BY NATHAN PAYNE
---- — 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.
"The artisan producers are pretty much leaving the sweet end of the market for the big boys," Beck said.
The larger producers make their cider from apple-juice concentrate and brew batches all year from the relatively stable syrup. But small craftsmen like Beck only can brew new batches until their apple supply runs dry.
"We have a little bit more leeway than grape producers do," he said. "I have apples in cold storage and pressed last Friday. They'll probably last for some people until July."
Beck has spent the 13 years since he started brewing hard cider spreading word of the business to other orchard owners that they are leaving money on the table when they ship the majority of their fall apple harvest to processing plants.
"I knew I couldn't change people's minds all by myself, so I encouraged others to get into it," Beck said. "We can make some great ciders out of apples grown right here in the state."
Cider makers like Northern Naturals, Tandem Ciders near Suttons Bay, Crows Hard Cider in Northport and Left Foot Charley Urban Winery in Traverse City all have capitalized on the market that now claims three percent of the national beer market.
Some of them grow a few apple trees of their own while others buy apples from their neighbors.
Dan Young, co-founder of Tandem Ciders, made a pretty big leap six years ago when he left the beer industry to open a cidery. Young spent most of his time during the early years trying to spread the word about cider. Small producers have for some time now marketed the drink as a gluten-free alternative to beer.
Today the challenges for the industry are changing. Makers looking for more complex flavors and more traditional European ciders have been limited by a relatively stunted number of apple varieties available in the United States.
"We've gone from our first year trying to explain to people what we were doing to not doing a whole lot of that now," he said. "Any apple will make a cider, but to make world class ciders, you need cider specific fruit."
Some of that fruit already was available on trees in Michigan, according to Beck. Varieties you wouldn't see in the grocery store like Northern Spy and Rhode Island Greening both are grown here and make good cider. But for brewers to create the more tannin-rich ciders available in Great Britain and France, they must convince apple growers to plant different trees.
"The true cider apples, you wouldn't like to eat," Young said.
He recently convinced a neighboring farmer to plant 1,500 trees that will produce cider-specific apples. It's the next step in growing his annual hard-cider production. This year Young will make about 10,000 gallons of his brews, up from about 3,000 in the early years.
Still, Young has trouble keeping taps flowing late in the summer when the year's produce has run out and the next apple crop still hangs on the trees.
And each maker, much like each craft brewer in the beer world, has taken on a specific style. Young tends to favor the drier end of the spectrum with more traditional brews.
Meanwhile, some makers like Ben Crow of Crows Hard Cider have begun to branch out into more experimental territory.
"I bring some of my culinary background into my hard ciders," said Crow, a former chef.
His taproom features ciders infused with chai, coffee and hops. One of the most popular brews Crow makes is aged in rye whiskey barrels, he said.
And with enthusiastic new brewers diving into the growing industry, Mike Beck hopes that someday soon beer connoisseurs and wine lovers will find a six pack of their favorite craft-brewed hard cider sitting on store shelves right next to the region's best craft beer.