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‘A true legend’ of the Ontario craft cider industry: Grant Howes dies at home in Prince Edward County

This is a hard story to write, the death of a close friend, a buddy, a pal — the passing of a gentle bear of a man who was forever smiling and laughing, the joy oozing from every fibre of his being.

Grant Howes, a friend to so many and a mentor to even more for his pioneering of the modern craft cider industry in Ontario, passed away quietly last night — a heart attack that felled a good man in his sleep, leaving his partner Jenifer Dean, their families, close friends and those in the cider industry to mourn the death of a man taken so young and so full of life with so much left to give. He was only 60 years old.

Grant was legendary in the cider business, his story well known about how he quit his white-collar job in B.C. to help with the family apple orchard in Prince Edward County and saw an opportunity to reinvigorate the long-forgotten craft cider business in Ontario.

Grant and Jenifer.

Said Chris Haworth, owner of West Avenue Cider, after hearing the sad news: “Grant was affectionately known as the Grandfather of Cider in Ontario. He was making cider long before any of us.

“When I started my own cider journey with West Avenue — it was Grant who I turned to for advice. He gave his advice freely and passionately. He was my mentor, and along the way he became my friend.

“He had a real passion and fighting spirit to lead cider in Ontario in the direction it deserves.

“When he talked — people listened, and no matter how tough his lesson. He always taught it with a twinkle in his eye. He had a big personality but a bigger heart. A true legend.”

Nick Sutcliffe, owner of Pommies Cider Co., devastated on hearing the news, had this to say about the passing of Grant.

“In the coming days, weeks and years it will be told over and over how Grant was the “Grandfather of Cider” in Ontario. This is true and can’t be said enough, but he was more than that. Grant laid the cornerstone of co-operation for the entire craft cider industry and it’s only because of his generosity of spirit that cideries exist in Ontario.

“His passion and his larger than life smile were contagious and will be missed, as will his ferocious determination to fight for fairness, and against inequalities.

“On a personal note, both Lindsay and I are devastated at the loss of such a great friend and great man. He was one of our favourite people on the planet and we will miss him enormously. Our hearts go out to Jenifer and the entire County Cider team.”

Friends outside the cider industry were remembering Grant as well today.

Said Bob Chant, a life-long friend of Grant’s:

“Grant was friends to many, including plenty of his public and high school friends. We stayed in touch and valued him and his friendship as much today as we did back in this good old days.  And Grant was a dreamer and a doer. And he always carried a great big smile with him. A great combination that made him so successful in life. His passion for making real what his imagination would create was one of the many things we remember and admire.”

Grant, whose background was in financial consultation, took the family orchards from “an apple farm with a cidery to a cidery with an apple farm in 2001,” though the family had been making small amounts of cider since 1995. The move from high finance in downtown Vancouver, where he lived prior to moving to Prince Edward County, to full-time farmer in Waupoos was “quite a lifestyle change” but one that is starting to pay dividends for Grant, he told me in an interview a few years ago.

“We’re growing at 50% a year. It’s just fantastic,” he said at the time. “For the first time the industry has momentum.”

Grant pointed to the growing trend worldwide for ciders and, in particular, the U.S., which, he said, was up 27% on volume last year and 31% on dollar value.

County Cider has always had one of the most diverse portfolios — and certainly has won the most awards in North America — of all ciders in Ontario. Aside from the flagship brand, the County Cider, there’s the semi-sweet and sparkling Waupoos Cider, the Prince Edward County Ice Cider, made from apples frozen on the tree, the Sweet Sparkling Cider, a couple of flavoured ciders and the newest cider in the portfolio, A Tortured Path Cider, an organic cider made from 50% bittersweet apples and sweeter golden Russet apples that will be high in tannin and built more like a red wine.

Grant was a tireless crusader against the red tape that has dogged the industry since it re-started in Ontario. He railed against distribution issues for cider makers, high taxes, and shelf exposure at the LCBO for Ontario-made ciders. Cider doesn’t get the same love that VQA wines get, he would tell anyone who listened.

“It’s been a long haul,” said Howes.

Collingwood boys golf weekend.

Grant found some comfort in the fact that grocery stores started selling Ontario craft ciders recently and was excited by the prospect of gaining shelf space beyond the reach of the government monopoly.

Grant and his now widow Jenifer Dean (who is also the cider maker at County Cider) resided in the 1832 Conrad David House, an area landmark in Prince Edward County, which is an excellent example of Regency Cottage architecture.

Next door, the property’s picturesque 1832 renovated stone pig barn houses the cidery’s tasting room and retail store along with a lunch program that features freshly made pizza from an outdoor stone pizza oven which pairs brilliantly with any number of the ciders available for purchase.

The family farm has been producing apples since 1850 in a region renowned for its wine, food and breathtaking views of Lake Ontario.

The boys heading into the David Gilmour concert just about a year.

Over 20 varieties of apples are grown at the farm, at two different orchards, which comprise approximately 40 acres of apple trees (approximately 15,000 trees). The orchards produce roughly 1,600 tonnes of apples each year. Among the varieties grown to create their ciders are Bulmer’s Norman, Ida Red, Russets, Northern Spy, Yarlington Mill, Dabinett, Michelin and Tremlett’s Bitter. These apples provide tannins and acidity — key ingredients when making quality cider.

On a personal note, I went to high school — Etobicoke Collegiate — with Grant and have fond memories of sitting in his parent’s basement on Saturday nights with 2-4s at our feet watching Hockey Night In Canada. We went our separate ways after high school, but re-connected when he moved to Prince Edward County and I was starting to cover the cider industry for freelance magazine stories and this website.

Grant was not the snappiest dresser on the golf course. But he had the most fun!

We made sure we saw each other a few times every year, either for cider business or with other high school buddies for our annual golf weekends. Well, actually two of them — one on the father’s day weekend in Collingwood, the other in late September in Muskoka. Boys will be boys.

Our most recent get together was just before Christmas, a high school reunion of sorts with friends at a bar close to the old watering hole we affectionately called the “I” that was located near ECI and frequented far too often in our youth.

Grant and Jenifer drove from PEC to be there, I drove from St. Catharines and we stayed at the Old Mill hotel.

I cherish what is now that memory, a memory of a good friend gone too soon. My heart goes out to Jenifer in this extremely difficult time.

I know there will be a celebration of Grant’s incredibly rich and robust life in Prince Edward County in the very near future. I will be there to raise a glass of cider to this incredible friend and giant of a man — both in heart and stature — from the Ontario cider industry.