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Sunday, 19 January 2014 20:52

People's Cider taps into local growers

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Founder Jason Lummen of People’s Cider Co. tests a batch of cider. The company started working with local growers last year and has plans to open a pub in Grand Rapids. Founder Jason Lummen of People’s Cider Co. tests a batch of cider. The company started working with local growers last year and has plans to open a pub in Grand Rapids. PHOTO: Amber Andrews Photography

The growing popularity of Michigan craft beer has provided the catalyst for one Grand Rapids entrepreneur to commercialize another type of alcoholic beverage: hard cider.

As consumers increasingly opt for craft beers, The People’s Cider Co. LLC founder Jason Lummen sees a market opportunity for locally made ciders produced entirely from local ingredients that are supplied by West Michigan’s fruit growers.

Simply put, Lummen’s company makes cider — which is classified as a wine — from raw materials it sources from growers and processors in West Michigan.

“I’m your absolute urban winery,” Lummen said. “I produce wine, I sell wine, I bottle wine. But I’m not doing any agriculture. I’m much like a brewer where I just take raw ingredients and then combine (them).”

Given West Michigan’s vast fruit-growing operations, Lummen didn’t need to look far for a source of raw materials for the cider. He recently started working with Jim Hill of Hill Brothers Orchards, located in the heart of “The Ridge” just west of Grand Rapids that’s home to many of West Michigan’s orchards and processing facilities.

The relationship provided Lummen access to “great juice,” which he uses to make cider in a 50-gallon fermenter.

“If you don’t have great juice, you will make [bad] wine,” he said.

Working with People’s Cider has also been a boon for Hill Brothers because the cidery’s production takes place after the busiest times of the harvest season, Hill said. The work with the cidery gives Hill’s company a project during one of its slower times of the year, he added.

“(The partnership) has worked out well for us,” Hill told MiBiz. “I tell people that we can’t grow any more (apples) during our busy season because we’re already making as much as we can.”

The increased popularity of cider and the competition in the beverage industry has made the sell easier for Lummen because prospective customers are becoming more aware of craft cider.

He points to ventures around the region such as Vander Mill LLC, a cider producer in Spring Lake, as well as Virtue Cider in Fennville, the startup founded by former Chicago-based Goose Island Beer Co. brewmaster Greg Hall, as proof that cider has a place in the local beverage scene.

“What I feel about Michigan cider is if Vander Mill is doing well, then I’m doing well and so is the next guy coming up,” Lummen said.

The notion of regionalism originally piqued Lummen’s interest in cider, he said. In his travels abroad to Europe and particularly to England, Lummen noticed that each area had its own regional ciders, similar to how the craft beer scene has developed in the U.S. However, cider is just beginning to catch on stateside and consumers aren’t likely to find more than one variety in their neighborhood pub.

“In England and Ireland, they consume cider like how (Americans) consume light beer,” he said. “If you’re going to watch some football in the middle of the day, you drink some cider.”

Lummen aims to offer consumers a variety of flavors and potencies with his ciders, ranging from lighter varieties to some that have clocked in at upwards of 10 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), making them more like a double India Pale Ale.

Despite cider’s growing popularity, Michigan’s alcoholic regulatory system has created challenges and opportunities for producers, Lummen said.

The state of Michigan has what is commonly called a “three-tier system” for the distribution of alcoholic beverages. Under state law, Lummen’s venture is considered winemaking, allowing People’s Cider to self-distribute.

By contrast, craft beer makers must go through a third-party distributor. This process often makes it difficult for small, startup breweries to sell outside of their own facilities, although the State Legislature has considered implementing changes to simplify the system.

“For me, self-distribution is essential because it allows you to start small,” Lummen said. “(If you’re working with a distributor), you mark your product down because the distributor has to get their piece.”

Even though he is considered a winemaker, Lummen’s cider is served on draft, leading to the trickiest part of self-distribution: getting tap space at local bars and restaurants.

“The vast majority of tap handles are essentially owned by beer distributors,” Lummen said. “When I walk into a bar to try to sell them cider, I have to try to pick off something from a beer distributor. … It’s hard to get tap space.”

The People’s Cider Co. currently operates as a very small operation with a six-person volunteer crew, but Lummen said he plans to expand steadily over the next year. The company also secured space for a future pub on Jefferson Avenue next to Bartertown Diner in Grand Rapids, he said.

“Because we grow so many apples (in Michigan) and it’s so local, we get to have our own thing,” Lummen said. “We have the opportunity to create great craft here in a place that already supports great craft.”

Read 4625 times Last modified on Wednesday, 02 April 2014 13:48

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