TRAVERSE CITY — Hard apple cider isn't wine. And it's definitely not beer. Yet it's grabbing attention from enthusiasts on both sides of the great libation divide.
The oft-bubbly, sometimes sweet drink is brewed from fresh apple cider pressed by small producers across the country. Its characteristics are described in language familiar to wine lovers. And it's sold by the "flight" in taprooms that resemble those offered in microbreweries.
"It's made like a wine and drank like a beer," said Jennifer Mackey, director and sales manager at Northern Natural Cider House. "Slowly, over a couple of years, hard cider started showing up all over."
Since March 2013, the small Manistee-based company has operated a cider house in downtown Traverse City. It couldn't have been better timing to dive head first into an industry that has ridden a recent meteoric rise in popularity.
Today, cider fans who belly up to the Front Street bar have a chance to sip on 10 different ciders that range from a dry, English-style traditional brew, to a sweeter ones that feature pomegranate and orange infusions.
"About three years ago it grew 75 percent and last year it grew at least 85 percent," said Mike Beck, president of the U.S. Association of Cider Makers and owner of Uncle John's Cider Mill in St. Johns. "I wouldn't be surprised if we had the entire market growing at 100 percent this year."
The apple brew is created under the same licensing used by wine makers, so it's become a popular sideline business for some in the grape world, Beck said.
Recent spikes in enthusiasm for hard ciders helped Michigan market more brands of hard cider than any other state last year despite its third-place ranking for overall apple production in the United States. Sure there are a couple of big corporate producers like Woodchuck and Angry Orchard, but in the most ground breaking work probably is done by the small producers, like the handful who've made northwestern Michigan home.