Cidermaker’s plan bears fruit

Apples are amassed in a large crate at Kingma's Market, Photo by Lisa Enos

A few years ago, Dietrich Orchards owner Dan Dietrich ventured to New Hampshire to find some budwood for special types of apples.

Dietrich went to Farnum Hill to visit Steve Wood, one of the premier cidermakers in the country, to cut 30,000 sticks from apple trees to start a section of his orchard dedicated to cider-specific apples. That effort was urged on by Vander Mill owner Paul Vander Heide, who said he encouraged Dietrich to grow the apples “in a meaningful way” for his own purposes.

That was about seven years ago — GRBJ detailed the project in 2016 — and it has turned into the biggest block of cider apples in the state and provided Vander Heide with three or four years of production from 20 acres.

“There was a lot of questions of how they would grow in Michigan, in a high-density setting,” Vander Heide said, referring to the set of Yarlington Mill, Dabinett, Spitzenburg, Golden Russet and Baldwin apples. “You can’t put in an orchard that’s not dense anymore, you need to make a return on it.”

Vander Heide made a pledge to Dietrich to buy all the apples, or at the very least find a home for them. Unfortunately, two sets of the apples, Yarlington Mill and Baldwin, were victims of fire blight.

While the apples grown in the special section at Dietrich Orchards produce a more complex and sophisticate beverage, the U.S. beverage consumer has not progressed enough to increase the need for cider apples.

“The cider industry has not gone to premium as quickly as we in the industry really want it to,” Vander Heide said. “You have a pretty wide range of products, and most people are only familiar with what they see in cans at the grocery stores and kegs at a restaurant. But this world of ciders brings an entirely different experience and different culture — more of a wine culture — evaluating different nuances that bring to a cider what you just don’t get from more traditional culinary apples.

“They can bring a higher alcohol (level) because of sugar content and have other properties that lend to astringency and carry more tannin than culinary apples, so they have a bigger, more quaffable quality, more ‘mouth feel,’ similar to wine.”

Those cider-specific apples have made it into less than 1% of all of Vander Mill’s production. Vander Heide has a clear passion for the product made from the cider-specific apples and hopes he can make more in future.

Michigan State University researchers and MSU Extension specialists have worked to tout the apple cider industry. And it could help push the cider-specific apple growth in the state, as well.

There are 14.9 million apple trees in Michigan across 34,600 acres on 775 family-run farms, according to MSU. The nearly 15 million apples make Michigan the third-most productive apple state in the U.S. There are approximately 90 businesses making hard cider in the state.

As Vander Heide said, the vast majority of apples grown in Michigan are culinary apples, including Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Honeycrisp, Jonathan and McIntosh.

The MSU Extension put together a chart of more than 800 apple varieties to help cider makers develop recipes based on how apple combinations create different levels of sweetness, acidity, pH and bitterness.

“What started out as a simple survey of apple varieties grown in Michigan and New York turned into actively collecting all of the data that exists in the published scientific literature about these traits to put them together in a useful way,” MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Assistant Professor Joshua VanderWeide said in a release. “We have put together the largest database of fruit quality traits for apples that are important to both growers and researchers.”

While Vander Mill and Dietrich’s efforts are admirable, they pale in comparison to the cider varieties that are grown in traditional cider countries like England, France and Spain. Until premium cider in the U.S. takes off to the levels Vander Heide desires, cider-specific apples will trail the others.

U.S. cider makers largely use culinary apples, which are sweeter and lower in acidity and bitterness.

“Culinary apples at the grocery store like Honeycrisp have very low concentrations of phenolic compounds,” VanderWeide said. “Cider-specific apples such as a Chisel Jersey have a higher concentration of phenolics, which are the same compounds that cause that astringent sensation in your mouth when you drink black or green tea.”

Cider-specific apples grown in Michigan include Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, Dabinett, McIntosh, Jonathan and Yarlington Mill.

“In the industry, we call them ‘spitters’ because you’d never pick one of those apples to eat,” MSU Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center and Tandem Ciders Co-Owner Nikki Rothwell said. “Some of the apples used in European hard ciders have a funky taste with barnyard notes, which make for great hard apple cider.”

Until it makes sense monetarily for orchards to grow the apples, the cider industry will continue to rely almost entirely on culinary apples. No matter how that works, most cidermakers rely almost 100% on Michigan apples, including Vander Mill.

Vander Mill does maintain some relationships with growers in Washington and New York, in case Michigan’s crop is decimated, like in 2012. But for the most part, Vander Mill goes for Michigan apples.

“Our goal is to be 100%,” Vander Heide said. “Most of the time, Michigan has ample, and great, fruit.”

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