Midwest Meets Upland South—Mitten Reserve Cider

On Craft Cider

To say that craft cider is having a moment would be a bit of an understatement. While the craft beer movement is now decades old, well established, and even bubbling up in places one would not normally associate with a craft-anything movement (my small city of Muncie has four breweries that I know of). Yes, I do know that there is a difference between craft breweries and microbreweries, though offhand I can’t remember what that difference is. I’m not much of a beer drinker, so I should be forgiven my lapse.

Anyway, craft cider, especially of the apple variety, is definitely coming into its own. Perhaps it is a nod to the past—the long-ago past, when presidents and the hoi polloi would drink cider as a matter of course. Thomas Jefferson made sure to plant apple trees specifically for cider on the grounds of Monticello. Hard, or fermented, cider was a staple drink back in the early days of the United States. It fell out of its eminence in favor of other beverages, including beer, but now seems to be making a comeback in these DIY, locavore, culinary exploration times.

Sweet, or nonalcoholic, cider never really went away, making its annual appearance at orchards and supermarkets alike during apple season. However, the cider I’m referring to, the alcoholic variety, is developing a really strong following these days. Hard cider can be both sweet (think Woodchuck Amber), semi-dry (which is still on the sweet side—try Rhinegeist’s Semi-Dry) or dry. I suppose I should also add a fourth category—unusual (read: tending toward funky). In short, there’s a cider for everyone, from the Cosmopolitan/Appletini/Strawberry-Lemonade Vodka drinking set to those with very adventurous palates.

The Mitten Reserve

Enter Virtue Cider, a cidery just outside of Fennville, a quaint and arty town in southwestern Michigan. Virtue produces a number of ciders, both semi-dry varieties as well as drier ones, including the decidedly for-the-daring-palate Sidra de Nava (which might appeal to fans of sour beer). And Virtue uses 100% Michigan apples in its ciders. That’s a big plus for me, because I think Michigan apples are truly the best apples in the US! Yes, Washington apples get all the love (or at least all the publicity and marketing), but if given a choice in a supermarket, I always opt for the Michigan ones. Washington apples probably taste delicious—in Washington (or thereabouts). Given that I’m in Indiana, Michigan apples don’t have to travel far, so I’m probably getting a better product.

Okay, this isn’t a review of the Virtue Cider facility or a rundown of its products (maybe some other time). Rather, I’m here to discuss a particular Virtue offering—The Mitten Reserve (2016) as an introduction to Virtue (and Flyover ciders). Let’s look at the name. Surely you remember from your middle school or high school geography 1(assuming you’re in the US), that Michigan is divided into two parts: the Upper Peninsula (home of pasties and Yoopers) and The Mitten, so named because of its physical resemblance to a mitten.

Back to the cider. The Mitten Reserve is a dry cider, but it’s aged in bourbon barrels (just like The Mitten) for about one year. The “Reserve” part comes from the blend of ciders used. I will say that this cider is definitely bourbon-forward! It’s smooth, with hints of warm spice (think of muted apple pie spices, like cinnamon), as well as butterscotch. And, of course, apples. The alcohol content of this particular cider is 8.4% alcohol by volume, fairly high for a cider. As far as food pairings, this is the cider to drink with bacon or ham. Vegetarians might enjoy this with a slice of toast slathered with onion jam, grilled pineapple, or even a piece of honey cake or lebkuchen, something with a hint of sweetness.

Midwest Meets Upland South

The Upland South (Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, even parts of southern Indiana and Ohio) is distinct from the Deep South, with Kentucky and Tennessee probably forming its core. Of course, Kentucky is known for bourbon—perhaps it most well loved “export”. So, aging the Michigan apples in bourbon barrels is a sort of culinary marriage between the two, the Kentucky whose distilling skills have rendered it as a bourbon paradise, and the Michigan, with its unparalleled microclimate giving it some of America’s best fruit. And now that marriage is nicely expressed in The Mitten Reserve!

1You didn’t have a class called “geography in middle and/or high school? Ah, one of America’s educational failings–a discounting of vital content in favor of “teaching to the test” (and there isn’t any geography on the test).

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All Cherries Considered

Cherry Republic Welcome

Cherry Republic—Not Found in Your Rand McNally Atlas!

Or at least all cherry products are considered. In the middle of the charming Michigan town of Glen Arbor, you’ll find a (semi) sovereign state: Cherry Republic. How can that be, you ask. It’s bounded all around by the state of Michigan. Why would there be a country in the middle of another one? Granted, there are historic precedents—look at a map of South Africa and you’ll see the independent state of Lesotho embedded within. But in the United States?

What Kind of a Country Is This, Anyway?

Okay, Cherry Republic isn’t exactly like other states.1 It has no government, no military, no treaties with other states. It lacks a currency, a foreign policy, a population, an anthem. But what it DOES have is every manner of cherry product. It has an ice cream parlor/café featuring various cheese-themed ice cream flavors. Seriously, every ice cream flavor features cherries! It has a Cherry Spitting Arena. And, if you can’t make it to Glen Arbor, it has a website.

CherrySpittingArena

CherrySpittingRules

The History (Not in a Nutshell, but in a Cherry Pit)

Bob Sunderland, the founder (emperor?) of Cherry Republic began in 1989 by selling tee shirts and, later, the Boomchunka cherry oatmeal cookie (very good!) from the trunk of his car. Eventually, he branched out into other cherry products. Admirably, the company engages in supporting local cherry farmers. And why just cherries? Well, read below (this has been taken directly from Cherry Republic’s website)

But Bob’s 83-year-old mother has another view of why he started a company that only sells cherries. It’s on a t-shirt that she wears when she works at Cherry Republic. It says, “The owner is a simpleton. Selling more than one fruit would be too complicated for him.”

Cherry Republic grew and now has not only the “headquarters” in Glen Arbor, but it is also located in Traverse City and Charlevoix (in Northern Michigan). An outpost is found in Ann Arbor as well. Given that the tart cherry capital of the United States is Michigan, it’s no wonder that Cherry Republic took off here!

Cherry Republic Pop on Ice

The Wares

So, what kinds of cherry things does Cherry Republic offer? There’s the expected: dried cherries (Montmorency and Balaton), canned organic cherries, cherry pie filling. There’s the delightful: cherry-based trail mix, cherry jams, chocolate-covered cherries. And then there’s the deliciously unusual: cherry peanut butter, cherry salsa (in different varieties), cherry salad dressing. Additionally, in a separate building you’ll find cherry libations of both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic sort—cherry wine, cherry cider, cherry sodas. It’s a Cherry Wonderland!

Cherry Republic is just a FUN place to browse and shop. Samples abound and you likely won’t leave empty-handed (though you could leave empty-walleted!) The wares showcase one of northern Michigan’s premier crops—the tart cherry—in ways that I’d never even considered! If you ever find yourself in Leelanau County, Michigan, make a stop at Cherry Republic!

1I am using a political geography term when I use “state”. By “state”, I refer to a sovereign body with actual boundaries, its own laws, and its own government.

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Michigan’s Second Most Popular Cherry—the Balaton™

Tart (sour) cherries are much beloved in many parts of Asia and Europe. So it’s not surprising that the second most common cherry grown commercially in Michigan has its ancestral roots in Hungary. The Balaton™ (yes, that’s a trademark symbol!) comes to Michigan via the hard work of Dr. Iezzoni at Michigan State University.1

Dr. Iezonni, Professor of Horticulture, is a specialist in cherry genetics and the breeding of tart cherries. Working with researchers and breeders in Hungary, Dr. Iezzoni did testing of varieties of tart cherries. Much hard work later, the Balaton™ was introduced (and trademarked), named after Hungary’s beautiful Lake Balaton (a big tourist attraction).

Lake_Balaton

Now, there is a very interesting agreement regarding the Balaton™: For every Balaton™ tree sold in the US, 25 cents goes to support tart cherry breeding research in Hungary. I think that’s fabulous—a way of using the present to ensure the future.

I’ve not had the Balaton™ fresh, though perhaps next year I’ll take a trip to Michigan during harvest season. But until then, I’ll make do with the delicious dried ones I have!

And until then, a big “Thank You” to Dr. Iezzoni!

Balaton_Cherries

1 A excellent history of this cherry can be found at www.hrt.msu.edu/faculty/Iezzoni/Balaton/HistoryBalaton.html

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Michigan’s Most Popular Cherry—the Montmorency!

If the state of Michigan is the Cherry Capital of the United States1, then the Montmorency is its president. A variety of Prunus cerasus, it is the most planted and harvested variety of sour cherry grown in Michigan. The Montmorency’s end use is typically processed—winding up canned or frozen, as well as in pie filling. Very little of the crop is sold fresh, a pity as some of us love the tart burst of flavor. However, the appearance of those sour Montmorencies in a homemade cherry pie does offer us some solace.

CherryOrchard1

Cherry orchard in Michigan–the fruit is still green, though, as the picture was taken in June!

Despite being mostly found in pies, the Montmorency can be used in other recipes, as well as jams and preserves (sour cherry preserves are perhaps my very favorite). In parts of Eastern Europe, as well as Iran and Turkey, sour cherries, whether fresh or dried, find their way into various recipes. This makes sense, as Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia is thought to be where sour cherries came from. For example, Meggyleves, a marvelous sour cherry soup of Hungarian origin, is made with cherries (Morellos), sour cream, and sugar, perhaps accented with cinnamon; it makes a delicious light dinner on a warm summer day. Kompot wisni, a compote of sour cherries from Poland, is excellent over vanilla ice cream. Abaloo Polow is an Iranian dish of rice and sour cherries with a touch of saffron.

Interestingly, health buffs are also starting to appreciate the Montmorency. Today, you can purchase tart cherry extracts (in powdered form) in vitamin stores, with alleged benefits that include anti-inflammatory properties and the removal of free radicals from the body. Me, I just like the taste of cherries!

So, what is the origin of the name? It (Montmorency) comes from a French town (actually commune, a type of administrative unit) located about 10 miles (16 km) from Paris. I’m not sure why the cherry is named after a French place, though!

CherryOrchard2

Flyover Clairvoyant sees pie in my future!

Montmorency

Mmmmm–tasty!
1Actually, Traverse City, Michigan bills itself as the Cherry Capital of the WOLRD and hosts the annual National Cherry Festival each July, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the beautiful Leelanau Peninsula.

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All Tarted Up—A (Very) Brief Geography and History of Northern Michigan’s Cherry Agriculture

We have the state of Michigan (and to a lesser extent, Wisconsin’s Door County) to thank for our cherry pies. Indeed, the largest producer of tart (sour) cherries is Michigan, responsible for well over half of them (Utah is number two). And in Michigan, it’s the Leelanau Peninsula that serves as the center of the industry. So, how did this happen? The tart cherry is a bit hardier than its sweet cousin, so Michigan isn’t an out-of-the-ordinary place to grow them.

We can thank the French for the initial appearance of cherry agriculture in Michigan. French colonists planted cherry trees in towns they founded, including the Michigan city of Detroit. But the advent of commercial cherry agriculture can be tied to Presbyterian missionary Peter Dougherty, who settled in Northern Michigan. He planted trees on Old Mission Peninsula near what is now Traverse City in 1852 and the area’s physical geography proved advantageous for cherry production. This established the Leelanau region as a place to grow tart cherries. Commercial production was introduced in 1893 at Ridgewood Farm, also near Traverse City. As they (and just who is “they”, anyway)—the rest is history!

Leelanau_Peninsula

And physical geography. The Leelanau Peninsula is well situated environmentally for cherry production. This 30 mile (48 km) extension into Lake Michigan benefits from the moderating influence of the lake’s waters. Water has a high specific heat—the amount of energy required to raise a unit mass of something by 1°C; that means it takes a lot of heat energy to raise the temperature of water. You’ve heard of the expression “a watched pot never boils”? Well, if that pot is full of water, it seemingly takes forever for that to start boiling. It also takes a long time for water to cool down. Thus, places near large bodies of water tend to have more moderate temperatures, even if they are located at higher latitudes.

So, how does that relate to cherries? Well, it can get pretty cold up north, but proximity to the water means that it won’t get as cold as some place in the middle of a large land mass. Thus, the cherry trees in the Leelanau Peninsula are protected. And in the spring? Again, the water’s tempering influence protects the trees from late frosts that follow spring thaws. How? A burst of warm weather can trigger the blooming of the cherry trees. But the nearby water means that the weather won’t get quite as warm, reducing the likelihood of blooms to fall victim to a late, killing frost. Is this foolproof? No—the unusual spring of 2012, with its near summerlike temperatures in March (record-setting, no less) followed by a cold April ruined Michigan’s sour cherry crop. But all things considered, the presence of Lake Michigan benefits the tart cherry industry in Michigan.

References: http://cahnrs-cms.wsu.edu/sweetcherryresearch/about/history/Pages/default.aspx and http://www.cherryfestival.org/history

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