It’s as classic and iconic to our nation as apple pie, and now it’s basking in its own little renaissance. Discover craft cideries, wineries and breweries serving up incredible Northern Michigan hard cider on your fall color tour. Plus, scroll down for the 31 best ciders in the North.
The truth is, Northwestern Michigan is made for hard cider. From St. Ambrose Cellars in Benzie County to the boutique wineries surrounding Petoskey, the region has embraced cidermaking, and it’s no wonder. Apple orchards abound. And creating hard cider is more akin to making wine than crafting beer (though, oddly, cider is often packaged like beer, in cans and growlers).
And it’s what customers are on the hunt for.
“People are always looking for something new,” says John Behrens, president of the Michigan Cider Association. “People have gotten into craft beer and wine, so cider wasn’t a huge leap from there. People are familiar with apples and locally made products. It’s something they’re comfortable with. The hurdle has been getting people not to associate hard cider with the sugary, sweet apple juice or cider they tasted as kids—like how wine doesn’t necessarily taste like grape juice.”
Behrens, who grows apples and makes cider on a fifth-generation family farm near Grand Rapids, adds that although hard cider might be seen as the newest craft beverage trend, hard cider has been around a long time, harkening back to colonial days. It was once the most consumed drink in the country, before Prohibition. The market has exploded in recent years, he notes, thanks to great producers and a growing variety of styles, and consumer interest in gluten-free alternatives to beer.
Today, Michigan is home to 90 licensed cideries, a number that includes wineries and others producing ciders. We rank as the third largest producer of hard cider in the country, behind Washington and New York, those other big apple-growing states. Most of Michigan’s cider producers are located in western Michigan or the Traverse City region. Cider is prevalent at wineries on both the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas.
How to Taste Hard Cider
My immersion in the world of Northern Michigan hard cider took me near and far. Before I share the highlights with you, I offer a few tasting tips from Ulrich and others serving or producing cider.
Sample cider like you would wine, from dry to sweet. Ulrich also suggests trying the straight apple products first, before venturing on to ciders blended with fruits, herbs and other ingredients. The aim is to get your bearings about what apples and apple ciders really taste like.
A Northern Michigan Hard Cider Tour
Left Foot Charley
“Cider is really an ice breaker,” says Bryan Ulrich, winemaker at Left Foot Charley in Traverse City, which was at the forefront of the cider scene, pressing apples well before the end of the last decade. “Having cider eases the conversation for people who come in the tasting room and aren’t sure about wine. They might be more beer drinkers. I think the industry has really worked to define styles and celebrate cider. It’s become such a cool, popular beverage.”
Left Foot Charley happened to be one of my first stops on the cider trail. Typically, Left Foot has five ciders on tap and others available in bottle. I was impressed by Henry’s Pippin and Cinnamon Girl, its most popular cider. Henry’s Pippin is made by blending different fermentations, creating a crisp, dry cider. Cinnamon Girl, made with apples harvested from Old Mission Peninsula, tastes like a liquid apple pie, with just the right hit of cinnamon.
Next up is Tandem, the granddaddy of cideries in the region. As the region’s first full-fledged cidery, Tandem Ciders has been pouring hand-crafted ciders for nearly a decade and offers a chill spot to savor the region’s bounty.
Husband-and-wife team, Dan and Nikki, created a charming atmosphere in the hilly terrain beyond Suttons Bay. The tasting room evokes an inviting atmosphere much like a British pub—something the couple had in mind when they founded Tandem Ciders. The inspiration for the cidery was inspired by a trip to England, where the pair rode a tandem around the countryside. Finding British beer served too warm for their tastes, they stumbled upon chilled, and more refreshing, cider.
Tandem’s most popular ciders, Smackintosh and Green Man, are on the sweeter side, with higher levels of residual sugar. The sweetness isn’t overwhelming and the apple flavors shine through. I was impressed with Farmhouse, a British-style cider made with classic apples, Winesap andNorthern Spy.
Suttons Bay Ciders
The peninsula’s other full-fledged cidery is Suttons Bay Ciders, just off M22.
The handcrafted ciders were developed by owners Mark and Madelynn Korzon, Ann Arbor transplants who have turned the former residence into orchards and a rustic tasting room. The hands-on cider-making operations are in the cellar below.
The Korzons tap apples from both Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas, including Northern Spy, Ida Red, Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Jonathan and Rhode Island Green. Typically, more than a dozen ciders are on tap, ranging from dry to sweet along with various fruit and other blends, with ingredients including sumac, lavender, cherries, mint, ginger root and maple syrup.
On the sweeter side, Smitten, a blend of Northern Spy, Ida Red Swiss Gourmet, Jonathan and other apples, is the most popular. It boasts a clean, crisp taste, with lots of apple flavor. I was smitten by Testamint, a blend of apples infused with locally harvested mint.
Two K Farms Cidery & Winery
Brothers George and Max Koskela opened their Suttons Bay cidery and tasting room, Two K Farms Cidery & Winery, high on a hill above Grand Traverse Bay in 2018. The brothers purchased a dormant 80-acre farm in 2010 and began planting heritage apples, wine grapes and hops the following year. They are phasing out of hops, focusing on apples and wine grapes. They use a variety of domestic and heritage apples for their dry to semi-sweet ciders—the apples are all grown on the farm.
The outdoor patio overlooking apple orchards and West Grand Traverse Bay is an inviting spot to kick back and enjoy Two K’s ciders. The dry ciders, including Arthur and Cooper, are the go-to’s here. Arthur is light and crisp, described as a traditional British-pub-style cider. Cooper spent some time in French and American oak and I loved the nuances the barrels created in this refreshing cider.
Green Bird Organic Cellars
South of Northport, Green Bird Organic Cellars, the region’s only organic winery, exudes a cool vibe. (How can it not with a tasting room painted bright Caribbean green!) Green Bird has been making cider since 2014. Its apples are grown organically and harvested from nearby Garthe Farms. Most of the ciders lean dry, with pronounced apple flavors. I found Empire, a French-style cider pressed from Empire and Willamette apples (the name is also a nod to the village near Sleeping Bear), particularly refreshing, like biting into a fresh apple.
“Something we really believe in is not tampering with the flavors of the fruit too much, that goes for apples and grapes,” says Betsy
Sedlar, tasting room manager and one of the owners of the operation. “Most of our ciders are French-style ciders—they’re mostly dry to mid-palate ciders. They drink more like wine.”
Exploring farther north, I discovered Townline Ciderworks, just off US 31 on the way to Elk Rapids. The cidery sits on a rise beyond the highway and a family farm stand, with bucolic views of orchards and fields of fruit. Long before Townline opened as a cidery, in 2017, the family was pressing apples for other big names in the region, including Short’s.
Cidermaker Matt Frollo is a familiar name in the region; he formerly worked as winemaker at St. Ambrose Cellars and Peninsula Cellars on Old Mission Peninsula.
“I try to make my ciders more like wine, like a nice, clean chardonnay or riesling. They’re more of a wine style than old-world-style ciders, which are sour and funky,” Frollo says. “I like to have control over my ciders and let them know where they’re going.”
Nearly a dozen ciders are on tap at any given time in the tasting room, as well as a few wines, also made by Frollo. Giggles, a dry blend of apples infused with farm-grown raspberries, is the most popular cider on tap. I was impressed with Big John, a blend of Jonathon, Jonagold and Gala apples and aged in oak barrel.
I discovered another surprise here: Fresh Strawberry, a cider made from a blend of apples and the family’s farm-grown strawberries. It may be the most delicious and refreshing strawberry-anything I’ve ever tasted; the fresh berry lingers on the finish.
A Cider a Day
Hard-pressed to pick, but overjoyed to present our 31 Northern Michigan ciders to try now…
1 Queen Ann // Townline Ciderworks, Williamsburg // Holy moly blissful berries—an apple blend with fresh strawberries, blueberries, sweet and tart cherries.
2 Pineapple Habanero Hard Cider // Resort Pike Cidery & Winery, Petoskey // Luscious, spicy-sweet heat. Tastes like a sunny vacation.
3 Testamint // Suttons Bay Ciders, Suttons Bay // A blend of MacIntosh, Fuji, Mutsu apples infused with locally harvested mint for a bright and herbal thirst-quencher. A summer seasonal to try before it runs out!
4 The Ghost // Bee Well, Bellaire // An exquisite semi-sweet heat crafted with ghost pepper, habanero, Carolina reaper, smoked cayenne and Scotch bonnet peppers makes you crave another sip … and another glass.
5 Hand Picked // Royal Farms, Ellsworth // Made with antique and uncommon cider apple varieties. Not too sweet, not too dry. Crisp.
6 King’s Cherry // Bee Well, Bellaire // Bee Well’s first Balaton and Montmorency cherry blend with King Orchards cherries and apples. Sweet, tart and refreshing—drink well-chilled!
7 Sandra Dee // Townline Ciderworks, Williamsburg // A medium-sweet apple blend infused with cherry juice and vanilla—also available in cans. Must love vanilla, it lingers in the best possible way.
8 Pulsar // Starcut Ciders, Bellaire // Dry cider made with Michigan apples and pinot noir yeast. A little tart.
9 Lemongrass Lime // Taproot Cider House, Traverse City // Semi dry, bright and refreshing.
10 Madagascar Vanilla Bean Bourbon Barrel Aged Cider // Taproot Cider House, Traverse City // Behold this semi-dry delight, aged in Grand Traverse Distillery barrels. Note: 12% abv.
11 MK’s Ultra // Resort Pike Cidery, Petoskey // Sweetened with brown sugar and caramel. Yeah, it’s sweet. Yeah, it’s good.
12 Lavender Apple Hard Cider // Northern Natural Cider House, Kaleva // Organic heirloom apples + a lavender bouquet = bliss.
13 Passion of Sice // Bee Well, Bellaire // 100% golden delicious apples, aged in tequila staves yields a sweet, tart, passionfruit-y sipper with a deep yellow hue.
14 Raspberry Rush // Chaos Ciders (Verterra), Leland // Medium dry with a little spritz.
15 Single Track // 45 North Vineyard & Winery, Lake Leelanau // Bright, crisp, slightly tart. Aromas similar to an IPA without any bitterness on the palate. Definitely dry and herbal.
16 Cinnamon Cider // Rove Estate, Traverse City // Dry take on a fall cider classic. Cinnamon forward, finishes with apple. Tastes like baked apples.
17 Sidra-LaPeño // Suttons Bay Ciders, Suttons Bay // Barrel-aged infused with jalapeños and habaneros. Just enough kick. Refreshing and tart with heat on the finish.
18 Antrim // Left Foot Charley, Traverse City // Snappy and bright, heirloom apple notes through and through.
19 Peach Cider // Glen Arbor Wines, Glen Arbor // Refreshing but not too sweet and clingy—just like biting into the perfect peach on a late summer day.
20 X.R. Cyser // St. Ambrose Cellars, Beulah // A blend of honey and apple juice fermented together; affectionately deemed “Apple Pie in a Glass.” A perfect sippin’ cider for those with a sweet tooth.
21 Octorock // Starcut Ciders, Bellaire // Just sweet enough. Bright, crisp and the closest cider comes to biting into a fresh apple.
22 Arthur // Two K Farms, Suttons Bay // Traditional British pub-style cider…dry and refreshing.
23 Hard “Just Apple” Cider // Chaos Ciders (Verterra), Leland // Exactly what you’re thinking of when you’re thinking of hard apple cider. Slightly off-dry. Cool, crisp, carbonated and delicious.
24 Empire // Green Bird Cellars, Northport // Created from Empire and Willamette apples, this French-style cider tastes like you’re biting into a freshly picked Empire apple. Refreshing.
25 Smackintosh // Tandem Ciders, Suttons Bay // There’s a reason this is a perennial favorite. A combination of McIntosh, Northern Spy and Greening apples, this cider is not overly sweet despite the amount of residual sugar. Nice apple flavor.
26 Cinnamon Girl // Left Foot Charley, Traverse City // A blend of apples grown on Old Mission Peninsula, with just the right amount of cinnamon. This cider tastes like a slice of homemade apple pie in the fall.
27 Alma Mater // Townline Ciderworks, Williamsburg // Greening, Spartan and Mac apples are blended to create this dry cider, one of several winners on Townline’s menu. Tastes like you’re biting into a fresh apple. You’ll enjoy, even if your alma mater is maize and blue.
28 Cooper // Two K Farms Cidery & Winery, Suttons Bay // This is a dry, well-balanced cider with some nice nuances, thanks to some time spent in American and French oak barrels. Not overly oaked, with light tannins.
29 I Spy Ginger // Suttons Bay Ciders, Suttons Bay // Northern Spy and Ida Red apples are blended and infused with ginger root in this off-dry cider. There’s a tingliness, for sure, but the ginger balances the apple sweetness.
30 Fresh Strawberry // Townline Ciderworks, Williamsburg // Summer beverages don’t get much better than this. An apple blend infused with strawberries grown on the grounds at Townline, this cider is not too sweet, not too dry. The finish lingers, reminiscent of biting into a fresh strawberry.
31 Semi-Dry Hard Cider // Nomad Cidery, Williamsburg // Like a happy, flannel-shirted embrace and brimming with fresh-pressed apple goodness.
Featured in the October 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.