It has become somewhat of a routine: detour off the QEW at the Fruitland Road exit, wind around the twisty roads of East Hamilton and duck into the industrial park where Chris Haworth (and often others) are crushing apples, pumping juice, topping up oak barrels or otherwise concocting the next batch of something very special from the orchards of Ontario.
Welcome to the West Avenue working cidery, where, temporarily, owner and cider master Haworth spends his days creating craft elixirs made from the purity of Ontario apples and whatever else he sees fit to add in and/or not add in.
I love fly-by encounters at the Hamilton facility where new batches of some of Ontario’s most interesting ciders are crafted. Tasting them out of barrel or tote offers a peak inside one of the fastest growing drink categories in the province. Which is crazy to even contemplate, as it’s an industry that has taken off without much help from anyone other than a grass-roots explosion of interest from consumers. Rules and regulations for cider makers, and lack of support from the Ontario government, make it an extremely difficult category in which to earn a living.
You won’t find 95% of the new ciders being made in Ontario at the LCBO (although the shelves are crowded with mass-produced crap ciders made from juice concentrate) but they are thriving (and growing) because of the number of taps they are taking over in Ontario pubs, bars and restaurants. People are digging local ciders.
For most craft cider producers in Ontario, the risks are high and rewards are often tucked away in a business plan to be realized years down the road when they are finally given the same benefits as Ontario wine and craft beer producers.
There is renewed excitement from the Ontario Craft Cider Association (OCCA) with the passage late last year of Bill 110 (Growing Ontario’s Craft Cider Industry Act).
The bill received second reading in the Ontario Legislature in early November. Once fully implemented, Bill 110 will provide a level playing field for craft cider comparable to Ontario’s craft brewers.
The bill will ensure that the tax or mark-up imposed on Ontario craft cider does not exceed the mark-up or tax imposed on craft beer in Ontario, ensuring the industry receives the same incentives enjoyed by craft beer producers.
With a level field, the potential for expansion of this home grown industry is immense. Increased sales will contribute to Ontario’s rural economic growth, create new jobs and strengthen communities throughout the province.
For Haworth, pictured above in his Hamilton facility, and others who have entered the quickly emerging category, that means increased expansion and an easy transition to mainstream sales that will take the industry to the next level.
West Avenue founder Haworth, born of British heritage with a life-long passion for hard ciders, has taken cider-making to a whole new level.
He quit his high-profile job as the executive chef at Spencer’s at the Waterfront in Burlington several years ago to pursue cider, his greatest love. It didn’t take him long to source Ontario-grown apples and bottle 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.
He began adding other ciders to his portfolio, 42 different ciders at last count, and grew his following, slowly building the business which led to the space where he now crafts all his ciders in Hamilton.
He also purchased a farm with 75 acres in Carlisle and began planting dozens of varieties of cider apples. The plan is to open the retail and tasting facility this spring where all his ciders will be for sale, many of them estate ciders, including the one-offs, either in bottle or by the growler.
Things are looking good at West Avenue. As are things for cider in the rest of Ontario. The buzz is that there will be an explosion of cider makers emerging this year to add to an already robust selection.
Even traditional wineries in Ontario are adding cider to their portfolios to utilize empty tanks after the grapes have been processed and to add choice to tasting room. The Old Third in Prince Edward County makes an amazing sparkling cider (which filled void during a bad harvest), Vieni in Niagara recently developed its own sparkling cider, Small Talk Vineyards in Niagara added an entire line of delicious ciders called Shiny Cider, which can be found at the LCBO or by bottle or growler at the winery, and several other wineries in wine country are racing to add at least one or two ciders to their winery experience.
Craft cider has found a home in Ontario, and that’s a very good thing.
Here’s what I tasted from the new ciders coming from Haworth as well as some updates on other regular ciders in his portfolio (note, prices vary from bar to bar, only available at bars on tap or by the bottle):
West Avenue Wild Oak Cider 2013 (94 points) — If you are lucky enough to find a bottle of this (only 600 were produced) you are in for a real treat. This is a small batch, limited edition cider with 6 months of bottle conditioning that’s wild fermented and aged in older oak barrels used by Niagara’s Tawse and Le Clos Jordanne wineries. The nose is simply out of this world with sweet cinnamon spice, baked apple, slightly smoky with cloves, caramel and pear preserves. It has subtle effervescence and a rounded texture on the palate with barrel oak spices, wood tannins, creamy apple notes and complexity through the finish. This is a cider that explores the outer boundaries of a brave new world for this exciting elixir.
West Avenue Sidra Edulis Cider (92 points, only available at Edulis restaurant in Toronto) — This is Haworth’s nod to the famous natural ciders from Spain’s Basque country. It’s made totally natural, no sulphur added, unfiltered, from tote to bottle and left to its own devices for a year. Like all natural ciders, it’s cloudy with floaty things that dissipate when you give it a good shake (also recommended that you pour from a vertical distance — Basque style). The nose is stunning with apple skin, poached pear, yeast, lemon peel and a certain earthiness. It is wild and untethered on the palate with laser sharp acidity, tart apple fruit, subtle anise flavours and enough tannins to provide structure on the finish. A beautiful food cider to pair with a range of charcuterie.
West Avenue Cherry Funk Cider (92 points) — This is a farmhouse-style “scrumpy” fermented with Montmoreny cherry juice and made with wild and brett yeast, and left unfiltered and unpasteurized. A crazy concoction that tests your senses with a funky nose of fresh cherries, cranberries with a brett note to go with pithy apple and a touch of citrus. It starts off-dry on the palate with all those wonderful red fruits but finishes dry with a citrus and tart apple edge to it. Don’t be surprised if one pint tastes different than the next one — this is an ever-changing, living, breathing cider.
West Avenue Gold Dust (90 points) — Made with single variety golden russet apples and finished with a healthy 8.2% alc. It has a complex and alluring nose of spiced apple, apple skin and subtle earthy note. It’s a ripe and full-bodied cider, more voluptuous than crisp with mature apple flavours on the palate and an interesting anise/licorice note on the 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 dried apple, vanilla and creamy notes. There’s some heft on the palate with flavours of apple pie, applesauce spiced vanilla with a crisp, vibrant finish.
West Avenue Cherriosity Cider (88 points) — It’s a lovely pale salmon colour and displays a vigorous bubble in the glass. The cider is expressive on the nose with fragrant sweet cherry and crisp apple notes. It’s off-dry on the palate, but refreshing and well-balanced with layers of black cherry and baked apple notes.
West Avenue North by West Ice Cider 2013 (93 points, 375 ml, 11.5% alc, previously reviewed) — 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.