Bottoms Up on the Michigan Cider Trail

Follow the Lake Michigan coastline heading north out of St. Joseph on Red Arrow Highway and M63 and before you know it, you’ll get lost in acres and acres of orchards.

Aided by the deep waters of Lake Michigan that serve to moderate the seasons, West Michigan is ideal for growing many fruit crops. Of all the crops cultivated here, apples are king. Michigan is home to more than 11.3 million apple trees covering nearly 35,000 acres, most located near the West Michigan coast. While you’ll find “Michigan Apples” in grocery stores and in apple sauce, it’s the fermented juice of the crushed apple that draws my interest. Yep, cider. And cider is everywhere along your drive; by last count over 78 cideries pepper the Michigan landscape.

Let’s get this straight. The cider I’m talking about is not the beverage you enjoy with the kiddos. I’m talking about the hard stuff, varieties of which can knock you on your tail faster than black-ice on the sidewalk in January. While craft beer has gone mainstream, craft cider has largely remained out of the spotlight. Ask your bartender for a glass of cider and too often your only choice is Angry Orchard.

“Cider is the most American adult beverage and the most local. In many rural areas cider took the place of not only wine and beer, but coffee, tea, even water.”

Arguably, apple cider is the most American adult beverage and the most local. When Johnny Appleseed was planting orchards through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois in the early 1800s, the trees he was planting were “spitters”—small tart apples named for what you’d likely do if you took a bite of one.  These apples were ideal for making hard cider. Cider took the place of not only wine and beer but coffee, tea, juice, and even water in many areas of rural America. Where water could house dangerous bacteria, cider was safe. 

With the cideries of West Michigan spread amongst small towns and more urban areas, the challenge is to visit as many cideries as possible without driving all over God’s green earth. For my purpose, traveling in my small motorhome is the most enjoyable and practical way to do this. I can plan my stops to visit several establishments from one home base, and then move my home on wheels into a new area. With nearly a two dozen state parks and many more KOAs and private campgrounds along the route, finding a convenient stop is easy. (Once school is out in the summer it’s best to make campground reservations. Off season, not so much.)

Here are a few of my favorite cideries to date. With so many apples and so much cider, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. 

Virtue Cider, Fennville, Michigan

VVirtue Cider has intrigued me since I first heard the name in 2013.
Greg Hall, the founder, had been head brewmaster, along with his father, at Goose Island Beer in Chicago. I knew first hand, Greg made great beer, and I hoped his magic would carry over into cider. Further piquing my interest were press articles and social media touting Virtue’s local sourcing and barrel-aging. So when I finally made the trek to Virtue this past fall, I was expecting something special.

Before my first sip of one of the tap ciders, I was blown away by the ambiance and attention to detail that was virtually everywhere. Iconography and signage meticulously designed. Custom themed furnishings throughout the outdoor picnic area and tasting room. French Oak barrels neatly stacked from floor to ceiling in the aging room. From start to finish this place is buttoned up.

Of course, it was the cider I came for and the cider I enjoyed. Immensely. The young man behind the bar told me that at any one time you can expect a dozen or more ciders on tap. I started with a flight of six tasters, then added a few individuals to round out my palette. I have a lot to learn about cider, but my guess is that the English and French influences are strong here. Not surprising since Hall educated himself through an exploration of top cider producers in England and France.

Virtue ciders range from so very slightly sweet to dry and funky, with the cider menu posted on the wall in the tasting room so ordered. Across the board, you’ll find complex flavors, enhanced by the barrel aging.  For the most part, Hall uses French Oak barrels, with some ciders like The Mitten, aged in bourbon barrels. According to Hall, “Barrels add not only the flavor of wood but often oxidation and even a microbiological component. All add additional notes to the flavor and aroma, less so the appearance.”

Though the “sweeter” Virtue ciders like Michigan Apple are not what I call sweet, my tastes to favor the ciders in the middle-to-drier end of the flavor spectrum. Cherry Mitten is my personal favorite–a blend of Michigan cherries and Michigan apples aged in bourbon barrels. I found it refreshing, a little tart, with a great aftertaste and an easy drink. Be sure to try the Farmhouse ciders like Lapinette and Percheron for their unique taste. Look here for the complete menu of Virtue tap room ciders.

The Virtue farm and cidery are located just south of the resort town of Saugatuck, Michigan. The facilities are family friendly with events happening almost every weekend. Hours change depending on the seasons, so call ahead. 269-722-3232.

Suttons Bay Ciders, Suttons Bay, Michigan

TTruth be told, my original tasting itinerary did not include Suttons Bay Ciders. As one of the newer cider establishments in the area, I had heard little about it. However, at the suggestion of the staff at Tandem Ciders, I decided to give it a shot. Good move.

The address for Suttons Bay Ciders is Hilltop Road, so I should have been expecting it. Even so, the view from the tasting room deck is absolutely spectacular. Looking out beyond the Leelanau Peninsula to West Bay and Power Island, I cannot imagine a prettier place to spend a sunny afternoon.  Wine and Beer Tours describes it as “Ciders with a View” and what a view it is.

Mark and Madelynn Kozen, the owners of Suttons Bay Ciders, planted nearly 600 trees on the property, many of them the English, French and early American variety, perfect for cider-making. One of those varieties, the Roxbury Russet, is believed to be the oldest cultivar bred in the United States dating back to the Massachusettes Bay Colony in the mid-17th century. All this history and flavor makes for some killer ciders.

You’ll find 8-10 ciders in the tasting room with taste profiles ranging from dry to semi-sweet. Some are steeped with herbs or hops and one cider features cherry wine blended with cider.

Suttons Bay Ciders is located in a large, remodeled house with the tasting room on the first floor and cidery below.  We visited during a weekday and enjoyed the opportunity to chat with the cider makers in the basement as they went about their business washing and crushing apples. Large bins of picked apples sat outside the door, waiting to be processed.

The French have a word for it…terroir, a set of environmental factors that give the crop character.  Terroir is said to be influenced by everything from characteristics of soil (like the amount of clay, PH level, and micronutrients) to the rainfall and climate. Wine, coffee, maple syrup, even tomatoes are all said to be affected by terroir. I think we can now add apples and cider to that list with the potential to unmask new flavors wherever we go. Cheers!  

Suttons Bay Ciders is located at 10530 East Hilltop Road, Suttons Bay, Michigan. 231-271-6000

Tandem Ciders, Suttons Bay, Michigan

II’m a sucker for a good story. Especially one that leaves something to your imagination and sticks in your mind the like the theme song from Titanic. I found that story at Tandem Ciders.

Suttons Bay and the Leelanau Peninsula are renowned for invigorating bicycle rides punctuated by short climbs and breathtaking views. You’ll find hundreds of miles of designated trails and bicycle riders everywhere. So when I first saw the Tandem logo on a can of  Smackintosh at a convenience store in Cadillac, Michigan, I naturally figured the logo inspiration came from this. But the real story is even better.  Here goes…

Nikki Rothwell and her husband, Dan Young, found and own Tandem Ciders. Dan is a brewer and restauranteur by trade, Nikki a bug scientist. They first met at Dan’s brewpub in western  Massachusetts, where Nikki had relocated from Michigan. As these things go, the two fell in love, vacationed in England, where they took a tandem bicycle tour of the countryside. While on this peddling tour, Nikki tired of the warm English ales, and, so the story is told, she and Dan discovered the many cider producers sprinkled throughout. Cidercraft Magazine sums it up: “One tandem bike, four pedals, and two craft beverage enthusiasts later, Tandem Ciders — appropriately named after said vacation on wheels — was born in Suttons Bay, Michigan.”  

While the story of Tandem Cider’s founding captured my fancy, the cider itself satisfied my thirst. Flavors are clean and straight to the point. Tandem emphasizes one apple as the star of each recipe, blending in other apple varieties when they feel it enhances the experience. Apples are sourced within 40 miles of the cidery.

One stellar example of Tandem Cider’s straightforward style is Greenman. Described on the menu as semi-dry, Greenman leaves my lips with a slight pucker, which I like. Ingredients for this cider are exclusively the Rhode Island Greening, one of America’s oldest apples. I’ve never eaten this apple but it sure does drink fine. 

You’ll want to make a couple of trips to this cidery both to taste the full menu of ciders and to enjoy the people. Dan (solo shot in the photo above) took the time to visit with me. While we were hanging out at one of the outdoor picnic tables, local friends repeatedly stopped by to chew the fat with Dan. It’s that kind of place.

Tandem Ciders is located at 2055 Setterbo Road, Michigan. 231-271-0050

The west coast of Michigan is loaded with camping possibilities, including private campgrounds and State parks. I stayed at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to explore Traverse City and the Leelanau Peninsula.

Author: RoadTravelFoodie

Writing the story on good food, good drink, and good people as I tour the country in a small RV. With no hard deadlines or flight schedules, I can take my time to explore local restaurants, farmers’ markets, the old-fashioned butcher shop, microbreweries, winemakers, the roadside BBQ, and more. Help me turn into a virtual neighborhood on which to share experiences and explore with others.

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