Ontario craft cider popularity gives fruit farmers room to grow

Growth in the market for craft cider made from Ontario fruit is inspiring local farmers and producers.
The owners of West Avenue Cider have planted 100 different types of heritage cider apple trees on their Somerset Orchards property in Freelton. (West Avenue Cider)

When the last major fruit cannery closed in 2008, Niagara tender fruit growers were devastated.

The CanGro cannery had been their outlet for "seconds," the pears, peaches and other fruits that weren't of high enough quality to sell to grocery stores for eating.

Without that outlet?

[ Cideries ] seem to be popping up like wineries used to be – 15, 20 years ago, all of a sudden there was always new wineries.- Lindsay Puddicombe , wine- and cider-maker, Puddicombe Estates

"They would've been put on the ground," said Lindsay Puddicombe, wine- and cider-maker for Puddicombe Estates in Winona, Ont.

But new opportunity for growers has come due to the remarkable growth in popularity of craft hard cider, especially cider made from Ontario apples, pears and other fruit. 

Pears growing at Puddicombe Estate. The 220-year-old farm started making cider with their pear "seconds" after a major cannery closed in 2008. (Puddicombe Estate/Facebook)

'There's more demand'

Ontario craft cider sales were up more than 50 per cent in 2016 from the year earlier, reaching $5.1 million in sales through the LCBO. The Ontario Craft Cider Association forecasts that 10 per cent of the apples grown in the province will be used for cider by 2018.

"It's great for growers now – the price of their fruit is changing because there's more demand for their seconds, because there are more cideries out there," Puddicombe said.

After the CanGro cannery closure, Puddicombe went to England for a two-week research group. Her family has been growing pears and apples and grapes at the Puddicombe Estate for 220 years this year, and Puddicombe's job was to figure out how to make pear cider from those seconds. That worked, so she took on peach, apple, and apple cranberry.

After starting with pear, Puddicombe Cider now makes four kinds of cider. The farm will host its fifth annual CiderFest Friday and Saturday. (Puddicombe Estate/Instagram)

She's not alone.

"They seem to be popping up like wineries used to be – 15, 20 years ago, all of a sudden there was always new wineries," Puddicombe said.

'It just takes the pressure off'

This weekend Puddicombe will host its fifth annual CiderFest, featuring cideries around the region and internationally. The event will also nod to history: Canada's 150th and her family farm's 220th anniversary.

Apple grower Brett Schuyler is one of the owners of Schuyler Farms in Norfolk County.

He said while the cider boom hasn't yet provided a surefire outlet for all growers in the province, he's optimistic.

Especially if consumers pay attention to whether the cider they're drinking is made from Ontario apples, not from concentrate, the kinds of "seconds" fruits that might not otherwise have any place to go.

"If we had more markets for processing it just takes the pressure off of producing this perfect apple that you need for the fresh market," he said.

'That bite at the back of your throat'

The pursuit of finely crafted cider led the husband and wife team behind West Avenue Cider to replant heritage crops that fell out of favour in Prohibition days.

Amy Robson and Chris Haworth planted 100 types of heritage apple trees on their orchard in Freelton, Ont., and just opened their doors to a new cider house this month.

Their company, West Avenue Cider, has been in business for five years, and picking up a number of awards in both Ontario and international cider competitions.

Chris Haworth and Amy Robson own West Avenue Cider, and have planted about 10,000 heritage apple trees on their property at Somerset Orchards in Freelton. (West Avenue Cider)

They started with 10,000 litres, when the fruit for what they were after was relatively easy to source.

But now, as they're making 150,000 litres, the fruit is getting harder and harder.

They have a supplier but with the added demand, "he is running short," Robson said.

At their Somerset Orchards, they're just starting to get a crop from their apple and pear trees – all "true cider fruit" — now.

That traditional cider fruit means that if these aren't the kind of apples you want to pick and eat.

"A lot of these apples just taste terrible, right?" she said. "It is like, whoa. You taste some of these apples and woof, you want to spit them out, because the tannins in them are so high and they're so acidic."

"That's the sort of fruit that we want to make our cider with," she said. "Only real cider apples will give you that bite at the back of your throat. Cider apples are like grapes – they're complex and they're different and they give you different mouthfeel."