BY RICK VANSICKLE
You talk to anyone in the Ontario craft cider industry and you always get an earful on everything from limited access to their products for consumers, brutal taxation to the hoops they have to jump through to get their ciders on the shelves of the province’s largest retailer, the LCBO.
There’s truth in that. Scan the aisles of any LCBO store and, at first glance, it appears cider is a healthy, robust category that only a couple of years ago barely existed. A closer look unveils a sea of mass-produced swill made from apple concentrate all gussied up to look like delicious hand-crafted cider made lovingly bottle by bottle a ma and pop operation. On the fringes you’ll see (from time to time) some breakthrough Ontario ciders — Pommies, Puddicombe, Spirit Tree, Thornbury, Ironwood, County Cider, for example — on the shelves competing for space with the likes of Strongbow, Seagram, Moslon Canadian Cider, Sommersby, Stella Artois … you get the point, and you can see what they are up against. Big international companies who can make millions of cans of somewhat simple industrail cider from concentrate without breaking a sweat at high margins for their mega companies.
That’s not so easy when you are actually sourcing (or growing your own) Ontario apples, crushing them locally, crafting them locally and then trying to navigate the vast bureaucratic sea of red tape the LCBO lays down at every step along the way without so much as lifting a finger to help. Marketing? What? Forget about that. All the money goes into the product, as it should.
You can’t blame the big boys for cashing in on a category that has taken off. And they can churn it out, producing millions of cans of sweet, uninteresting cider that is presented just how the LCBO likes it — in perfect little cans in easy-to-grab, eye-catching packages. They know how to play the game with LCBO brass and they have the cash to beat down any rabble-rousers who dare infiltrate their space.
It’s hard for any of the 20 or so Ontario craft cideries in Ontario to break through that corporate environment at the government monopoly and the tight hold — some suggest over 70% — that imported (un)craft cider enjoys in the marketplace. Producers of true 100% Ontario apple cider, you know, made from 100% orchard-grown Ontario apples, have a slim share of under 10% of the total cider market.
Ontario cideries do not enjoy the same kind of tax breaks as Ontario VQA wineries do and they are not treated with the same respect on the shelves of the LCBO.
It’s a long, protracted battle gaining respect for the Ontario craft cider category that will take a lot of money and effort from the growing association of craft cideries. But, make no mistake, they are making headway, because consumers are beginning to understand the vast difference between heavily manufactured ciders and those made with loving care.
Look no further than taps around Toronto, where the category thrives in an almost sub-culture of goodness that encourages variety and risk-taking. Consumers are quenching their thirst at an alarming rate with the next great, often funky, concoction of hard apple cider from the lastest wave of cider producers who deal almost exclusively outside the LCBO bureaucracy — cideries such as Revel Cider, West Avenue, Spirit Tree and Twin Pines.
And then there is the new wave of ciders emerging from Ontario wineries — Ravine, Tawse, The Old Third, Small Talk (Shiny Cider) and Peller (No Boats On Sunday) — that already have the tanks and expertise to produce as much apple cider as they can during the down time at the winery, some with remarkable success.
Many see light at the end of the tunnel with grocery store sales, where all agree the bureaucracy is nothing like the LCBO and access as been smooth and their ciders have been welcomed warmly with open arms. There appears to be an enthusiastic welcome and appreciation for Ontario craft ciders at grocery stores, from the producers I have spoken to, who marvel at the difference between dealing with them as opposed to the nightmare they face trying to get on LCBO shelves.
The grocery store model is built to help — not hinder — Ontario craft cideries. Stores are mandated to provide 50% of their shelf space for only Ontario ciders, where no such favour is granted at LCBO stores.
One producer, who I won’t name here, is encouraged by the potential of grocery store sales for craft cideries and the reception he gets for his products. Listings are free of the angst and roadblocks he has faced from the LCBO.
He goes as far as to say that the LCBO would be wise to learn from grocery stores on how to retail their products, on how to be a partner rather than a pylon standing in the way of success for both parties. Amen to that.
Enough politics! Let’s review some fine Ontario craft ciders tasted recently from County Cider Company in Prince Edward County, West Avenue Cider in Flamborough, Revel Cider in Guelph and the new Peller cider.
County Cider Company
County Cider, opened as the first “official” winery in 1996 in Prince Edward County, is run and owned by Grant Howes along with his partner (in life and making the cider) Jenifer Dean, below photo and Howes above. Howes essentially took over the family apple-growing business and turned it into a cidery/winery. The apple cider part of the business took off and eventually the wine side was scaled back to allow growth on the cider part of the business. Howes continues to plant heritage style apples on the property, while, Dean, a winemaker by trade, takes on duties as the cidermaker.
Howes has long been known as the “Godfather” of the modern cider industry and spends a great deal of his time lobbying for better access, less red tape and generally offering assistance to up-and-coming cideries attempting to ply their trade.
His Waupoos Premium Cider, made from late harvest and European cider apples in a semi-sweet and sparkling style, is a benchmark Ontario cider for me and I buy it whenever I can find it (I’ve been know to drive all the way to Collingwood from home in St. Catharines to grab a case). It appears sporadically on LCBO shelves only when managers insist on having it. The LCBO would like to see it packaged in cans, something Howes refuses to do because he feels it would alter the taste of the cider. Therefore it doesn’t get wide distribution at the monopoly. In my opinion, the LCBO should do everything it can to accommodate this quintessential Ontario cider on their shelves, but, alas, it’s just such a bother to handle those four-pack bottle packages (unless you are a big American company like Angry Orchards, of course, then it’s a different story).
Howes and Dean have been busy pounding the pavement getting their products on grocery stores shelves and have met with success and are eager for more listings. The bigger part of their business is their destination cidery in PEC complete with stunning views of Lake Ontario and a full-experience in the tasting room and restaurant.
While County Cider makes a wide range of products — from easy-to-drink peach, pear and other fruit ciders and specialty ciders to a wonderful oak-aged ice cider — his A Tortured Path Cider is the bomb, one of my favourites in Ontario.
County Cider A Tortured Path Cider ($8 for 500 mL bottle, 92 points) — A Tortured Path cider was inspired by ciders from Somerset, UK and made from bitter-sharp and bittersweet apples blended with Golden Russet apples with 6.5% abv. The nose shows funky/earthy baked apple notes, subtle spice and cinnamon with a soft mousse. It shows complexity on the palate with creamy apple, depth of flavour, spice notes and brilliant acidity to give it freshness through the finish. A delightful, multi-dimensional artisanal cider.
County Cider Golden Russet Cider ($17 for 750 mL bottle, 91 points) — As you can guess, a single-varietal cider finished with 8% abv. A gentle but persistent bead in the glass with a nose of apple pie, cream, toast, a touch of citrus and even a note of tropical fruit. It’s crisp and bright on the palate with forward green apple and a smidge of citrus-lemon all bolstered by brilliant, mouth-watering acidity in a perfectly dry style.
Note: Howes sent along a sample of his County Peach Cider, he describes as a “gateway” cider, for my 19-year-old son to try. The response I got from Tynan (it should be pointed out here that he’s not a big drinker of anything, really, but does a lot of sampling for his job at Chateau des Charmes) was that it was “pretty good.” Not sure if that’s a review or not, but he’s brutally honest in his assessments so take from that what you will.
West Avenue Cider
The story of West Avenue’s Chris Haworth, above, is legendary (chef turned dreamer turned virtual cider maker to full-fledged apple farmer and owner of his own licenced cidery soon to open at his facility and Somerset Orchards, near Flamborough) so I won’t repeat it here.
Haworth continues to push the craft cider industry forward with now staples in his portfolio and his continuous quest to spice things up especially with his fondness for various oak aging treatments in many of his exciting ciders, a favourite at taps across the province.
The last time I visited Haworth at his Hamilton facility he was in the final phase of moving the operation to his farm and tasting facility near Flamborough — where he has planted 70 or so varieties of apples on 3,500 trees — for the anticipated opening next spring. He has hundreds of cases piled up and ready to be moved to their new home where, at long last, consumers can finally gain access to the various products he bottles. Along with the move comes a redesign of his classic labels (seen above and below) and a re-energized cidermaker ready to seize the coming day when his new facility opens to the public.
Here are a few you’ll be able to get your hands on when he officially opens:
West Avenue Gold Dust 2013 (price NA, 91 points) — Note the vintage date. How awesome is that! I’ve been preaching for a while that apples are not that different than grapes, each harvest brings different results, thus different flavours, different acidity, different ripeness. A vintage on the label helps consumers understand what they are drinking and gives them perspective, so good job here. This particular bottling of Gold Dust gets a label makeover and some barrel-age treatment. It has been resting in Le Clos Jordanne wine barrels for three years. It feels, smells and performs like a wine in the glass with a spicy, vanilla, nutmeg and boozy — almost Bourbon — nose to go with mature baked apples notes. It has a soft mousse but good acidity, showing tart baked apple flavours that are broad and complex on the palate to go with roasted almonds and sweet barrel spice notes. A thought-provoking and intriguing cider.
West Avenue Barrett Fuller’s Secret Cider 2013 (price NA, 92 points) — This is another one-off, based on the original that was aged in Kentucky Bourbon oak barrels for 2.5 years. Again, a softer, mellower cider — that’s what barrel aging does — with a gentle bead in the glass and a nose of bin apple, pie crust, touch of marmalade character and barrel notes of vanilla and spice. Lovely texture on the palate, a bit of a whisky thang going on, joined to mature apple and a range of spice notes. There’s a smoky bite to this cider and slight bitter note on the finish but all in all a complex, contemplative craft cider with zippy acidity to keep it fresh.
West Avenue Nord Ouest Ice Cider 2015 (price NA, 93 points) — This is a single-vineyard Northern Spy apple ice cider finished at 9% abv. It pours a deep golden colour with a nose of earthy and fragrant mulled apple, vanilla, wild honey and forest floor notes. It’s unctuous on the palate with rich, layered, and boozy notes of caramelized citrus and marmalade, baked apples, lavish honey sweetness and a long, long finish kept fresh by racy acidity. A luxurious treat for dessert.
Revel Cider Co.
Young cider rebel Tariq Ahmed is one of the most inventive craft cider makers on the Ontario cider scene, making a wide-range of stylistic tipples and experimenting with various hops and yeasts to boost flavours and textures.
He had been working out of Chris Haworth’s Hamilton cider facility, but like Haworth, is moving to his new cidery in his hometown of Guelph — the city’s first cidery.
Don’t know if that means we’ll at some point be able to purchase his ciders at the cidery, LCBO or grocery stores or not but I sure hope so. This guy has the mind of crazy scientist, mixing styles, ingredients and flavours for some of the most unique ciders in the province. He’s like an underground cult experimentalist that appears out of nowhere on all the cool taps mostly in Toronto.
Living in St. Catharines, I rarely get to taste Revel but try to visit him when I can to at least get a taste of what he’s up to. He sent me home with this sample-bottled, hopped up cider.
Revel Cider Valancia’s Beret Cider (90 points) — This is a blend of Velancia oranges and Citra hops and apples. The nose shows a rich and sharp mix of marmalade, spiced apple, hops, and ginger. On the palate, the tasty apple and orange rind/marmalade notes intermingle with spruce needle in a crisp, hoppy style carried on a gentle bead. Completely cerebral and delicious!
Peller No Boats On Sunday Cider ($4 for 500 mL, Peller wine stores, 87 points) — A decent starter cider at a good price from Andrew Peller made from Nova Scotia apples with a nose of fresh apples and lightly spritzed. It fills the mouth with McIntosh apple flavours in an almost still style after the bubbles quickly disappear on the palate. There is sweetness here along with apple goodness but could use a little more zippy acidity. Enjoy for simple pleasure on a hot summer day.