For many, it is impossible to travel along US-127 in St. John’s, Michigan, without making a stop at Uncle John’s Cider Mill. Whether heading to cheer on the Michigan State Spartans, testing your luck at Soaring Eagle Casino, or embracing the change from summer to fall, visiting Uncle John’s is well worth it.
The picturesque white barn, surrounded by thousands of apple trees (7,500 to be exact), entices and welcomes. Making your way up the entrance, the signage promises pies, donuts, live music, and activities for all ages. To the left of the Cider Mill sits the Pie Barn, Snack Shop, and Fruit House Winery Tasting Room, where adults can sample the various hard ciders, wines, and spirits made on site. It doesn’t take long to realize this establishment is much more than just cider.
What most do not realize, however, is how much impact this family-focused business has had on the apple and hard cider industry both locally and nationally. Mike Beck, president of both Uncle John’s and the United States Association of Cider Makers, has been pivotal in turning Michigan into the epicenter of the cider movement.
His work over the past 13 years has helped bring the state to the forefront of cider production. Despite ranking as the third largest fruit producing state, Michigan leads the country with over 30 cider brands. According to Beck, “No other state brings as many apple varieties to harvest as the state of Michigan, giving us a competitive advantage for great cider making.”
While talking with Mike, you sense his excitement about the hard cider market, and it’s easy to understand why. A peek into recent beverage trends shows how far cider has come and where it could possibly go.
While hard cider is less than 0.5% of the total beer market, the annual growth rate is phenomenal. “We are expecting at least a 100% increase for 2013,” Beck said. “Last year, (the market) saw an 80% increase, and the year before that a 25% increase. No other beverage category has ever had this kind of increase in sales.”
The market is so ripe that many new national, regional, and artisanal players have been turned onto cider. During 2011, Boston Beer Co. (the makers of Samuel Adams) released its Angry Orchard cider brands. By year end, Angry Orchards was listed as one of the Top 10 beer growth brands. In 2012, Miller Coors laid down a reported $40 million to purchase the Minnesota-based cider producer, Crispin. And there is more to come. Stella Artois is planning a national rollout of its Belgian hard cider, Cidre, in 2014. Overall, cider is expected to be at least 2% of the total beer market by 2020.
As for Beck, he began producing hard cider long before the big guys took an interest. In 2000, Mike received a grant from the Michigan Apple Committee allowing him to begin experimenting with hard cider. He shares that some of his initial interest came from spending time visiting Michigan wineries. “I thought, ‘I can do that. They’re farmers just like me.’” That ambition and curiosity led to the first commercial batch of hard cider three years later. Since then, his recipes have won multiple domestic and international awards, including 3rd place at the 2013 Royal Bath & West show in England (a jump of two spots from the year prior.)
Connoisseur or not, it is easy to notice something distinctive about this beverage. Flavor seekers are drawn to the dryness of the cider. The finish is crisp and smooth. A blogger recently described Uncle John’s hard cider as a “complex” drink that would appeal to wine drinkers. When asked about the uniqueness of his recipe, Beck said, “That’s the thing – it’s no special talent I have, it’s all about the fruit. Michigan has the best fruit.”
Digging a little deeper, I learn that Uncle John’s Hard Cider is made using only Michigan apples and 100% fruit juice. According to Beck, no other large scale cider maker can claim more than 51% juice content. The apples used are fairly common, including Macintosh, Jonathon, and Golden Delicious. These apples are grown right on the property. In fact, Uncle John’s has over five generations of fruit growing and cider production at the current site.
As our conversation moves to the future of hard cider, Beck mentions an up and coming subcategory of ciders called “Fruit Ciders.” Uncle John’s introduced their inaugural blend of Apple Cherry Hard Cider long before many other producers were in the hard cider business. Today, the Apple Cherry blend has grown to be as popular as their Original Draught Hard Cider.
“We also have a series of select fruit flavored ciders that we release throughout the season,” Beck said. These unique ciders are made with a standard base apple cider, then flavored and sweetened by adding the juice of a specific fruit. Examples include Blueberry Apple and Apricot Apple.
Consumers should also be on the lookout for a premium line of ciders. “This is an exciting new venture for Uncle John’s,” Beck said. “In our pursuit of premium apples to make the best cider available, we found many new varieties that show off what premium apples can achieve. All of these varieties are classic cider apple varieties from England, France, and America grown here in Michigan.” For example, “American 150” includes a blend of six Heirloom apples, such as Winter Banana and Winesap. These apples have over 150 years of cider history in America.
Given the success and projected increase in demand, how will this small, family-run business keep up? The first step was to change from 750ml bottles to 16 oz cans. “Canning creates a better experience for the consumer and is much easier for product placement,” Beck said.
During 2012, Uncle John’s started selling four packs of 16 ounce Draught Hard Cider cans. Distributors found cans to be an improvement, easier for stores to display and stock. Consumers also enjoy the option for a single serving. Recently, the canned Draught Hard Cider was featured in a Chicago news segment on picnic necessities. They also just introduced a mini keg, a must have for any early morning tailgate.
To learn more about Uncle John’s Hard Cider visit their website at Uncle John’s Cider
Kellie Klinck is a native Michigander now living in Chicago.