Deep inside the industrial labyrinth of East Hamilton, on the outer edges of Stoney Creek, a beautiful thing is fermenting inside a spacious warehouse now occupied by West Avenue Cider.
If you’re having difficulty keeping up with West Avenue Cider owner, Chris Haworth, here’s a primer:
• Born of British heritage and destined to have a love of hard cider
• Trained as a chef in Manchester, England, under the so-called godfather of modern cooking, Marco Pierre White, a British celebrity chef, restaurateur and television personality, at the famous Quo Vadis restaurant in London.
• Spent eight years in White’s kitchens but when he met a Canadian girl he had a choice to make — come to Canada with her and stay in the relationship or break it off. He chose the former.
Previous job was as the Executive Chef at Spencer’s at the Waterfront in Burlington for eight years;
• Original Twitter handle: @ciderseeker (now @westavenuecider);
• Something was gnawing at him as he prepared gourmet meals for the beautiful people of Burlington: “My true love came to me … on a trip to the County Cider Company (in Prince Edward County). We were overlooking Waupoos Island, sipping cider, eating a pizza and loving life,” he says. “That’s when the idea came into my head. Cider started consuming my life.”
• He went home one night and told his wife Amy he was quitting his job and jumping head-first into the fledgling the Ontario craft cider industry.
I first met Haworth when he was the chef at Spencer’s and quickly discovered his cider affliction. He held two cider dinners that were exquisite affairs and proved to all who attended that cider is a diverse and interesting libation that pairs brilliantly with myriad foods. His passion was evident.
When I found out one day that he had quit his job and was chasing his dream, I wasn’t that surprised, he had been inching closer and closer to making the leap since first meeting him. It didn’t take him long to source Ontario-grown apples and had bottled his first cider, a dry, crisp, fruity style made from a combination of Ontario apples including Cortland, golden Russet, McIntosh, Empire, and Northern Spy that he called West Avenue Spy Cider. It was met with success from the beginning, populating taps in the trendiest pubs and bars in Toronto and beyond.
And standing in his new digs in Hamilton, a sea of oak barrels, tanks, totes, hoses with traditional and experimental ciders in various stages of development, it is clear Haworth made the right career move.
This is the frontline for one of the fastest-growing booze trends in the country.
The rush to produce hard ciders is being fuelled by a growing thirst for new and domestic products from coast to coast in Canada. It seems to be on a parallel path with the largest growth sector in terms of alcohol trends — and that’s craft beer.
Cider, craft beer and wine, all made from locally grown apples, hops and grapes, is taking over taps in bars and restaurants and sending the traditionally-made, mass-produced beers to the sidelines.
As Haworth told me, the full force of the cider movement “is just getting started. We’re learning from the craft brewers.”
And he’s correct in that assessment. Though long a tradition in provinces such as B.C., cider is starting to replace beer taps in trendy bars and restaurants in Toronto and other large cities in Ontario and is slowly finding its way onto the shelves at the LCBO.
Cider is not only “gluten-free” but it’s also a refreshing summer drink, but growing beyond seasonal quickly, that’s low in alcohol and big on taste.
It’s made in myriad styles, from fresh and crisp to blended with cherries, wine, hops, honey and even aged in oak barrels — you name it, cider has upped its game.
At West Avenue Cider, made only from 100% Ontario apples (plus what he can find locally to blend in) Haworth does most of his business selling direct to bars and restaurants for their tap programs, plus a range of bottled ciders, and has noticed craft beers and ciders are quickly replacing taps that were once the exclusive domain of the big international brewers.
It’s been a bit of tough slog.
“Cider is one of the fastest growing categories of alcohol in the LCBO and Ontario Craft Cider is a major part of that growth,” says said Thomas Wilson, chair of the Ontario Craft Cider Association. “But while Ontario cider is sold like beer, it is regulated as a non-VQA wine, which makes it too easy to be forgotten. We have asked the province for equal footing with Ontario Craft Beer and VQA, which have both been incubated by provincial programs to grow their industries,” he says.
Adding to the frustration is the lack of response from the Ed Clark committee looking into modernizing the booze industry in Ontario. Cider has been left on the sidelines while craft beer and VQA wine are both getting the full attention of the committee.
Key facts about Ontario craft cider
• Cider sales in LCBO are currently 80% imported (2014)
• Ontario has the largest apple industry in Canada
• Ontario cideries currently employee over 225 people, a number which does not include indirect jobs related to the industry and agriculture
• Ontario craft cider is produced from the juice of 100 percent Ontario apples
• Ontario cider producers represent a new and increasing demand for Ontario grown apples
• Ontario craft cider be a major component of the premier’s rural economic development challenge
Haworth knows it’s going to be an up-hill battle to bring the Ontario craft cider industry into the mainstream (which means exposure on the shelves of Ontario’s only booze retailer, the LCBO).
“We haven’t even really started,” says Haworth. “We’re just scratching the surface. But the appetite for cider is growing.”
Under the surface of the mainstream, craft cider is doing a booming business. It is taking over taps in trend-setting bars, is slowly seeing shelf space at the LCBO with some established brands such as Pommies, Spirit Tree and the company that has long been thought of as leading the industry in Ontario, the County Cider Company and its popular Waupoos Cider.
Haworth has started and operated his business in three phases:
• Start company and produce cider from sourced Ontario apples
• Own his space to manufacture the cider and provide a site for other startups.
• Own a farm dedicated to making Ontario craft cider
He has purchased 75 acres in Carlisle, Ontario, and plans to eventually plant dozens of varieties of apples to replace the strawberries and pumpkins previously planted at the farm. He hopes to have a retail store so that a visit to West Avenue is a country experience complete with pig roasts matched to an array of ciders made on-site.
Haworth is a big dreamer who seems to have a knack of turning those dreams into reality.
On my visit last month, the music was blaring as Haworth and Tariq Ahmed, owner of Ontario’s newest cider brand, Revel Cider, were busy bottling for the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition that took place in Michigan in early April (both companies won medals, see story below).
Around the cidery, it was a like a science lab on steroids. Sharing space with crushed apples were crushed grapes (Semillon, Merlot, Riesling), spent grape skins, cherries, honey, used Cognac barrels, Bourbon barrels, all kinds of barrels in various sizes plus vats of ciders undergoing fermentation with a variety of experimental and wild yeasts.
Haworth pulled samples of everything he could and it showed the wide-range of styles you can achieve with a bit of ingenuity and creativity. This is exactly what will propel this industry into a bright future. Every ingredient brings a little something different and unique to the finished cider.
Here’s what I tasted on my visit from West Avenue and Revel Cider (note, prices vary from bar to bar, only available at bars on tap or by the bottle)
West Avenue Cherry Beach Cider (91 points, 7.5% alc) — This barrel-fermented cider was made with Niagara Montmorency cherries and aged for 18 months in oak barrels that were previously used for Pinot Noir. It shows a lively pale rose colour with rich aromas of apple, subtle cherry, citrus and a nice spice note. There’s a delicate spritz on the palate with an explosion of crisp apple, soft layers of cherry and spice with a clean invigorating finish.
West Avenue Barrett Fuller’s Secret Cider (89 points, 9.5% alc) — This cider was aged in Kentucky Bourbon oak barrels and would appeal to the more adventurist cider lovers out there. The nose shows spicy vanilla notes with apple pie and a splash of caramel. There’s some heft on the palate with flavours of ginger beer, applesauce, spiced vanilla and a creamy note. Very different and spirited offering.
West Avenue North by West Ice Cider 2013 (93 points, 375 ml, 11.5% alc) — Made from frozen juice and slowly fermented. It shows a beautiful deep amber colour and has a nose of caramel apple, honeycomb and creamy vanilla. It is luxurious on the palate with a thick and rich profile with baked apple flavours, cream, spice with sweet honey notes through the finish.
West Avenue Heritage Dry Cider (90 points, previously reviewed) — This is the flagship cider from West Avenue and it’s everything you want in a cider — crisp, relatively dry, teeming in apple flavours, lovely long and refreshing finish and balanced from sniff to swallow.
Revel Cider Hop X Cider (92 points, 6.9% alc) — Cider maker Tariq Ahmed stumbled on this “mutant” Ontario-grown hop variety from Clear Valley Hops (see full story of the mystery behind Hop X here) and he hasn’t looked back, creating this feral cider that is the wild beast of the cider world at the moment. Wow, what a nose of bright apple, funky hop notes, yeast, brioche, lanolin, fresh-cut hay and underlying Mandarin orange and lychee aromas. It has delicious baked apple flavours, slight effervescence, dry hops and a pinch of astringency on the finish. You want geek? You got geek. But also a standard-bearer for the creativity that’s going on in the cider world.
Revel Cider Liquid Gold Cider (89 points, 6.9% alc) — Made from golden Russet apples and fermented with wild yeast. The nose shows bright apple, yeasty-bready notes and crisp lemon aromas. It shows tart apple with vivid acidity, citrus, lemon, a touch of tropical fruit leading to a long, smooth delivery.
Ontario cideries capture 25 awards in total
The Ontario Craft Cider Association (OCCA) was pretty pumped to announce the results from the Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition (GLINTCAP) that took place this past weekend in Michigan.
And deservedly so; Ontario ciders took home a total of 25 medals, including 1 gold, 8 silver and 16 bronze, an increase of nine medals over last year’s showing. Ontario’s Beaver Valley took home the OCCA’s only gold medal for Best New World Cider in the Modern category.
The competition took place on April 10-12, 2015, and this year had 617 in entries in total.
“This year’s medal count is what happens when determination and collaboration have Mother Nature on their side. Our ciders are a reflection on the fact that Ontario has the best apples in the world,” said Tom Wilson, Chair, OCCA. “We are looking forward to hearing how the Ontario government will be supporting our promising and rapidly growing industry in this year’s budget.”
The medal haul:
• Beaver Valley Orchard & Cidery – Beaver Valley Flagship Cider – New World Cider – Modern
• KW Craft Cider – KW Craft Cider – New World Cider – Modern
• Pommies Cider Co. – Pommies Dry Cider – New World Cider – Modern
• Pommies Cider Co. – Pommies Farmhouse Cider – New World Cider – Modern
• Spirit Tree Estate Cidery – Spirit Tree New England – New England Cider
• Spirit Tree Estate Cidery – Spirit Tree Dry Hopped – Hopped/Herbal Cider
• West Avenue Cider – Cherriosity – Fruit Cider
• West Avenue Cider – Centennial Reserve – Wood Aged Cider and Perry
• West Avenue Cider – Cherry Beach – Specialty Cider and Perry
• Beaver Valley Orchard & Cidery – Beaver Valley Bumbleberry Cider – Fruit Cider
• Beaver Valley Orchard & Cidery – Beaver Valley Ginger Cider – Spiced Cider
• Hoity Toity Cellars – 66 Pick Up – New World Cider – Modern
• Pommies Cider Co. – Pommies Perry – New World Perry
• Puddicombe Cider Co. – Sir Issac’s Apple Cider – New World Cider – Modern
• Puddicombe Cider Co. – Sir Isaac’s Peach Cider – Fruit Cider
• Revel Cider Company – Liquid Gold – New World Cider – Modern
• Spirit Tree Estate Cidery – Spirit Tree Sparkling Crabapple – Specialty Cider and Perry
• Thornbury Village Cidery – Thornbury Premium Apple Cider – New World Cider – Modern
• Twin Pines Orchards & Cider House – Hammer Bent Original – New World Cider – Modern
• Twin Pines Orchards & Cider House – Hammer Bent Red – New World Cider – Modern
• Twin Pines Orchards & Cider House – Hammer Bent Perry – New World Perry
• Twin Pines Orchards & Cider House – Crack Willow – Applewine
• West Avenue Cider – Heritage Dry – New World Cider – Modern
• West Avenue Cider – Barrett Fuller’s Secret – Wood Aged Cidery and Perry
• West Avenue Cider – Gold Blush – Specialty Cider and Perry