Cider Con 2014 left the gate this year in the form of a bus tour to Virtue Cider and Vander Mill Cider in Michigan. Two coaches full of Cider Con attendees set off, rounding the snowy southern tip of Lake Michigan, one heading for Virtue, one heading for Vander Mill. I wish I could say we studied the landscape along the way, but most of my bus seemed buzzing with the conversations of eager cider colleagues new and old. I was delighted to find myself in the gregarious and entertaining company of Neil Worley of Worley’s Cider, Somerset, who brought me back to the folk roots of English craft cider making. And I had a lovely chat with Kristen Jordan from Sea Cider, about organic methods and the ways we communicate values of many kinds to our customers. In the midst of lots of folks embarking on a frenzy of entrepreneurial American spirit facilitated by well-considered business plans, it was also really encouraging to chat with Neil and Kristen about approaches to cider making that are experimental, seasonal, and local to their particular apples, soils, climates, materials, and communities.
I’d never thought about how slow the learning curve on cider making is, until Neil described the limitations of seasonal production, where you only get the chance to practice your craft once a year. It makes you realize that the road to becoming a really good cider maker is a long one, characterized by the slow patience of seasons that spread out across the other changing arcs of one’s personal and social life.
The need to consider cider as a business first rather than as a craft, a hobby, or an art form, sometimes necessitates a cautiousness in production that can leave little room for intimate experimentation with materials and ideas and processes that lead to the distinctiveness and uniqueness of a truly craft cider. It’s a balance – a trade off between art and business. How much do you want to try and control processes and materials to achieve an imaginary desired, saleable product? Or do you let the unique properties of your apples and environment direct how you respond and innovate your production?
But enough of such philosophical musings when there are tanks to envy and admire. Upon our arrival at Virtue Cider’s headquarters in Michigan, we all strolled into the timber framed barns and stared wide-eyed at the beautiful facilities while sampling Virtue’s ciders. My personal favorite was the Percheron, a French-style ‘cidre fermier’ which was innoculated with brett in the mysterious quarantined brett barn on the other side of the property. I also liked the fresh, fruity character of the Cidre Nouveau, a young cider made in homage to the tradition of young Beaujolais nouveau wine. But the farmyard full bodied character of the Percheron reminded me of what I liked best about some English farmhouse ciders – full of robust flavors, even a little bit of funk.
But let’s not forget about the tank envy folks. Walking into the tank barn was a bit like passing over into another realm, descending below ground where these stainless steel beauties bathe in the cool even temperatures of the earth in which this bathtub of concrete rests. Even I, someone who is not heavily into the production side of the business, was impressed by the elegance of this facility.
So we boarded the bus and went on our way to Vander Mill. It was a very warm and homey welcome we found there, complete with delicious donuts to accompany an impressive range of ciders with added flavours such as blueberry, pecan, and hibiscus. My favorite was the cider called the Loving Cup, the peppercorn and hibiscus flavoured cider on draft. The pecan flavoured cider was actually really interesting – almost like eating a pecan pie.
I wish I could be more descriptive, but at this point in our journey the Virtue ciders had been filtering through our brain cells, and the keg at the front of the bus had been tapped. It was a long trip through Michigan in a bus full of cider in a snowstorm. But it was a damn good time.