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Niagara’s Richard Liu wants to put Ontario ciders on the world stage, and he just might do it

Ontario cider

By Rick VanSickle

Richard Liu, above, has a plan and, oh boy, it’s a big one. He is not content with aiming at total domination of taps at Ontario bars and shelf space at the LCBO and grocery stores, though he’s doing quite well with that.

No, sir, it’s the entire world he’s gunning for. A full-out campaign to have his ciders poured at the finest establishments the planet has to offer. But first he has to find the secret sauce for the world’s greatest apple cider.

He’s working on that.

Ontario craft cider

Liu is the owner of Niagara-on-the-Lake based Ironwood Hard Cider — an offshoot of Sunnybrook Farm Estate Winery, a producer of fruit-based Niagara wines — which he purchased along with the surrounding orchards in 2013.

Liu had visions of turning the business into a VQA winery, but, partly because Ironwood Cider was so robust in the market place already, “we went the cider route.”

Liu graduated from York University in 2004 with a BA (honours) in communications and political science and has a work history that is heavy on the marketing side.

Ontario wine country

His vision of finding the perfect cider to capture an international audience is a beautiful mix of business, marketing and a love of good cider.

“We have to be a premium player,” Liu tells me as we try his lineup of ciders spread out on his dining room table in the house where he lives with his family on the property. “If we want to make this category viable, we have to make a premium product.”

Liu believes “cider is at a crossroads right now.” He says the majority of new cider drinkers come from the craft beer crowd, and that has peaked and leveled out. Now “we need to go more like wine and make cider an acquired taste. We need to convert wine drinkers into cider drinkers.”

That’s a tall order — especially in Niagara.

Liu has made it his mission to flip the two sides of his business around. Ironwood is going to emerge as the dominant force with the Sunnybrook fruit wines taking on a supporting, and very minor, role.

The sign outside the existing winery on Lakeshore Road gives Sunnybrook prominence but Liu has a new plan for an 8,000-square-foot cidery/winery beside the existing building that will put Ironwood Cider front and centre and will become the first cider-dominated facility in Niagara. He hopes to break ground next month and be up and running in the new facility next summer.

It will be a barn-like structure that will house the working cidery and winery, both of which have out-grown the present digs, but will also expand the tasting and retail areas to focus more on the cider products.

With the new cidery will come a new label, a new marketing plan and concentration on artisanal ciders with large-formats with cask and age-worthy ciders and perries on the horizon.

Not to mention that world-beater cider that is clearly on Liu’s mind but not on the table of samples he’s poured for me; because it hasn’t been made yet — it hasn’t even been conceived.

“Our goal is to go outside of Canada with our cider. You have to make quality stuff, you have something that puts you in the marketplace,” he says rather convincingly.

He is brutally honest with me during our tasting. Pointing to the table where there’s an array of pretty tasty ciders, he says: “None of these are going to open doors outside Canada. When we open (the new) store, we hope we have it. We know that’s our goal.”

What shape or style that cider takes is still a work in progress. Where the apples for that new cider come from, a problem for all Ontario cider makers, he does not know.

Liu travels a lot to different cider regions to taste and appreciates the different styles. He talks a lot about the natural and dry Basque country ciders from Spain, English ciders and the French style of low alcohol and sweet fruit.

“I want to introduce different ciders then figure out what we’re really good at. I don’t know what that style is yet. We want to be a specialist, not a generalist.”

I truly don’t know what to make of this enthusiastic idealist. He has a grand vision, an ambitious goal for the future of cider in Ontario with Ironwood at the forefront of the revolution. Is it the bravado of youth, or an aggressive business plan that just might work? We will have that answer in the not-too-distant future.

But Richard Liu is the first cider person I’ve ever interviewed that thinks beyond the narrow borders of their own backyard to grow their product.

That alone makes me want to not bet against him.

The portfolio at Ironwood is a tasty smorgasbord of ciders that all stem from the flagship Ironwood Original Cider, crafted from up to eight different 100% fresh-pressed Ontario apples. It’s made traditionally with a dry finish. It is a deliciously fresh cider, but not unlike a lot of flagship Ontario ciders. It’s the funkier side of the cider world I gravitate to; this is what separates one cidery from the other.

Ironwood is constantly experimenting with style and content, yeasts, filtering, oak aging, and other fruits for the blend. They also have an ever-changing roster of seasonals that are available at the winery by growler or on taps at top cider bars in Ontario. It won’t be until next summer some time that Ironwood will be set up to sell 750 mL bottles of their off-beat seasonals and other imaginative offerings.

Here’s what we tasted and what I can recommend (it should be noted, not all these ciders are always available to buy at the winery as it’s an ever-changing roster that is there one day and gone the next).

The Ciders

Ironwood Tres Robles Cider (7.5% abv, 88 points) — Three kinds of toasted oak are used in the cider making process for this concoction. The oak gives the cider a nutty, vanilla and almond profile on the nose to go with soft apple notes. It’s quite smooth and polished on the palate with flavours of bruised apple, touch of spritz and toasted vanilla notes.

Ironwood Lakeshore Fresh II Cider (6.5% abv, 89 points) — This is a dry-hopped cider from local Niagara hops (100% Cascade grown two minutes from the cidery) with a Saison yeast. The nose is fresh and lively with aromas of bright apple, citrus, spruce needles, herbs and earthy notes. It’s perfectly dry on the palate with lemon, grass, herbs, touch of spice and a refreshing finish.

Bronze Medal:
• GlintCap 2016

Ironwood Perrydise (6.4%, 91 points) — A blend of Ontario Bartlett and Bosc pears that was fermented in oak and then aged six months on the lees. This is a true perry and has an enticing nose of vanilla wafer, poached pear and creamy, spicy notes. It’s layered and textured on the palate with creamy pear and vanilla flavours all lifted by decent acidity. Nice drop here.

Gold Medal:
• 2016 Ontario Cider Awards, Silver Medal
• 2017 Canadian Brewing Awards “Specialty Cider”

Seasonal Ciders

Ironwood Cowabunga Cider (7.2% abv, 89 points) — The blend is 20% fresh cranberries and the rest Ontario apples. The nose shows subtle notes of cranberry with mature apple, violets and bramble notes. The tart and earthy cranberry flavours are kicked up a notch on the palate with balancing apple notes on what feels like a dry finish. Very nice.

Ironwood Screachin’ Peach Cider (6.3% abv., 90 points) — Made with a blend of Niagara peaches and Ontario apples with a ginger infusion and finished unfiltered to retain as much peach flavour as possible. Shows up slightly cloudy in the glass with notes of pulpy peach, light ginger, bin apples and funky-earthy notes. It’s deliciously creamy and textured on the palate with warm apple notes, integrated ginger and peach cobbler flavours through a long finish.

Ironwood Cherrybomb! Cider (7.6% abv, 87 points) — Made with about 35% Niagara Montmorency cherries and blended with the flagship Original Cider. Cherries jump from the glass on the nose, a big, bombastic blast of ripe kirsch, apple and honey. This is the sweetest cider in the portfolio and on the palate shows a range of cotton candy, sweet and mature cherries, cloves and cream soda. A lot going on here.