Amanda Allison of Vines Magazine profiles just some of Ontario’s cider houses in this look at the boom in Canadian cider production. Check it out:
The appeal of apples is fuelling a booming cider industry
Written by Amanda AllisonGreat cider, just like great wine, starts at the source. But instead of looking for the perfect spot to grow grapes, these four cider makers believe they’ve found ideal niches within Canada to cultivate apples.
Cider making in Canada is a relatively new phenomenon. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries it was outlawed in Canada under British rule as it conflicted with the Commonwealth’s brewers’ interests, like those of England-born, Quebecbred John Molson. Luckily, cider lovers held on and the craft blossomed from coast to coast. These days, different varieties of cider are produced across the great white north from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. Quebec has cornered the market on ice cider, a fermented beverage made from the frozen juice of apples, but there’s also sparkling cider, non-alcoholic cider, sweet cider, Feral cider and plenty of other options.
What’s really shaking things up, though, is hard cider. There are as many ways to describe it as there are people making it. Some call it English-style, others pubstyle. Some refer to the region their apples come from, like County Cider. But what they have in common is their ability to impress anyone looking for something different than the popular imports on liquor store shelves. And thanks to well-established leaders like The County Cider Company & Estate Winery in Prince Edward County, Ontario and Merridale Estate Cidery in the Cowichan Valley, British Columbia, the industry is booming.
“The artisan cider industry is growing in British Columbia and all over North America,” says Rick Pipes, who bought Merridale with his wife Janet in 1999. “Since then, many craft cider producers have sprung up.”
We now have some critical mass and really talented Canadian cider makers producing award-winning artisan ciders. They will keep our industry growing.
–Grant Howes, the County Cider Company & Estate Winery
Grant Howes has monitored the increasing production, having been collecting and propagating rare French and British cider apples for over 15 years with County Cider. “It’s really only been recognized as a significant beverage category in Ontario in the last few years,” he explains. “I got into the business because I love cider and saw the potential of producing a world-class beverage as a way to keep the farm going.”
Howes is concerned about one aspect of such sudden growth, however. “We are now seeing the beer companies trying to produce and market cider,” he says. “Unfortunately, I fear these watered-down alcapops will probably set the industry back a bit, but we now have some critical mass and really talented Canadian cider makers producing award-winning artisan ciders. They will keep our industry growing.”
One brewery that’s recently added to its range is Tree Brewing Co. in Kelowna, British Columbia. They partnered with a family-run old growth orchard to create Dukes Dry Cider.
“We looked at the market and thought that since we have some of the best orchards in the world, we should make a cider. It was kind of a natural fit,” says sales director Chris Stirling. “We tested many different recipes and only launched Dukes when we knew we had a product that met our expectations.
“We made Dukes for those consumers looking for a beer alternative or a beverage that complements their beerdrinking occasions.”
Another newcomer to the field is Thornbury Village Cidery based out of Thornbury, Ontario.
“Thornbury is nestled on the shores of Georgian Bay on the one side and the Niagara Escarpment on the other side,” explains Bryan Watts, vice-president of sales and marketing for Beer Barons, the company that produces Thornbury cider. “These geographic features create our own little climate microcosm, which has a moderating influence on the local weather, making it perfect for growing the best apples.”
We looked at the market and thought that since we have some of the best orchards in the world, we should make a cider. It was kind of a natural fit.
-Chris Stirling, Tree Brewing Co.
Like Tree Brewing Co., Thornbury doesn’t own orchards, but instead gets its apple juice from an established, reputable, local company. Then, cider maker Doug Johnson crafts his product naturally in small batches to create a beverage that is naturally gluten-free as well as vegan and vegetarian-friendly. He created the first samples of apple cider in his basement even before he officially started to work for Thornbury. The original Thornbury cider was chosen from this first set of samples he created.
“Canadians are just now beginning to experience how good cider can taste,” says Watts. “Our unique Canadian cider does not try to match existing ciders from around the globe, as many ciders can be on the bitter side. We would prefer to continue to focus on creating new ciders that virtually everyone will enjoy, but at the same time create our own distinct Canadian cider taste experience.”
And while some are creating a complementary beverage to beer, others have made cider their full-time obsession, like Pipes has with Merridale.
“We are involved in all aspects, from growing of the raw materials to production of the cider, to packaging, to distribution, to retailing and to serving to our customer,” he says. “We make cider the way it has always been made. We start with cider apples grown without pesticides. We press them and then ferment the first pressing of the juice by adding healthy yeast. We do not heat the juice or add any chemicals to hasten the fermentation process. The cider is allowed to fall clear naturally without fining agents or chemicals. Then the cider is left to mature in stainless steel or wooden containers until it is ready. We bottle year-round and don’t add any chemicals at bottling.”
And what’s at the core of their obsession isn’t surprising — apples. “We have about 40 acres of apple trees with over 6,000 rare cider apple varieties being planted out over the next two years,” says Howes of County Cider’s orchards. “We grow over 15 varieties. Our largest planting is unique French and English cider or Calvados apples. These varieties have been collected from private sources and have been propagated in our nurseries for the last 15 years.” Howes says that over the years they’ve narrowed down plantings to the varieties that can produce fruit consistently, despite the cold Canadian winters.
Most ciders are a blend of apple varieties, so it helps to have a mixture to choose from. “Typically a blend of apples provides a superior tasting experience than just a single variety,” says Thornbury’s Watts. But don’t bother trying to get the recipe. “We prefer to keep our blend a close secret.”
What’s interesting about the whole cider conversation is how often it turns back to wine. In the Cowichan Valley, Merridale’s business is booming thanks to agri-tourism and the growing number of wineries on Vancouver Island. In passing conversation, Watts mentions Thornbury is like unpretentious sparkling wine. “In fact, it’s been used on many occasions for toasting at weddings.”
But it’s Pipes who hits the nail on the head. “Like wine, each region produces cider products that reflect the terroir and style of that region,” he says. “Fruit grows differently everywhere and consumers like different things.”
These four cider makers are merely a dent in the number of producers in Canada. They are unique in what they produce and how they create it. But, whether farming has been in their family for a decade, or if they’re adding a new product to their brewery, they all realize great cider starts and finishes in the orchard. Across the country, more makers are bound to spring up as the demand grows.
Some may be concerned that the heart of cider making will get lost along the way. But as Howes remarks, “The cream will always rise to the top.”