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Hard cider is turning a seasonal business in Michigan into a year-around enterprise. Local cider mills are adding brew pubs and restaurants, tasting rooms and huge additions to keep up with demand from an increasingly appreciative audience, industry observers say.

Blake's Hard Cider Co. in Armada has grown to the point where it needs a 10,000-square-foot addition to supply enough product for its cider house, retail stores and area bars that keep its hard cider on tap, said company co-owner Andrew Blake. The company also plans to expand its distribution west to Chicago in coming months.

"We've been working hard over the last year to explore all of the things cider can be; we want to be Michigan's first and premier craft cider," Blake said. "We think (hard cider) can go the route that craft beer did. We're really excited about it and really grateful for the opportunity."

Beverage industry experts say hard cider is the fastest growing segment of the alcoholic beverage market. Michigan ciders, such as Blake's, retail for about $7.50-$7.99 for a 22-ounce bottle.

Smaller producers such as Blake's are competing against huge market leaders. Angry Orchard, a part of Boston Beer Co., which makes Sam Adams, recently reported that its 2012 cider sales topped $601 million, outpacing all of its Sam Adams beer offerings.

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"It's not just for fall anymore," said Robert Vedder, the "cicerone," or beverage expert, at Powers Distributing Co. in Orion Township. Vedder credits the popularity and increasing availability of craft ciders to both Michigan's thriving apple culture and the fact that cider is gluten-free.

Vedder's favorites include Uncle John's in St. Johns, north of Lansing, which makes a seasonal Cinnamon Apple, along with Spring Lake's Vander Mill, which just released 16-ounce cans of its Ginger Peach cider.

"The craft beer trend really opened the door for hard cider — consumers are open to and interested in (cider) with different flavor profiles and styles coming from smaller producers often with a local or authentic back story," said Donna Hood Crecca, senior director for Technomic Inc., a food industry consulting firm that studies the adult beverage industry.

However, hard cider will have to fight hard for its space at the table, Hood Crecca noted. According to Technomic's BeerTAB report, "cider will account for a whopping 1 percent of total beer volume in 2014; the total cider category will grow to just over 10 percent the size of the total craft beer category," she said.

Finding the consumer is half the battle. To gain female fans, hard cider enthusiasts brag about its similarities to wine. To appeal to men, companies such as Blake's use bearded, tattooed spokesmen who would be as comfortable chopping wood as they would swigging a hard cider at a neighborhood bar.

"To the uninitiated, cider is perceived as sweet and bubbly. But cider styles vary from sweet to dry and from effervescent to less carbonated," Hood Crecca said. "Our research shows that men and women both drink cider, although women are more interested in seasonal ciders and the 'better-for-you' aspects of ciders, such as it being gluten-free. Some major producers are positioning their cider brands to appeal to men, such as AB InBev's Johnny Appleseed and MillerCoors' Smith & Forge."

Some history: Hard cider was one of the nation's first alcoholic beverages. Fermented apples were about all the earliest settlers had to drink. Prohibition made it nearly extinct; even the trees that produced those apples nearly disappeared. But its continued popularity in Europe brought it back, and U.S. fruit producers have embraced it over the past decade.

Robinette's Apple Haus & Winery in Grand Rapids has been making hard cider for 10 years now. Seeing consumer interest rise is gratifying for longtime cider maker Bill Robinette.

"People are always hungry for new things," said Robinette, who is part of the fifth generation working the family farm, cider mill and apple orchard since it opened in 1911. "Hard cider seemed like a natural fit for our business; we saw it as an opportunity to expand and diversify."

Michigan's apple-loving culture is one reason why hard cider will thrive here, Robinette added. It also has room for partnerships. For example, Robinette makes a hard cider with Michigan-grown cherries. It also introduced an apple-cranberry flavor last week, and it hopes to find a state-based cranberry producer to boost its "Made in Michigan" appeal.

"We feel that Michigan especially is the perfect place (for hard cider). We grow some of the best apples in the world," he said. "We're starting to plant some varieties that are specific just to hard cider. They taste terrible, frankly, if you eat them straight off the tree. But once you ferment them, they make a wonderful cider."

These varieties include gems such as Fox Welp, Dabinette, Golden Russett and Yarlington Mill, Robinette said.

Michigan's challenging weather has affected apple crops to the point that growers have lost several seasons because of the cold or wet, noted Bill Schultz, owner of Schultz Fruitridge Farms in Mattawan.

The farm grows 20 varieties of apples on its 250 acres near Kalamazoo. Schultz, a third-generation farmer, plans to open a microbrewery called Texas Corners Brewing Co. this year to show off his three flavors of hard cider: Apple, Apple-Dry, and Apple-Cherry, priced at $5.50 for a 16 oz. bottle at 6.4 percent alcohol.

"The last few years have been very tough; we needed a year-around product," Schultz said. "This is another way to diversify and stabilize our livelihood."

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

What is hard cider?

The U.S. government defines hard cider as "a beverage made from fermented apples of less than 7 percent alcohol." Any drink with alcohol between 7 and 14 percent is technically a wine.

Source: Winesandvines.com

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