Wednesday, July 25, 2012

[EID Feature] This Cider House Rules: Tandem Ciders

Dan Young, owner of Tandem Ciders. All photos from Tandem Ciders.
When you think about "hard ciders," your first thought is probably that sickly-sweet alcoholic apple juice from the likes of Woodchuck and Strongbow, multinational corporate producers that make all of their ciders from apple juice concentrate and flavor it with -- what else? -- more apple juice concentrate. This is akin to forming your entire opinion of wine based on Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers. Cider -- as in "the hard stuff," as in the real stuff - can be as delicate and nuanced as a fine wine, and we Michiganders are in a unique position to appreciate the majesty of the fermented apple.

"One measure [of the growing craft cider industry] is that now the large conglomerate beverage companies are adding ciders to their product portfolios," explains Gary Awdey, president of the Great Lakes Cider and Perry Association. "But what I find much more encouraging is the increase in the number of small craft producers, and that’s somewhere that Michigan really excels. Michigan and the Great Lakes region is really the major cider region in North America. It doesn’t reflect in the volume of sales but is a good representation of the true variety that is being offered. There is a higher density of craft cider producers [here] than in other areas. Michigan residents have much easier day trips to cideries."

As the country’s second- or third-largest apple-producing state (depending on who you ask), Michigan is home to hundreds of different varieties of apples, from the table standards to rare antique and heirloom varietals. We also currently have the largest number of craft cider producers in the country. Many wineries and breweries are getting into the cider game as an alternative to beer and wine, and there are also larger-scale operations focused entirely on hard cider production. Unlike most beer and spirit producers, which are still forced to buy much of their hops and grain from out of state, Michigan ciders are made with Michigan apples picked and pressed by Michigan people running Michigan businesses for Michigan customers. Michigan’s craft ciders are dry, delicate, and above all else wholly Michigan.

Tandem Ciders opened in October 2008 on the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan. As part of the Leelanau Wine Trail, they had a lot of explaining to do that first year of business when people came in looking for Riesling. But all of that is changing, says owner and cider maker Dan Young (who owned Tandem with his wife Nikki Rothwell). "Customer perceptions are changing from, 'What is this?' to 'Hey, this is great to have a cider!'" he says. "We'll ask people, 'Hey, are you tasting wine today?' [and they'll say] 'No, we're here for cider.' It's not just wine drinkers who run into us."

They'll still get confused consumers wandering in wondering if it's "like beer," but they're easily converted. Dan has had customers thank him for making cider and giving them another drinking option ... one that is "like beer" in that it is carbonated (usually--Dan also makes a flat cider available only in the tasting room) but also offers a different flavor profile, is naturally gluten-free and lower in alcohol (unless fortified with brandy--Dan makes one of those too), pairs well with food but can just as easily be enjoyed on its own, and has the complexity of wine and the body of beer while being something different altogether. Plus, it's perfect year-round. "People are realizing this is another drinking option and it's good to have."

And the best part is, it's truly local, utilizing all Michigan fruits. While many other cider makers will incorporate other fruits into their ciders (like raspberry or cranberry), Tandem uses exclusively apples (though they do make a "perry" -- cider made from pears -- in the fall). Dan wants each product to be an expression of the apples he uses, whether traditional cider apples like Sheep's Nose and Fameuse, classic table apples like Northern Spy and Red Delicious, antique apples, even crab and wild apples. Dan notes that there is much more awareness of ciders now, which he attributes to the growing craft beer movement. "20 years ago when microbrews came out it was a hard sell because people had no way to wrap their heads around it," he says. "[Now breweries like Short's and Right Brain are experimenting with different flavored beers] and people see something made from apples and say, 'Oh hey, great!'"

Dan also attributes cider's popularity with Michigan's rich agricultural heritage and Michiganders' inherent connection to the land, with agriculture as Michigan's second-largest industry. "... Michigan is known for its huge manufacturing base. Agriculture has been overshadowed by manufacturing [but is still a huge part of people's lives here]."

Tandem works with several local growers on Leelanau for the many different varieties of apples they use in their ciders. They've recently planted 12 different varieties of traditional hard cider apples and have their growers planting more traditional varieties for them, in addition to the heirloom and heritage varieties they also use. "Cider fruit is interesting -- [the apples] taste horrible when you bite into them; they're very tannic. But once they're fermented it leaves a lot more body and depth behind."

They'll continue making ciders out of popular table varieties too; their hottest seller is the Smackintosh, made predominantly with the same household staple Macintosh apples everyone knows and loves. "People just connect to that and remember their childhood stopping at the cider mill and eating those Macintosh apples."

In addition to the Smackintosh, which has a lot of residual sugar, Tandem makes a variety of different ciders highlighting different flavor profiles from the bone-dry Crabster (made with crab and wild apples) to the moderately dry Farmhouse (classic cider apples) and the semi-sweet and highly complex Early Day (a blend of six cider and table varieties).

Because of the unseasonably warm weather the state experienced in March followed by frost in April, Michigan has reported losses of upwards of 90% of their apple crops for the year (though actual growers say it's more like 75% statewide -- still huge). Up in Leelanau, they still have about 40% of their crop. What does this mean for the cider industry? "It's not going to be a big growth year," Dan says. "We're not going to be making any extra." He adds that last year's crop was so abundant he was able to make enough so that he will still have plenty to sell throughout this year and keep his business going.

"[Sometimes] there's apples coming out of everywhere and we don't have enough boxes to put them in, and some varietals are known for being really biennial. Downstate was hit really hard for fruit but I think we'll be okay," adding that it's the major producers who supply corporate chains like Meijer and McDonald's who are scrambling. Dan at least is resourceful. "Last year we picked a lot of wild apples. We picked some that were incredibly tasty and some that were incredibly tannic and bitter [but made for great cider]. We're already marking wild trees [for this year] and will definitely be doing more of that."

As one of Michigan's largest dedicated hard cider producers, Tandem is still by no means a massive operation and distribution remains limited, but southeast Michiganders can find their products at the Produce Station in Ann Arbor and the MI General Store in Ypsilanti. Many of their products are only available on draft in the Leelanau tasting room, as if you really need another reason to visit northern Michigan this year. (You do. It's this.) And hey, this place is something Mario Batali and I can agree on.