beverage industry. The current demand for diverse and locally-produced beverages has resulted in the reemergence of hard cider as an alternative to beer and wine. The Michigan apple industry’s rich history and established infrastructure positions it to capitalize on the recent groundswell of interest in hard cider.
In 2015, the hard cider industry in the U.S. generated more than $430 million in sales, and it now represents one of the fastest-growing sectors within the craft beverage industry. This growth is reflected by the increase in hard cider drinkers, from 6.8 million in 2008 to 24.5 million in 2016. According to “Apple Cultivars for Production of Hard Cider in Michigan” in Michigan State University’s Fall 2017 Extension Bulletin, Michigan supports the second-largest number of cider producers nationwide. It sits just behind New York and in a prime position to dominate the national cider scene.
AN APPLE A DAY
Vander Mill takes full advantage of its location within the Fruit Ridge. Paul and Amanda Vander Heide started the cidery in 2006. Their vision wasn’t elaborate: a small-town cider mill where people could feel at home. What started as a small and regionally-distributed product, the Vander Mill hard cider brand quickly gained a strong customer base, causing a production facility expansion in 2012. Greater regional distribution demanded further growth, and a new production facility and tap room was opened in Grand Rapids in 2016. Today, Vander Mill distributes to Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Vander Mill presses only the best Michigan apples for its ciders. It works with Dietrich Orchards, a family apple farm located in Conklin. Dietrich is run by fourth-generation apple farmers, and produces some of the best fruit in the country. Vander Mill cider is never pasteurized and does not have added preservatives. The cidery offers packaged and draft cider with a more recent focus on 12-ounce cans, a hugely popular package for craft cider and beer alike. Clocking in at a sessionable 4.3 percent alcohol by volume, one of its newest brands, Vandy Session Cider, has been a great source of pride and success for the company. In fact, the cidery’s website claims that “Vandy is the answer to the old adage of ‘an apple a day.’ It’s a cider that blends the crisp and clean flavor of fermented apples with the fresh harvest of those just pressed.”
MICHIGAN CIDER IS ON THE MAP
Vander Mill is involved in the cider scene on a national level as well. In February 2018, the U.S. Association of Cider Makers (USACM) elected Paul Vander Heide as its president. The USACM is an organization of cider and perry producers with a mission to grow a diverse and successful national cider industry. It provides valuable information, resources, and services to its members and advocates on their behalf. On the USACM board since February 2016, Paul has served as committee chair for USACM’s Certified Cider Professional program, a cider credentials program similar to “cicerone” for beer. Vander Heide also sits on the boards of the Michigan Cider Association and the Cider Institute of North America.
“My goal as board president is to listen to our members and my fellow directors,” said Vander Heide. “We are a big tent organization, so hearing many diverse viewpoints on how USACM can help grow cider’s market share will only help us.”
Paul Vander Heide and Vander Mill have helped put Michigan cider on the map. With the growing Grand Rapids-based hard cider producer making more than 250,000 gallons a year, and with further growth planned in its future, cider lovers can look forward to a renewed focus on education offered to Vander Mill’s service professionals, buyers at beer bars, bartenders, and retail staff under Paul’s leadership at USACM. Look for Vander Mill ciders available statewide in Michigan, perfect for the coming fall months and all year.
Charlotte Young is Creative & PR Manager at Imperial Beverage, a long-standing member of the Michigan beverage distribution community. Established in 1933 after the repeal of Prohibition and purchased by Kalamazoo’s Cekola family in 1984, Imperial has grown from a one-county beer distributor to a Top 10 statewide beer, wine, and spirits wholesaler. With 330 employees and three locations in Kalamazoo, Livonia, and Traverse City, Imperial provides statewide coverage that serves every Michigan county, every week, all year long.