Paul Vander Heide, foreground, and Jarrod May check the inventory at Vander Mill Cider. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Paul Vander Heide sees a big, bright future for Vander Mill Cider.
The cider maker is among the largest independent hard cider producers in the country, yet compared to local craft beer makers, Vander Mill isn’t very big.
Last year, the Spring Lake-based company produced approximately 225,000 gallons of cider — or, in beer terms, 8,000 barrels. Founders Brewing Co. made more than 190,000 barrels of beer last year, while New Holland Brewing Co. brewed just under 35,000 and Perrin Brewing Co. produced about 14,000 barrels.
Hard cider is in its infancy compared to craft beer. Vander Heide compared the industry to where craft beer was in the 1980s: a few large producers and some fledging independent producers. He sees a lot of growth potential and plans to open a production facility and taproom in Grand Rapids later this year.
Vander Heide recently purchased the former B&B Distributing facility at 505 Ball Ave. NE for $2 million. An additional $1.3 million will be spent to renovate the facility to make it fit Vander Heide’s vision, including raising 13,000 square feet of roof four feet for production capabilities.
Initially, the facility will allow Vander Mill to increase production to 1 million gallons, with the possibility to expand to 6 million gallons.
“It’s one thing I thought of, evaluating the facility: ‘What does it look like when it’s full?’” Vander Heide said. “No matter how crazy it might seem now, how far can we get?”
To start with, most of Vander Mill’s Spring Lake production equipment will move to Grand Rapids and four new 350-barrel fermenters will be added. Assuming sales continue to grow, there is space for more than 25 additional fermenters.
“We still have a lot of sales growth to fill that initial capacity,” he said. “We have room, but that’s where it gets silly. That’s (200,000) to 300,000 barrels.”
Vander Heide plans to transform the building’s former office area into a restaurant, and the entrance will get a facelift to create a patio. The taproom will employ between 60 and 70 people, according to Vander Heide.
The production operation will remain at five employees for the time being, but Vander Heide said he plans to add administrative and sales support.
Growth has come quickly for Vander Mill, which originally opened in 2006 with the intention to make mostly sweet apple cider. Then the hard cider side of the business took off, and now the cider is distributed across Michigan and into Chicago, Ohio and Indiana.
The company completed a $600,000 expansion in 2013 that allowed it to scale up to its capacity and also put its products into cans.
Nearing capacity, Vander Heide began looking for a place to expand his production.
“We have physical space issues,” he said. “Moving to Grand Rapids is pretty strategic to us. We wanted to be in a space that allowed us to showcase our process, and Grand Rapids has a really captive audience for good food and beverage.”
Initially, the search for a new facility included the lakeshore, but once the search was narrowed to Grand Rapids, the former B&B Distributing facility was a quick find and a logical fit to meet Vander Mill’s needs.
Located near Michigan Street and Plymouth Avenue, Vander Heide is excited about the potential of becoming a neighborhood restaurant and tourist destination. He said on summer weekends, the Spring Lake taproom’s parking lot is filled with Illinois license plates.
“The more I look back on it, I would have chosen this building again 10 times,” he said. Because of the large space, Vander Heide said jokes among staff have been to add a basketball court and go-cart track.
“We’re getting into a building dramatically bigger than our production warrants right now,” he said. “This building gives us the opportunity to continue to grow more organized and controlled.
“It’s a very significant investment for the size of our company, and we’re betting on the … industry growing as it has been.”
As far as distribution goes, Vander Heide sees plenty of growth in Vander Mill’s current markets and will keep the focus on those before expanding to any new markets. He would rather not enter a new market and pull out because production can’t keep up with demand.
“We’re small enough — cider is small enough, as a total — that we have a lot of work to do in Michigan and Chicago, and some … other states are getting their first taste,” he said. “We have to do a good job of educating and marketing.”
Often lumped in with beer brewing, cider making is more like wine making, Vander Heide said. Hard cider is fermented fruit juice, and Vander Mill aspires to allow the apples to showcase their true flavors. He said the company has scaled back on added sugar as consumers begin to appreciate the beverage for what it is.
He also said a major cider producer’s claim of there being one to two apples used per pint is fairly accurate.
Vander Mill looks to the Fruit Ridge for all of its apples. Last year, Vander Mill processed nearly 3 million pounds of apples. If and when production reaches 1 million gallons, Vander Mill will use approximately 12 million pounds.
Typical dessert apples aren’t good for cider making, and Vander Heide — and the Michigan Cider Association — is working with local farms to plant more cider varieties. For a long time, apple growers have preferred growing fruit used for products such as apple sauce and pie fillings. Now, as relationships between cider producers and apple growers strengthen, the opportunity is there for apple growers to diversify.
That will help consumers too, Vander Heide said.
“The consumer likes to know where food is coming from, and we’re a great example of that,” he said. “You can go for a drive and see the apples that go into our products.”