Paul Vander Heide and his partners got into the cider business with the intention of producing just cider, fudge and donuts. Now, Vander Mill Cider & Winery is one of the largest producers of hard cider in the state. Photo by Johnny Quirin
One of the Midwest’s largest and fastest-growing craft cider producers, Vander Mill Cider & Winery in Spring Lake, has just completed a $600,000 expansion project that included renovation and the addition of fermentation equipment and a canning line that will be able to produce 1,800 16-ounce cans of hard cider per hour.
“During the past two years, our production has grown about 100 percent a year,” said owner Paul Vander Heide, 35. “Last year we produced about 43,000 gallons of hard cider and expect that to be over 100,000 this year.”
Vander Mill was launched in 2006 by Vander Heide and his wife, Amanda, with his brother and sister-in-law, Stu and Christie Vander Heide, as partners. Paul Vander Heide said it was originally just going to be a cider mill to fill a niche.
As a kid, Vander Heide, a Grand Rapids native, had been to Robinette’s apple farm and cider mill northeast of Grand Rapids many times. Then he married Amanda, whose parents owned Parmenter’s Northville Cider Mill in southeast Michigan, which gave him more insight into the business.
“My brother Stu and I thought it looked like a fun business,” he said, and they realized there didn’t seem to be any place close to the West Michigan lakeshore to buy fresh cider and donuts. The brothers figured that, aside from the usual cider, fudge and donuts, Vander Mill might also make some private label wines and maybe hard cider, with a small tasting room and retail store.
“We never intended to end up in what is now the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage category in the country,” he said.
They got a wine license in 2008, even as the country was sinking into a brutal economic recession. As a seasonal cider mill, Vander Mill’s first four years were a real struggle, Vander Heide said, so they decided production of hard cider was another route they could take to survive.
They had a connection at the Rosebud Restaurant in Grand Haven and succeeded in getting their first cider production sold on tap there.
Today there are 10 ciders on tap at Vander Mill and its hard cider is also on tap at several places in Grand Rapids. HopCat put it on tap in 2008, the year the popular craft beer pub opened.
Vander Mill hard cider has been in the Chicago market for a couple of years now. “We’ve got a good, strong brand down there, too,” said Vander Heide.
His cider is served at almost 100 Chicago-area bars and restaurants that specialize in craft beer and cider, including Sheffield’s, The Fountainhead, The Publican, Big Star, Bangers and Lace, Hopleaf and The Farmhouse. Vander Mill cider is available at a few retailers in Chicagoland, as well, including Binny’s Beverage Depot, Whole Foods and others.
“We’re not going to stop being a cider mill” where families love to go in the fall, said Vander Heide, but Vander Mill has changed significantly with the expansion project that started last fall. Now it is more of a pub-style restaurant with seating for 65, serving lunch and dinner every day. Located about a mile east of downtown Spring Lake on M-104, it also includes a 2,400-square-foot outdoor serving area — “exactly like a cider garden,” joked Vander Heide, as opposed to a beer garden.
Vander Mill employs three people full-time in cider production and a fourth will soon be hired. The seasonal restaurant adds several more to the employee roster.
Hard cider was much harder to find on American grocery store shelves a few years ago, but that has changed dramatically, and producers like the Vander Heides can certainly be said to be riding the wave.
Hard cider has long been popular in Europe and, to some extent, in Canada, while it has been largely ignored in the U.S. In some western European countries, according to Vander Heide, cider makes up at least 10 percent of alcoholic beverage consumption.
“Right now, hard cider is just barely at 0.3 percent of U.S. consumption,” he said — just three tenths of 1 percent.
“The expectation is there’s no reason we can’t get to at least 2 percent,” he added. “To do that across the country would be very, very considerable growth.”
Now the shelves in grocery and liquor stores carry a variety of hard cider brands, such as Woodchuck, Strongbow, Magners and Crispin, “which are owned by the big boys,” said Vander Heide.
Woodchuck is made by the Vermont Hard Cider company, which was recently acquired by C&C Group, an Irish beverage conglomerate that also bought the Magner’s brand. Strongbow is now owned by Heineken. MillerCoors bought Crispin a couple of years ago, and on May 13, the global brewing consortium Anheuser-Busch InBev announced its Stella Artois brand of Belgian beer has added Stella Artois Cidre, which is now on sale in 26 U.S. states.
These are not craft ciders, said Vander Heide. Craft cider makers are small, independent companies that usually press their own apples rather than relying on apple juice concentrate. Vander Mill’s apples are grown locally, but the severe frost in early 2012 forced them to rely on Washington State apples last year.
The difference in size between the big corporate cider makers and the craft makers is startling. Vander Mill, for example, is considered a craft cider maker and is probably in the top five largest in the country — “which is pretty silly, because we’re pretty small,” said Vander Heide.
Craft cider makers are following in the footsteps of craft beer makers, who fomented an innovation revolution in the American brewing industry and have a huge following in every part of the country. Craft beer makers became known for unusual and creative products, and so, too, are the craft cider makers. One of Vander Mill’s most popular ciders is called Totally Roasted. It’s flavored with cinnamon-roasted almonds roasted right there at Vander Mill.
The Vander Mill crew has made 40 barrels of “cyser,” which now has to age from six to 10 months. Cyser is cider with fermented honey. It is stronger and not actually a cider, but rather is legally classified as a specialty wine.
A big difference between most of the big-brand ciders on the market and Vander Mill ciders is the taste, Vander Heide said. “We always try to keep our ciders on the drier end, so we’re not near as sweet as of lot of the large commercial ciders are.”
Many people who are not fond of hard cider object to the sweetness, said Vander Heide. He understands that and urges them to try the Vander Mill recipes “because we’re not like that,” adding, “We have to do a lot of consumer education with these products.”
Cider aficionados are well aware of Vander Mill and other cider makers in West Michigan. Robinette’s and Vander Mill were among those presented with awards at the recent Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition, now in its eighth year.