Hard core cider producers revive an ancient craft

Photos by Bryan Rinnert

The apples for Griffin’s cider come from Grobe Fruit Farm in Lorain County before being crafted into hard cider at Griffin Cider Works near Cleveland. Finally it’s ready for serving at Griffin Cider House in Lakewood.

Ten years ago, hard cider, the kicky adult version of a favorite fall beverage, was difficult to come by unless you knew someone with a batch fermenting in their cellar and willing to share. The strong stuff was perfectly legal but hard to obtain and typically not very quaffable.

Today, there are at least seven hard cider producers in Ohio reviving this ancient craft in creative ways, and some count on local apple and cider producers to help them get the job done. One successful partnership is Ohio Farm Bureau member Allen Grobe and Grobe Fruit Farm in Lorain County and Richard Read, owner of Griffin Cider Works near Cleveland, the state’s first small batch cider distillery.

Grobe is a fifth generation farmer with 800 acres divided into orchards (150 are dedicated to apples), field crops and grain. His product is sold at his retail farm stands and commercially through local Heinens, Buehlers, Kroger, Walmart and Save A Lot and he’s been pressing cider for 25 years. Read, an expatriate from Herefordshire in the west of England, started brewing hard cider at age 14, “for my own interest and drinking,” he said. Whether coincidence or destiny, landing in the ninth largest apple producing state in the country put Read in a position to perfect his craft and drink of choice.

“I started producing cider for Richard about eight years ago, before I even knew what hard cider was,” Grobe said. When the national brands of cider hit the market, both Grobe and Read recognized they were in on an early trend and each had a theory for its rising popularity.

“Millennials make up the largest market for hard cider and seek out what’s different and made locally,” Grobe  said. “This is all from Ohio and you can’t really say that about a lot of products.” Read gives credit to the gluten free movement. “Most beers and spirits have gluten and this stands up as a great alternative,” he said. Both Grobe and Read feel the interest is only enhanced by the local craft beer movement.

Griffen-Cider-301Grobe’s cider represents a blend of the 16 varieties grown on his farm, believing that every apple is an eating apple, not just for cider production, and each adds something unique to the blend. “Rome give the cider an amber color and Golden Delicious makes it clear,” Grobe  said. “Red Delicious makes it sweet, Jonathan adds tartness and Winesap adds a spicy note.” Every two weeks during cider season, the taste changes with each ripening addition.

For every pressing, apples are washed and sterilized in the hopper twice, ground and cold pressed for juice, put into holding tanks and blended until the right color and flavor is achieved. Grobe will produce about 500 to 700 gallons of unfiltered juice in an hour starting Labor Day until “we run out of apples in the state of Ohio,” which for Grobe was June 1 this year. When all is said and done, Grobe will have bottled over 250,000 gallons of unfiltered cider of which 10,000 go to Griffin Cider Works where it becomes something totally unlike sweet cider.

When it gets to the Griffin Cider Works (the brewery), Read pumps the juice into tanks with a batch of starter (yeast) and allows it to ferment until dry, or when the yeast have eaten the residual sugar. Then it’s left to rest for three-to-six months. That’s when a lot of things happen.

“It goes into a secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation,” Read explained. “Here’s where a lot of nice soft changes in the flavor occur.” He’ll adjust accordingly for sweetness to please Ohio’s palate for ciders that lean to semisweet to medium dry by adding honey or brown sugar, perhaps infuse a batch with ginger, lemon or other natural flavors and then lightly carbonate the product before bottling.

Griffen-Cider-193Like making wine, there are plenty of nuances in local cider that are impacted by the weather and growing season. “What we want is sunshine and adequate rainfall from May to July to make nice sized apples,” Grobe explained. “After that we want it dry in August and September so the sugars are condensed, not diluted.”

“Not every batch is the same,” Read added. “It’s apparent in cider and wine making because it’s crop dependent. A wet summer will give you a lot of juice just as a harsh or late winter will affect the overall cider notes.”

Crafting and creating a market for hard cider is hard work. “We are not yet a great success story,” Read said. “Our American dream has started but it’s certainly not complete.” Still, you can’t mistake the passion and skills for crafting this new “old” drink that comes through in the tasting.

Tasting Notes on Hard Cider

Hard cider is as old as the states but fell out of favor in the late 1800s and never made a strong comeback after Prohibition. “It is fresh and new for a lot of people,” said Richard Read of Griffin Cider Works who adds that it requires a lot of face-to-face, hand-to-hand marketing, meeting and talking with people about what hard cider is and how it’s supposed to taste. “Wine does not taste like grape juice and hard cider shouldn’t taste like apple juice,” he said.

Read provides a World Tour of Ciders for novices or those trying to expand their cider palate at Griffin Cider House and Gin Bar in Lakewood. Held every third Tuesday, participants sample 10 ciders from around the world and discover the difference between French, Spanish, American and Ohio hard ciders.

“When you put a mass marketed cider up against a locally made cider, you’ll know right off the bat that it’s a completely different family to drink,” said Read, like comparing a pilsner beer to an IPA. “Our ciders are made from 100 percent fresh apple juice, aged to develop extra characteristics with no added flavoring and only natural infusions.”

Online Extra

Griffin Cider Works was featured on the Our Ohio television series.

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Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermillion, Ohio.