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West Avenue reaches the core of goodness with an ever-evolving range of ciders

By Rick VanSickle

The answer to the question “how far would I drive for curb-side pickup of delicious Ontario cider in a pandemic” is simple: about 50 minutes.

That’s how long it takes to get from my home in St. Catharines to West Avenue Cider in Freelton, northwest of Hamilton. Of course, I could have had it delivered free, but that would deprive me of a chance meeting (at a socially-distanced space) with owners Chris Haworth and Amy Robson. It was a bright, sunny spring day (a rarity this year) when the sudden urge took me to West Avenue. After ordering and paying online for curb-side pickup I was quickly emailed back that the order was ready and would be sitting on a picnic table outside the tasting and retail store upon arrival. Somewhere between Niagara and Somerset Orchards, my wife Maureen added to the order with several items from the bakery, and fresh farm eggs.

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I drove in, saw Haworth and Robson, and we chatted for a while about the current situation we are all in with COVID-19. Online ordering and curb-side pickup (or free delivery) for cider has been brisk at West Avenue and the ordering from the bakery is also helping with sales, but the couple says it will never replace what has been lost so far in this pandemic.

The couple says sales have been surprisingly robust with a steady stream of vehicles picking up orders curb-side and full loads of ciders for delivery is keeping drivers hopping on a daily basis. But the loss of revenue from tasting/retail room sales and cancelled events, such as the weekly weddings that were booked throughout the summer, hurts the bottom line significantly. They aren’t complaining, only lamenting the fact that the new reality and uncertainty for the future weighs on them.

Haworth continues to make his range of diverse ciders, the largest collection of myriad styles in the province, and keeps looking for ways to move the needle in a pandemic. He’s noticed an up-tick from consumers ordering cases (24 cans) of both flagship ciders — the Heritage Dry and Cherriosity — so he decided to put some of his other ciders in 355 mL cans, including the Genevieve (gin barrel aged) and Wild Oak ciders. Both those ciders (and others) will be available for sale soon. Haworth noted with the loss of sales in bars and pubs, especially for the 750 mL bottles, he had to innovate and offer more packaging choices for his clients. I tried both of the above ciders and they didn’t lose anything in the translation from 750 mL bottles to 355 mL cans.

After placing my order in the car, Haworth wanted me to try a few things that are coming up, so he sent me home with a couple of the new cans and some other tasty treats you will see soon on the West Ave. website. As with all West Ave. one-off ciders, they are offered at a steady pace and often made in small quantities. You see them and then they are gone. The best become regulars on the cidery menu.

If you know the kind of ciders Haworth likes to make and drink, you are fully aware he loves to experiment with different oak barrel ferments and aging as well as various fermenting techniques and yeasts. His range of ciders is, for the most part, bone dry with some effervescence, though he appreciates a well-made dry and still cider, English style. There is nothing he won’t try at least once.

Of the ciders I tried recently for this report, his style shines through in all iterations. One stood above all the others (a warning here, I am partial to added fresh fruit in my ciders, so I have a bias toward these concoctions). The West Avenue Cherry Beach Cider 2012 simply blew me away. Perfectly balanced, complex, teaming with cherry/apple fruit and alarmingly gulpable.

But, it’s not just Haworth’s funky ciders that make West Ave. one of the leaders in the province, it’s also the quality and consistency of both the flagship Heritage Dry and Cherriosity ciders. The Heritage Dry is simply the best regular cider (along with County Cider’s Waupoos Cider) in Ontario and Haworth stands alone with his cherry blended Cherrisoity. Go ahead, prove me wrong!

Here’s what I tried and liked recently:

West Avenue Cherry Beach Cider 2012 ($20 for 750 mL bottle, 8.5% abv, 95 points) — Made with barrel aged Montmorency cherries, but with this version of Cherry Beach, Haworth left it in the barrel longer — two years instead of 12-18 months. It’s made with 35% whole Montmorency cherries — pits, skins included — and fermented in the barrel with natural yeast that’s on the cherries. The yeast sediment is stirred every four weeks or so. “That’s really about all we do with this,” says Haworth. “We say it’s the grown up sister cider to our Cherriosity cider.” It shows a light copper colour in the glass with aromas of fresh cherries, apple skin, earth and subtle spice notes. It has light effervescence on the palate with fresh, tart red berries, baked apple, touch of citrus zest, spice and perfect balance through an electric finish. Such a lovely cider that I wish was available 365 days a year.

West Avenue Pomina Ice Cider ($18 for a 750 mL bottle, 12.5% abv, 92 points) — Pomino (with an “o” is made with high Brix, pure apple juice in the same way the cidery cryo-concentrates frozen juice for the ice ciders. It’s a still table cider version. The Pomina (with an “a”) is the sister cider, with the sweetness fermented dry. It shows a deep golden colour in the glass with aromas of baked apple, saline, ginger, leesy notes and baked brown sugar. The mouth-filling flavours on the palate range from warm apple pie with all the spices, honeycomb (but dry), that’s rich, lavish and surprising refreshing on the long finish.

West Avenue Autumn Cider ($14, 7.5% abv, 91 points) — Autumn is a blend of Golden Russet, Fameuse, Northern Spy and Calville Blanc d’Hiver apples and is a true heritage cider. It is fermented with wild yeast and bottled unfiltered and unpasteurized. I am appreciating the fact that top cideries such as West Ave. are leaning more and more on traditional heritage apples for their cider; they add such complexity, flavours and interest without the added sugar. This has a lovely, perfumed nose of fresh-cut apples, pith and some citrus rind notes. It has subtle effervescence with bold, tangy apple, lemon accents, and a hint of spice on a fresh, vibrant finish.

West Avenue Russell Niles Cider 2017 ($20 for 750 mL bottle, 93 points) — This is a vintage dated cider that’s aged 18 months in Cognac barrels. If you are familiar with the Barrett Fuller cider, you’ll most likely know he’s just a pseudonym for Russell Niles. For this limited edition cider, Haworth thought he’d change it up and see what Cognac barrels would bring to the party. It has a deep golden colour in the glass with aromas of sweet oak spices, apple skin, nougat, ginger and caramel. It’s a full bodied cider that is rich and textured with flavours of baked apple pie, caramel, honey, finessed and a near-dry impression on a perky finish. A nice aperitif or serve with a lovely Cuban cigar on the back deck.

West Avenue Genevieve Gin Barrel Aged + Lactose Cider ($5 for a 355 ml can, 8.9% abv, 89 points) — This was aged in Willibald Distillery gin barrels for three years. Part of the new designer ciders in can series (available soon), this is a very different style. The aromas range from tart apple to juniper, wild sage, wild flowers and a range of botanicals and spice. It reminds me a gin and tonic, but with added apple notes, on the palate that’s smooth and boozy through the finish.

West Avenue Wild Oak Barrel Aged Cider ($3.50 for 355 mL cans, 6.9% abv, 90 points) — Barrel fermented and bottle-conditioned heritage cider with wild yeast and aged for 12 months. A nose of bright apple, earthy/spice notes and funkiness. It’s textured and spicy on the palate with apple flavours and a certain freshness on the finish.