Heading north again. And not since I moved to Chicago from Pennsylvania about 10 years ago have I seen a Fall as fiery as this one. With every tick of latitude and flip of the odometer came a deeper saturation of oranges, yellows and reds rolling across the modest hills of Michigan. Route I-94 to I-196 heading toward Grand Rapids — like the many dusty trade routes of this formerly native land — is well-travelled by.
First stop: Brewery Vivant for their second annual Wood-Aged Beer Fest. Jacob, Jason and crew spend most of the year coaxing along many variations of their special recipes, aging them in fresh oak, bourbon, wine and cognac barrels. And on Wood-Aged day, they tap them all. I grabbed an Escoffier, got in line, and started going over the list. It contained most of my favorite words.
I warmed each small pour with my hands, slowly elevating it above the 40 degree day to a temperature that would loosen the aromas and call out as many flavor notes as possible. After many delightful porters, stouts and less common concoctions, the brew that stood out to me most was Baukis — a French cognac barrel version of Kludde with big anise and raisin flavors. Kludge is a Belgian Strong ale, and as it soaks up the oak and liquor flavors it gets boozy and smooth, full of dark fruits and candi sugars.
This is the second year that Vivant has held their festival on the patio out front, facing the neighborhood they hold dear. Next year, however, there's no doubt they'll have to use the parking lot out back to accommodate the growing crowd that comes from both near and far. After an amazing pulled pork sandwich tasting of pickles and brine, it was time to pack up and head west to our second stop of the day — Vanderfest, a Fall celebration of all things cider in Spring Lake.
A quick turn off Route 104 is a perfectly reasonable looking cidery, not unlike the many others that dot the landscape of Western Michigan. The region is known for its unique varietals, perfect for pressing, and even better for fermenting. But what Vander Mill is able to derive from the sweet, tart fruit is what sets them apart, and is quickly making them a name in craft beer circles.
Each year, for the past three years, Vander Mill has lured cider and beer geeks from the region with a unique proposition. They provide up to 50 gallons of sweet cider to breweries, and those breweries use that cider as a base to brew from, creating some surprising collaborations, albeit asynchronous ones. When those mixes show up at Vanderfest, Paul Vander Heide gets his first taste along with everyone else. New collaborators this year included Geenbush, Arcadia and Founders.
Also new this year were some fellow cider makers. As Vander Mill becomes more and more of an anchor to the growing cider market in the region, their role is likely to be somewhat of a gateway for new converts. The more they can introduce potential customers to the best of the best, Virtue, Northern Naturals and Sietsema among them, the more likely they are to create a sustainable audience for a real trend.
Paul Vander Heide's cidery is a growing family business. Along with his wife, Amanda, his brother Stu, and his parents, everyone was on-hand for the Fest. They accommodated over 500 festival-goers this year, and raised over $1,000 for charity. And they've already completed initial construction on a new production facility for next year. More tanks, more cider, and more distribution. Two new 4,000 gallon fermentation tanks sit ready, with another on the way. In 2013, Vander Mill aims to distribute to all of Michigan, and remove the constraints on Windy City, their distributors in Chicago. In the meantime, the cider ferments in large plastic bins stacked high, and batches of house beer bubble away in carboys, used to serve Black and Tans, and snakebites on-site. This is a cidery bursting at the seams, awaiting impressive growth on the backs of their inventive, quality ciders.
The rise of Vander Mill comes at a time when the entire Michigan apple industry hits an environmental wall not seen since the 40s. The drought this year has done considerable damage to the apple harvest, a 90% crop loss, making it impossible to sustain numbers with local apples alone. And with uncertainty in our weather patterns continuing, it's not clear how the industry will have to adapt. In this way, cider makers are more akin to farmers than brewers, paying as much attention to crop yields as fermentation tanks. It's not as easy as importing apples from states like Washington, where many orchards are owned by large companies making apple juice and other consumer products. The politics of apples is a complicated one.
If only Johnny Appleseed, on his journey from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Indiana and Illinois had thought to head north. He'd have seen some impressive country, and might have contributed a few extra trees to get us through. But with Paul Vander Heide at the helm, and newcomers like Red Streak breaking ground in nearby Fennville, we should all feel pretty good about where the Michigan cider market is planting its seeds.