Twin Pines, an Education in Cider
I’ve always enjoyed cider, though I never really knew much about it. My knowledge was limited to the fact that it’s produced using apples and, in terms of the way it was made, is probably more similar to wine than beer; the category with which cider is more often associated. It wasn’t until a recent trip to Twin Pines Orchards, in Thedford, Ontario, that my understanding of cider and appreciation for the craft developed to a point where I felt comfortable enough to write about it.
During a tasting lead by Mark Vansteenkiste, one of the owners of Twin Pines, I learned the ins and outs of what makes a good cider. Firstly, and most importantly, you need the right apples. As you might expect, some apples are better suited to use in cider-making than others.
There are four main categories of apple that are used to produce great cider; sweets, bittersweets, sharps and bittersharps. Varietals under each of the categories contribute the key characteristics of tannins, acidity and sweetness found in cider, albeit in different measure. To perhaps overgeneralize, your sweets add sweetness, your sharps add acidity and your bitters add dryness. Traditional recipes would often use about a third of each, treating bittersweet and bittersharp as one, to create a well balanced cider.
Mark could rhyme off types under each heading quicker than I could have ever hoped to keep up – in a good way – and to add further complexity began discussing the differences between English, European and New World cider apples.
I was enthralled.
Now I’ve always been a hands-on learner, so I really enjoyed being walked through each of their products as I tasted them. Their highly decorated line of ciders are branded under the name ‘Hammer Bent’; which I understand to be a type of beam truss frame, as can be seen at the front of their charming wooden building. Hammer Bent Red is one of their most notable offerings, having won ‘Best In Show’ at the 2014 Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition. Without knowing enough to call it a ‘gateway cider’, I will say that it’s very approachable. It delivers a satisfying burst of acidity and sweetness, with a nice brown sugar finish. A great cider, indeed, but I found that Hammer Bent Original was more up my alley; dry, a little sour and yet still very fruity with a crisp, champagne-like quality.
Not limiting themselves to using apples alone, Twin Pines’ area of expertise are classic English styles. They also produce one heck of a good Perry – a ‘proper Perry’, made only from pears – that my cousins from across the pond would undoubtedly approve of. While much of their effort is focused on those traditional styles, they offer a variety of other interesting products such as: apple and pear ciders, ciders using only Canadian apple varieties, apple wines and ice cider, possibly even hopped cider, to name a few.
Located on a quaint and picturesque farm, about an hour northwest of London, their retail store is a lovely wood building with a real cozy, homespun feel. Inside it’s a bit like a craft market; the walls are adorned with trinkets for home and kitchen, and crowded shelves display delights for the foodie in everyone. Their homemade jams, preserves, pies and desserts are among the ‘non-liquid’ treats that you can take home with you. They don’t only grow apples, after all, and farm-fresh, pesticide-free produce is just another reason to pay a visit.
Twin Pines’ tasting room is currently located in a bright loft that overlooks the rowed orchards stretching out behind the building. A beautiful view that I’m sure would be even more enjoyed (with a nice glass of cider of course) had our visit taken place a little later in Spring with the trees in full blossom. The tasting room is set to move into a larger space downstairs, where they had pressed apples in the past, which will afford them more space for visitors without compromising on atmosphere.
Between the guided tasting, touring the facility and leaving with all sorts of goodies, my visit to Twin Pines Orchards made for a special afternoon – certainly worth the trip. Although, as pleasant an experience as it all was, I did leave with more than a slight bitter taste in my mouth; and not from the cider.
Unsurprisingly, the Government of Ontario isn’t making life easy for the province’s craft cideries. As is the case with many locally-owned businesses specializing in the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, cider producers are struggling to succeed under a system of archaic regulations that create an environment which favours large, foreign owned companies. Classified as a ‘fruit wine’, cider falls into a bureaucratic grey-area, which means that producers aren’t entitled to the same rebates enjoyed by VQA wineries and craft breweries.
There are few possible sales channels for cider in Ontario. Whereas the province’s small brewers have the option of avoiding the LCBO’s politics and expensive listing fees by selling beer directly to consumers on their premises, retail sales are only possible at cideries with more than 5 acres of orchards in production. Of course, the on-site retail regulations are the same for cideries as they are for VQA wineries, but those wineries are entitled to breaks which make working with LCBO more palatable. Unlike wineries, or craft breweries for that matter, if a cidery wishes to sell through the LCBO, they are forced to pay the full mark-up. Furthermore, VQA wineries are able to sell their product at local farmer’s markets, and cider producers are not. The irony of that arrangement, however, is that it was fruit wineries who first came up with the concept. When the program finally earned the government’s blessing, VQA wines that were given the green light, while fruit wineries were once again passed over.
I’m not advocating that Ontario breweries and wineries have it good. The whole system is farcical, self-contradictory and anti-competitive. There is no rational explanation for all the red tape these hard working folks; cider makers, brewers, vintners and distillers, all have to deal with.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way – and despite all the barriers in their path, cider producers like Mark Vansteenkiste are finding ways to continue doing what they love. Twin Pines have found ways to turn challenges into opportunities, most evidently in the form of overcoming excess capacity. By leveraging their knowledge of the craft with surplus supply and available production hours, they have begun to press apples for other producers in the province. Similar to contract brewing arrangements, this is another revenue stream that will help to grow their business, all the while contributing to the overall growth of cider in Ontario by assisting other companies in bringing their products to market.
According to the Ontario Craft Cider Association, cider is among the fastest growing categories of alcoholic beverage in this province. However, 77% of LCBO sales are still tied to imported brands, who, by the way, don’t use Ontario apples, while local producers only account for 8%. Even though the odds are stacked against them, craft cideries are opening at an astounding rate in our province, growing from only one in 2008 to as many as 20 today. As exciting as that may be, it can’t be sustained indefinitely without some help. The biggest threats to the burgeoning craft cider segment are the competitive advantages held by imported and large domestic companies in terms of pricing and distribution, as well as the utter lack of support local producers are receiving from the government.
Ontario craft cideries are leading the resurgence of this province’s cider heritage, an industry which thrived prior to prohibition. They are producing world class ciders, made from high quality, locally-grown ingredients. They are supporting local farmers, rural job growth and tourism. It’s about time we support them.
For more information about the state of cider in Ontario, check out: The Economic Impact for the Ontario Hard Cider Industry.