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This Thanksgiving, raise a glass of Michigan apples

Greg Hall, Virtue Cider

Andy Sietsema, Sietsema Orchards and Cider Mill

Jason Lummen, People's Cider Co.

Beer City USA? Well, of course Grand Rapids was thrilled to grab the top spot. Increasingly excellent Michigan wines gaining notoriety outside the state? That's a good thing, too. But as you ponder what to pour at your Thanksgiving table next week, consider quaffing a glass of local hard cider, the fastest-growing craft beverage made right here in West Michigan.
Cheers to cider: According to the Michigan State University Extension, the cider industry is growing rapidly at the national level, with sales up 65 percent this year over last. Ask any of the key players in the West Michigan market, and it's clear that this age-old beverage is making a quick comeback locally, too.
Paul VanderHeide, owner of Vander Mill Cider in Spring Lake, began his operation with a 5,000-square-foot building in 2006 and produced around 500 gallons of cider that first year. "Those first couple years were pretty small," he remembers. "I was delivering kegs myself out of the back of my minivan."
But since beginning to work with a distributor in 2012 and completing a $600,000 expansion to the building early this year, Vander Mill is now on track to make over 100,000 gallons of hard cider this year, now available throughout Michigan as well as in Illinois and Ohio. The operation employs around 25 employees at peak season, eight of whom are full-time and year-round. "We're seeing a doubling of volume every year," says VanderHeide.
Greg Hall, co-founder of Virtue Cider, based in Fennville, is seeing the same explosive growth, saying the industry has experienced two years in a row of 100 percent year-over-year growth. Hall, who previously worked as the brewmaster for Chicago's Goose Island, is reminded of the early days of the craft beer movement.
"When I started in craft beer in 1988, we really had to convince drinkers that it was OK for American brewers to make European styles. People were far less adventurous with their palates. Beer drinkers thought that beer came in three flavors: light, dark, and import." Hall credits the awareness around customized, niche beverages that has resulted from craft brewers, spirit makers, and even companies like Starbucks teaching the American consumers to expect a wider range of choices – and prepping them to be more educated about their options when it comes to cider.
"Back in 2011, which seems like ages ago now, when I told people I was going to leave brewing and start making cider, a lot of people said, 'That's great - my kids love cider!'" says Hall, who responded by saying, "No, that's apple juice; we're making cider." The industry continues to remind American customers that, as Hall says, "Wine is to grape juice as cider is to apple juice."
It's a message that Jason Lummen of People's Cider in Grand Rapids tries to share with his customers as well.
"I really try to get away from calling it hard cider," says Lummen, who began making it in earnest just this spring, producing around 1500 gallons. "Cider anywhere else in the world is just cider, and apple cider is called apple juice. So saying 'hard cider' is like saying 'alcohol beer.'"
Education aside, Lummen is encouraged by the fact that customers are beginning to expect cider on draft when they walk into a bar. He says People's Cider is committed to remaining seasonal and local, with a goal of setting itself apart from some of the more mainstream national ciders made from concentrate. "We're more craft, and we're a premium product. Cider is beautifully fermentable and should be treated like a cab or merlot instead of cheapened," says Lummen.
It makes sense, then, that the next phase for his small start-up operation is to open a pub and tasting room on Jefferson Ave SE, next to Bartertown Diner. People's is shooting for a summer 2014 opening, when it would be the first urban winery in the city of Grand Rapids.
Another local producer has carved out a niche well outside the city limits. Andy Sietsema of Sietsema's Orchard is a fourth-generation apple farmer who sources and produces his cider on the farm where he grew up. Sietsema says they're new to the hard cider market, operating commercially for a year and producing around 8-10,000 gallons this year.
Though Sietsema isn't the biggest local player, it's the apples on his farm that set his product apart. "We have over 120 varieties, many of them heirloom and specifically suited for hard cider and sweet cider," he says.
That's why it's no exaggeration to say it all comes back to the Michigan apples. Hall calls the land along Lake Michigan from the southern edge of the state up to Leelanau County "the cider coast," adding that each county is full of old family farms growing ginger golds, winesaps, and varieties you don't see at the supermarket.
"We love supporting family farms and buying local apples so we can have that third-generation farm get to the fourth generation," says Hall. Virtue, which is on track to produce around 200,000 gallons this year, says cider-making is exceptionally environmentally friendly, with all the apples sourced locally and delivered in wooden crates from the '80s and '90s and the cider kept cool by cellaring it underground during fermentation – old-fashioned "technology" Hall noticed in the cider-makers in northern France that still works just fine today.
"We dump apples in our washer, press them, then the spent goes back to feed livestock, the juice we ferment, and there's almost no waste," he says. "We don't add water, we don't add heat, we don't refrigerate. So it's a very simple natural process with a very low amount of garbage and energy used."
It's this traditional process that yields a beverage that was likely the drink of choice at Thanksgiving – and every other day of the year – for the first several generations of American colonists. And it's one reason that cider is a great addition to modern Thanksgiving tables.
"Cider pairs really well with most everything," says Sietsema. "And it's authentic. The [people at the first Thanksgiving] weren't drinking beer – they were drinking cider."
Lummen thinks there's another reason it belongs on the table: being thankful for the local harvest. "It's certainly a local, harvest-based beverage," he says, "and it pairs very well with poultry. It's a great accompaniment to any meal."
"Cider does not carry a lot of the sugars that beers have, which really fill your stomach up," adds VanderHeide. "It's much more acidic, so it pairs really well with food and doesn't give you a bloated feeling like most of us get when we eat too much at Thanksgiving. It settles easier in the stomach." Then he adds: "Probably the biggest reason is that it tastes good."
Virtue, taking a cue from the traditional French mid-November release of the first wine of the season in Beaujolais Nouveau, released its special-edition Cidre Nouveau this month, its first beverage from the 2013 harvest. "This is American," says Hall. "Would you rather drink a French Gamay with Thanksgiving or an American cider?"
Cidre Nouveau and all the offerings from VanderMill, People's, and Sietsema's are widely available both in bottles and on tap around the city and the state, as well as available for tasting at each cider-maker's tasting room. But come next Thursday, as you gather around to say your thanks, the place they really belong is on your dining room table.
 Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird.
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