‘If Eve sold her soul for an apple, it’s hard to imagine what the babe would have given up for a gallon of Uncle John’s ‘Melded’.’
Shake hands with Mike Beck and you wonder why he needs an apple press at all. He’s not just big, he’s defensive tackle big—his hands are the size of RV hub caps and look as powerful as any Kreuzmayr fruit mill; given a pot of strong black coffee and a truckload of Ida Reds, and I have no doubt he’d do a John Henry on them before the noontime whistle blew.
With a sort of serene potency simmering beneath his titanic surface, Mike Beck has the whole gentle-giant Hoss Cartwright thing going on, but along with the brawn comes the brains, and it soon apparent that Beck—a fifth generation cider man—has thought about apple wine as much as apple wine can be thought about. And the results may well redefine the way you think about apple wine too. They did me.
To begin with, there is no enological difference between hard cider and apple wine—the two terms are simply colloquial or legal semantics—TTB regulations require cider to have an alcohol-by-volume of 7% or less, while to legally be considered wine, fermented apple juice must have more that 7% ABV (but less than 24%). Since apples do not naturally reach anywhere near the sugar concentrations of grapes, and since alcohol is a by-product of yeast after it eats sugar, (the more sugar it eats, the more alcohol it produces), most un-chaptalized or non-fortified ciders will ferment out in the 5% to 7% range; a punch that is closer to beer than wine.
And that is fine by Mike Beck—his hard ciders hover beautifully around the legally prescribed ABV; they contain nothing artificial and show an array of characteristics unique to a stand-alone variety or as part of a the blend. And when it comes to his only product that wears the word ‘wine’ on the label, his 14% ABV Apple Dessert Wine, it owes its extra oomph from apple brandy, distilled on premise by Mike.
That said, citing cider as a beer alternative makes Mike scoffs—in his world, that’s sacrilege. As proof, he holds his massive palms in an upward cup, saying, “Imagine I am holding apples in one hand, a bunch of barley in the other. Which juice would you rather drink?”
Hard to argue the answer even if you wanted to, which you don’t.
Going Beck in Time
The ‘Uncle John’ in Uncle John’s is Mike’s father; he bought the wholesale produce farm from his own parents in the early 1970s and first conceived the value in ‘agro-tainment’, combining produce with a fun day out for Mom, Dad, Buddy and Sis, when the market went a little south. John began by adding doughnut sales to the cider mill and evolved the idea into weekend entertainment acts, seasonal festivals with a whole lot of family-friendly events in between. So many of the original John’s nieces and nephews went to work at the farm that the nickname ‘Uncle John’ stuck.
Where does hard cider and apple brandy fit into that family formula? In a whole different building, of course.
The farm currently sprawls across three hundred acres, of which about eighty are planted to apples, and it was in the tasting room at the Fruit House Cidery, overlooking those trees, that I first had my pint-sized hand shaken by Mike Beck’s prodigious palm.
I don’t know it he displays the same passion when talking about the asparagus he likewise grows, but when it comes to chatting cider, his eyes shine like the apple sitting on teacher’s desk in those iconic clip-art illustrations. His pomaceous prowess is astonishing; he has experimented with nearly every sort of heirloom apple you can imagine, helped revive varieties like the Golden Russet—whose rough, potato-like skin makes it unpopular in US grocery stores—and developed cider blends that put him in the forefront of most discussions of the bevvie’s revival.
‘Revival’, of course, because cider was the most popular drink in pre-Revolutionary America, where water was unsafe and barley was difficult to grow and process.
“The importance of cider to our founding fathers is actually immeasurable,” Beck explains. “Entire political platforms were based on it. It was the favorite drink of colonists because it could be made with little technology and with readily available fruit. Beer and spirits required specialized equipment, heat energy and hard-to-source raw product.”
In fact, I nurture a fond little personal theory postulating that our very nation’s foundation owes itself to hard drink intake; In 1790, United States government figures showed that annual per-capita alcohol consumption for everybody over fifteen amounted to thirty-four gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits and one gallon of wine. That pretty much means that all adults and most teenagers operated on a low-grade buzz from dawn to dusk. Now, suppose you were sitting around with a bunch of friends and colleagues and up came the question, “Should we—a bunch of struggling colonies without a navy or organized military force—declare war on the most powerful army in the world?”
What single variable can you imagine adding to equation that would make the answer come up ‘Yes’?
Cider House Rules
Actually, to be won over to the glories of apple wine, there is one cardinal rule that you will need to understand: It isn’t grape wine.
By this I mean, it does not have the full-flavored concentration of many of the white wines you’re familiar with; ciders are graceful, insinuating and beguiling in their delicacy. Tannins are softer. Bouquets are seductive, subtle and tentative; mouthfeel is bright and refreshing—cider is often effervescent, with flavors are fresh and quick to dissipate.
Understand that, and you can approach a tasting with a fair overview of what to expect and not be disappointed by the transience—even brevity—of cider’s sensory experience.
We began with his line of cider-in-a-can, a year-round Uncle John’s offering concocted from apples like Northern Spy and Jonathan, which have a longer shelf life than the delicate seasonal apples he prefers for his higher-end ciders. It’s a simple and refreshing thirst-quencher gone in search of an entry-level cider market. Mike tells me that the entire operation to can 16 ounces of cider costs less than the label on one of his bottles.
These are his pot-boiler ciders; the bill payers.
Stuff starts getting sérieuse with Uncle John’s ‘Baldwin’—a crisp, mineral-laden cider made entirely with the eponymous fruit—once the leading dessert apple grown in the United States. A severe freeze in the nineteenth century killed off a large portion of American Baldwin trees, allowing the emergence of cold-hardy Macintosh, but Mike believes that as a stand-alone, Baldwin is the superior variety, offering a striking, slate-like character to cider, emerging only when the apple is fermented completely dry.
‘Russet’, from the ugly apple that the fruit stand can’t sell, is a complex, honey-perfumed cider with a rich, earthy palate and a slightly smoky undertow. Russets tend to be sweeter than other golden-skinned apples, and develop aromatics in cold storage, suggesting a water permeability to the russeted skin, leading to dehydration and a greater intensity of polyphenol molecules.
The most visually striking cider in the Uncle John lineup is the limited-edition ‘Rosé’, made from several rare, red-fleshed apples including Geneva, Redfield and the Asian jawbreaker Niedswetzkyana. It is a beautiful deep pink in the glass, touched with light floral scents and soft apple flavors behind a prickle of effervescence and acidity.
“But the best cider comes from blends,” Mike maintains. “And some of the varieties we’re bringing back from the dead are indispensable components in our ciders.”
He’s gradually planting more European varieties—a difficult process as he experiments with American root stocks (Gala is a favorite) to suit the variety of soils on his acreage, ranging from beach sand to heavy clay. It’s always, he says, a crap shoot: Dabinett has adapted well to Michigan’s rising damp, he claims; Kingston Black—a variety he loves—has not.
Most of his unique apples (Winter Banana, for example, is a beautiful, golden-skinned apple that offers cider a unique aroma that Beck describes as ‘daisy’ and strikes other as ‘ripe banana’; hence, the name) along with standby You-Pick-It orchard varieties like Winesap, Golden Delicious, Jonathan and Cortland, find their way into Beck’s twin distilling projects. First, apple vodka, distilled as a neutral spirit, is a cool, crystalline-clear sip, only slightly reminiscent of apples and only when you know in advance what it is made of—then, remarkably, it becomes a clear indication of the source. Beck sells it as a satiny stand-alone, and also uses it to fortify his dessert wine—essentially, hard cider with the proof punched up.
His apple brandy requires a bit more time and finesse; it’s a well-crafted and rustic eau-de-vie, aged in French oak and one to give Calvados a reason to sit up and take note. It’s fierce and floral and long on the palate with hazelnut, toffee, green apple and citrus sliding in tandem from the glass.
The Northern Connection
Speaking of Tandem, although Uncle John’s Cidery is near Lansing, hundreds of miles from Traverse City, Mike Beck warrants this chapter based on his mentorship of Northern cider makers like Dan Young of Tandem Ciders. In fact, in Leelanau and Old Mission, it is virtually impossible to find a cider maker up who didn’t learn their chops from Mike, including—or especially—the best.
That, by Mike Beck’s reckoning, is Dan Young’s ‘Pretty Penny’, Jay Briggs’ (of 45 North) ‘Heirloom’ and Bryan Ulbrich’s ‘Relic’. These ciders all display the Beck signet: Bold dryness, charming effervescence and clarity of orchard flavors.
In fact, by a timely gift tossed me by the Cider Gods, when I contacted Ulbrich for a Mike Beck sound bite, the two were together, noodling over the Relic blend for 2014.
Ulbrich, maker of such iconic Traverse City wines as Missing Spire and Riesling ‘Prose’, caught the cider bug a few years ago when Beck came to town and infected everybody.
“It’s actually sort of amazing to be in the room with him, “ Bryan says. “His understanding of cider making is that intense, that encompassing. I’d been making apple wine for years before I met him; the year did, I I made five gallons of cider based on his advice. This year, I’ll make 18,000 gallons of cider, based on a lot of the same advice.”
I called Ulbrich the next day to learn the outcome of the brainstorming session, and for 2014’s Relic, he’ll use about 30% Winesap—an aromatic, acidic fruit with a good sugar content—20% Baldwin—his ‘backbone’ apple for structure and depth—and the rest divided between York, sweet Grime’s Golden and a favorite, rare apple among cider makers, who vie for the limited crop grown in Buchanan, Michigan, Arkansas Black.
“The right tannin level is always the Holy Grail of cider maker, and Arkansas Black seems to add this element to the blend better than most other varieties. I’d use more if I could get them, but so would everybody else.”
Just as everybody would use more of Mike Beck’s malus aforethought if they could get it–he is, after all, Michigan’s Sultan of Cider, the Pope of Pomme.
But with his own mill running in overdrive, a quarter million guests passing through Uncle John’s each year, fifty thousand gallons of his own cider to make, his massive mitts are full.