It's a big season for Apples… On Wedneday hard-core geeks like me live-streamed the iPhone 5 annoucement. It's also Rosh Hoshanah, a time when we dip apples in honey to wish for a sweet new year. And finaly last, and by no means least significant, it's Cider Season in Michigan! What a better time to share my thoughts on Cider & Donuts?
Pinot of Interest: Living in a border state fosters Canadian friendships. I’ve recently learned that my Canadian friends share our love for Cider and the experience of visiting orchards in the fall. However, like so many Bizzaro-world US-Canadian twists, they have their own colloquialism for this cultural icon. They refer to Cider Mills as ‘Apple Barns’, as in, “I can’t wait to visit the Apple Barn.” Those Kooky Canucks.
Cider So, inquiring minds want to know, what apples make the best cider? Good question. Some mills post what apples are being used for that day’s cider. While I appreciate the knowledge, I never knew enough about apple varieties to appreciate whether today’s crop was better than the next.
It turns out that almost all cider is a blend of apples. The trick is to achieve the right mix of Sweet, Bitter Sweet & Sharp Varieties. Unless you're a obsessive-compulsive cider fanatic don't bother learning their names. Most are unfamiliar European breads used strictly for cider and juice - not the common lunch box varieties. And in most cases, the exact varieties used by each mill change over the coarse of a season as the different apples mature and harvest at slightly different intervals.
To make fresh cider, apples are washed, cut and ground into a mash the consistency of applesauce. Layers of mash are wrapped in cloth, and put into wooded racks. A hydraulic press squeezes the layers, and the juice flows into refrigerated tanks; Relatively simple. Still, commercial juice will usually skip this time staking process, opting instead for massive industrial stainless steel presses.
Cider is also unfiltered and unpasteurized. I'm not going to waste your time debating the issues surrounding pasteurization. I'll simply say that cider must be unpasteurized. The heat from pasteurization forever changes the flavor. Unfiltered is an equally important attribute as filtering juice removes critical fruit solids.
Mulled Cider The recent “Mixology” culture has brought a lot of attention to mulled, or warmed and spiced cider. Let’s be clear – there’s nothing better than fresh, cold cider. That said, I appreciate a hot drink on a frigid autumn day. Just do me a favor, ease-up on the spice. There’s no reason to over-load natures perfection. The majority of “mulled” coders taste more like an Easter Ham than apples.
Hard Cider What adolescent boy hasn’t tried to leave a jug of cider hidden in the basement for a month only to find that there’s more science to fermentation than pure aspiration. God bless. Thankfully we live in a world where the desire to create alcohol has out maneuvered science. Hard cider is also making a commercial comeback. We finally have respectable options beyond Woodchuck. Many of the states brewers are adding cider to their repertoire. This past weekend I had the chance to sample Brewery Vivant. Like their Ales, the cider was impressive. Give’m a try.
DONUTS Yes, Cider get’s the top billing, but it hard to deny that the real treasure is hot cider donuts. For a while I've been wondering just how it is that cider mills came to make donuts. Why not fritters? Why not strudel, Kringel or the All American Pie? God bless the google. It took all of one minute to find a perfect explanation in the Boston Globe.
Boston Globe: By Luke Pyenson, Globe Correspondent | October 10, 2007
“…Cider doughnuts are a well-known accompaniment to apple cider, but nobody knows exactly when and why the two were first eaten together. According to the "King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion," recipes for beignets, a kind of high-class fried dough, came here from France and Holland during Colonial times. Autumn was the time for fall butchering, and so it was the only season when there was enough fat available to fry things. As a result, doughnuts became an autumnal treat in the Northeast. In many homes, "cake" doughnuts - made with baking powder or baking soda instead of yeast - would be fried in fat rendered after the slaughter. This coincided with the season for apple cider production, and the two seemed to be a natural pairing. Whether someone spilled cider into the doughnut mix accidentally or purposely wasn't recorded. But there is actually apple cider in the batter for cider donuts. In fact, it's often the main liquid.”
LOCAL CIDER MILLS I grew up in north Suburban Detroit. For those familiar with the Woodward corridor you’ll appreciate that there are two types of families in Oakland County. No, I’m not talking about Ford and GM, though that was also a clear line of demarcation. I’m talking about Franklin vs. Yates; i.e. those families who visited the Franklin Cider Mill and those who went to Yates. The debate is futile. Both are amazing.
Since moving to Ann Arbor I’ve spent years searching for the local “Franklin.” Washtenaw has significantly more agricultural land than Oakland, affording many more orchards. I’ve been to all but one. Here’s a run down of some local options.
Author’s Note: This year’s weather has been devastating to the Michigan fruit crop, apples included. Local Cider Mills have been forced to buy apples from surrounding counties or states. The impact means less cider, less revenue and in some cases, no profit. Please do A2GastroBoy a favor by helping the farmers. Pay more for cider. Buy a bottle of syrup. Tip the hayride driver. Keep these businesses in business.
Alber Orchard & Cider Mill, LLC, 13011 Bethel Church Rd., Manchester
Their Pitch: “…Historic Alber Orchard & Cider Mill, established in 1890. Over forty varieties of apples. Fresh, all natural apple cider. New this year is a pick your own pumpkin patch and horse drawn wagon rides on weekends. Located approximately 15 miles southwest of Ann Arbor.”
My Take: Manchester is a haul. I dare say Alber’s alone is not enough to warrant the drive. That said, it’s a fine option for those folks who find themselves in the area.
Dexter Cider Mill, 3685 Central, Dexter
Their Pitch: “…Oldest continuously operating cider mill in Michigan, on the bank of the Huron River. Wood pressed cider, fresh apples, carmel apples, donuts, strudel, turnovers. Apple pies made on premises. Old fashioned ginger snap cookies, applenut bread with walnut topping. Original pastry mixes, jellies and pickles.
My Take: Heaven; truly one of the most fantastic Mills around. Understand, the grounds are not huge. You will not find hoards of activities for the kids or hiking trails. You simply find a perfect mill, charming people and a tranquil creek-side vista to enjoy some of the best cider and donuts our state has to offer. Oh…and a lot of bees. Bring the EpiPen. It’s also a tremendous motivation to extend that Huron River bike ride just a bit further – and then reward yourself handsomely.
Plymouth Orchards & Cider Mill, 10685 Warren Road, Plymouth
Their Pitch: School tours, pumpkins, wagon rides, petting farm, cider pressing operation. Products sold: farm market products, retail apples, cider, donuts. Attraction in October - storytelling evening and weekends.
My Take: Here’s a great option if you’re looking for a kid-friendly afternoon activity. The petting farm, wagon rides, and drive will eat-up a few hours. The cider and donuts are solid – go with the sugar donuts. The “dining hall” styled donut room can get a bit chaotic in high season, thereby neutralizing the peaceful-easy feeling of the orchard.
Wasem Fruit Farms, 6580 Judd Road Milan, MI 48160
Their Pitch: Wasem's Fruit Farm is a family-owned and family-oriented orchard, taking pride in high-quality products, especially pick-your-own apples, pumpkins, and tart cherries. Also featuring homemade, unpasteurized cider and delicious fresh donuts made daily during the autumn season.
My Take: You never forget your first, right? My first fall in Ann Arbor was celebrated with a drive to Wasem’s. It’s forever-since held my heart as the best u-pick experience in Washtenaw County. The cider experience is a bit no-frills compared to alternatives, but frankly, there-in lies the charm. Alas, you’ll have to wait until next season to see for yourself. Here’s a note from the Wasem’s:
"We will not have pick your own apples this year due to serious freeze damage in the spring. At this time we have not been able to purchase apples either fresh or to make cider. We are now open Thursday - Sunday from 9 am - 6 pm for donuts and other items. Check our Facebook page for current updates."
Wiard's Orchards & Country Fair, 5565 Merritt Rd, Ypsilanti
Their Pitch: “…Wiard's Orchard offers a wide variety of activities including pick your own apples and pumpkins, cider mill, donut shop, farm bakery, animal petting farm and the country fair weekends in September and October. The country fair weekends boast of great family entertainment, pony rides, wagon rides, live entertainment from two stages and much, much more.”
My Take: [using your best Jeff Foxworthy voice] …If you prefer Briarwood to Nickel’s arcade – you might like Wiards. If you don’t get the difference between Canton and Ann Arbor – you might like Wiards. If you’ve ever called a Honda a ‘rice-rocket’ – you might like Wiards. Are you starting to get my point? This is the most commercially exploitive and batardized orchard in the county. Visiting Wiards on a busy weekend combines the pleasure of a trip to the DMV with the culture of a Jersey Shores episode. Enter at your own risk.
Jenny’s Dexter Market, 8366 Island Lake Road Dexter, MI 48130
Their Pitch: NA – clearly Good ‘ol Burt has let the domain expire.
My Take: I include this in the list with mixed emotion. First of all, you need to know that this is not an orchard, nor a mill. Yet you can get great local cider and fresh donuts. I’ve known of Jenny’s for a while. They hold a land-mark piece of real estate just west of Dexter. Every season there is a host of charming kid-centric animal and game-ish attractions. Now for the counter-point… If you read the AnnArbor.com with any regularity, you’re sure to know of Jenny’s troubles. In the fall of 2011 an employee was tragically injured while giving a hayride. Since that time the proprietor of Jenny’s, and the market itself, have been the center of many stories – and not all pleasant. This is definitely a “enter at your own risk” establishment. Here’s my advise – use sound judgment. If you enjoy a good donut come on over. If you need some fresh vegetables, stop by. If you want to put your 3 year-old on pony for that perfect Facebook photo….think again.
There you have it. You’ve wasted another good portion of your life reading my drivel. Wanna return the favor? Hit comment and type away.