As we embark upon the inaugural Ontario Cider Week, the fledgling industry behind it would like you to know that it’s capable of making a massive contribution to the province’s economy… but a “level playing field” would sure help.
Starting tonight, six of the city’s better craft beer bars are turning taps over to apples, creating unique events in support of homegrown cider.
In recent years drunken tree fruit has emerged as the fastest growing segment at the LCBO, partly due to its gluten-free nature, but also because this province’s growers are going apples-out to build a local scene. “The reality is we have a real opportunity to capture everything Ontario needs,” says Nick Sutcliffe, Chair of the Ontario Craft Cider Association. “We have the apple, so there’s the agricultural component. We have manufacturing. We have tourism.” Comparing orchards to vineyards, the U.K. transplant boasts of sprawling, welcoming tree farms. “If you visit a grower, especially in the fall when the apples are ready to harvest, it’s the most beautiful sight and it’s like that all over the province. Ours is the same kind of model as the wineries, where people can visit.”
Five years ago there were a only few commercial cider manufacturers in the whole of Ontario. Today the OCCA counts 16 signatories, including Sutcliffe’s own label, Pommies. More, he says, are on the way. “We get calls all the time. It’s definitely booming, from hobbyists to people with industry experience.”
Membership is limited to producers using 100% Ontario apples or pears, but the association’s chair says this region’s yields are its advantage. Upper Canada, claims the OCCA, produces the best pomaceous fruit in the world. The naturally colder climate gives apples more acidity, crucial to developing a crisper, more refined cider. “Nature is on our side,” Sutcliffe insists. “We’re not fighting it.”
In fact, the association – still just a year old – is exploring its partnership with the environment, initiating a research project that involves planting Heritage varieties of cider apples all over the province.
While that matures, the OCCA has other obstacles it has to overcome, like how to get the same respect as Ontario’s beer and wine industries. Why, for instance, can Ontario wine be sold at farmer’s markets, but not cider? How come a brewer can sell a keg to a bar without the LCBO taking a cut, but cideries remit a whopping 40%, even though the government liquor store has no involvement in the transaction? Why does the province offer a support program – rebates of up to 30% – to VQA members, but not OCCA? And how is it fair that the Ontario Microbrewery Strategy passes along $1.2-million annually to Ontario Craft Brewers, but no similar program exists for an industry that uses only homegrown ingredients.
A hundred years ago cider was much more common in Ontario. Prior to prohibition, in a much more rural landscape, most farms had at least one apple tree. While ground water wasn’t always a safe option, fermented apple juice was a reliable way to keep a family hydrated. As the OCCA website tells it, “… most apple orchards were planted specifically for making cider and were not for apple consumption as we know it today.” By the time Ontario’s experiment with outlawed liquor had ended, most of the unwanted trees had been torn down and drinkers converted to beer, which could be produced much more quickly.
With today’s consumer increasingly expecting flavour with their fizz and a growing population of gluten-dismissive types, Ontario cider is primed for a huge resurgence. At March’s Glintcap (the Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition, billed as North America’s largest), Twin Pines Orchards, from Thedford (60 kilometres northeast of Sarnia), won Best in Show. Its Hammer Bent Red beat out 326 other entries from regions as far off as Australia, Northern Ireland, Spain and Oregon.
At home, where cider is the fastest growing LCBO product segment, Ontario craft has gone absolutely hypersonic. The ubiquitous import brands (Strongbow, Somersby, Blackthorn, etc.) – grew 250%, from $11.3-million in 2008/09 to $28.6-million in 2012/13. In the same period, homespun cider jumped from $173,000 to $1.1-million; a 635% leap, despite limited shelf space and promotion.
Sutcliffe, despite the fact he’s not getting much support from the province at this point, remains optimistic. “We are looking forward to working with the government in the future to improve the availability of craft cider,” he proclaims, with innate British diplomacy. “We are 100% Ontario.”