Up until about a year ago, I had never been a hard cider drinker and frankly never really paid much attention to it either. I never bought it, never ordered it at bars, just had no desire for it in the slightest.
But that started to change on the news that Greg Hall was stepping down as the brewmaster at Goose Island after the AB-InBev purchase. Not long after his resignation, we learned that Greg would be moving on to try his hand at hard cider. I figured that if cider is good enough for the man who brought us all of Goose Island’s glorious Belgians and boozy variations of Bourbon County Stout, it should be good enough for me too, right?
Yet every time I tried hard cider, I was disappointed, it was too sticky and sweet. I didn’t like it. I was about to give up.
Then a few weeks ago I learned that a friend of a friend is the proprietor of Vander Mill, a cider mill and winery specializing in hard ciders and apple wines in Spring Lake, Michigan. I told my buddy that I’d love to meet his friend as I’ve really wanted to get into the whole hard cider phenomenon. And just as luck would have it, Paul Vander Heide from Vander Mill was scheduled to be in town just a week later for a cider convention.
I was introduced to Paul at The Fountainhead at a cider take-over event in early February and the timing couldn’t have been any better, coming on the heels of the news that MillerCoors had acquired Minneapolis-based Crispin Cider Co.
While Paul was the man-of-the-night at Fountainhead, I was able to steal a few minutes with him to learn more about Vander Mill and get his thoughts on cider and the craft beer industry.
Paul opened Vander Mill in 2006 and in 2008 acquired a wine license to begin making hard ciders and wine. In June of 2011, Paul began self distributing in Chicago, targeting specific bars and specific crowds, (and yes, he said that the ability to self-distribute was incredibly important for him to break into the Chicago market) and last December he officially partnered with Windy City Distribution to handle Chicago-area distribution.
I asked Paul if he felt that hard cider was the “next big thing” as some have contended, and he laughed a bit saying that if you asked any of the long-time hard cider guys, they’ll tell you that they’ve been hearing that for decades. Yet, Paul does think that with the extreme rise in the popularity in craft beer, craft cider has an incredible opportunity. He compares craft cider to craft beer by saying that both are unique, personal experiences that encourage people to try things they might not otherwise be willing to try. I couldn’t agree more.
So how about that cider? In a word, remarkable.
You know how you can tell the difference between a really good, high-quality fruit beer (anything from New Glarus) and a fruit beer that is brewed using nothing more than fruit flavors or concentrate? Same for cider. It’s easy to tell the difference between Paul’s cider and, say, Crispin or Magners.
And that’s what sets Paul’s hard cider apart from others ciders I’ve had – fresh, local produce.
On draft the night I met Paul at The Fountainhead we were introduced to three of his ciders, the Sergeant Bartlett, the Apple Raspberry and the Totally Roasted.
The Sergeant Bartlett, a perry (drink of fermented pears) made with 100% Michigan Bartlett pears, was incredibly light and crisp that honestly tasted and felt like a semi-sweet, dry white wine, a chardonnay.
I followed that up with the Apple Raspberry, which poured gorgeous reddish/pink color, had some tart apple on the front, followed up by some dryness and just a hint of raspberries on the finish – no flavors overwhelmed the others, just a perfect marriage.
Finally, and my personal highlight of the night, the Totally Roasted. The Totally Roasted was “Holy Shit” good, like, go out of your way to find this good. It poured a cloudy yellow and was incredibly smooth with awesome nutty and vanilla flavors right up front – kind of like pecan ice cream or pecan pie. The cider finished with just the right amount of sweetness and, if you pay close enough attention, cinnamon. Wow.
One cider that I kept hearing about that night, but was unable to try, was the Apple Blueberry Cider. As luck would have it, just two weeks later I found the Apple Blueberry at Sheffield’s in Chicago. I was truly blown away by the complexity and the balance of this cider and was able to turn about 20, hardcore beer drinkers into full-fledged hard cider fans with it.
So as Paul travels throughout the Chicago-area, working to raise the profile of his and other craft hard ciders, I’d encourage you to seek him and his hard ciders out. How about TONIGHT, for example? Bangers and Lace in Wicker Park will be hosting a Vander Mill Cider Tasting at 7pm, featuring three brand new hard ciders – Chapman’s Blend, Opa’s Cider, and Ginger Peach. Do yourself a favor and head over to this, it’ll be huge.
As for me, I’m happy that I’ve been able to slay the hard cider dragon and look forward to trying more.