Mike Beck – Uncle John’s Cider Mill

Download: 004_Mike_Beck.mp3 [31.5MB, 34:17]

ERIC WEST (Intro): Mike Beck of Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns, Michigan joins me for Episode 4. Not only does Mike oversee a huge seasonal retail operation at Uncle John’s, he also happens to make some of the best cider, fortified cider, and apple-based spirits in the country. And did I mention that he’s a founding board member of the Great Lakes Cider & Perry Association and president of the board of the United States Association of Cider Makers?

Mike and I chat about why Michigan is such a great place to make hard cider, how Uncle John’s has survived while other orchards have languished, his diverse canned and bottled product lineup, his past and present efforts to further the interests of the cider industry, and much much more.

Here’s my conversation with Mike Beck.

Mike Beck, escanciador. Source: Tandem Ciders.

ERIC WEST (Intro): Mike Beck of Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns, Michigan joins me for Episode 4. Not only does Mike oversee a huge seasonal retail operation at Uncle John’s, he also happens to make some of the best cider, fortified cider, and apple-based spirits in the country. And did I mention that he’s a founding board member of the Great Lakes Cider & Perry Association and president of the board of the United States Association of Cider Makers?

Mike and I chat about why Michigan is such a great place to make hard cider, how Uncle John’s has survived while other orchards have languished, his diverse canned and bottled product lineup, his past and present efforts to further the interests of the cider industry, and much much more.

Here’s my conversation with Mike Beck.

ERIC WEST: Joining me today is Mike Beck of Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns, Michigan. Mike, I know you’re a busy guy, thanks for joining me today.

MIKE BECK: : Hey, no problem. My pleasure, Eric.

WEST: I wanted to congratulate you on your recent award at the Royal Bath & West Show in Somerset—a Very Highly Commended for your Russet. Is this the second or third year in a row that you’ve won an award there?

BECK: Third year in a row, actually, yes.

WEST: Third year, excellent. So I wanted to start off with this. I’m always curious about where people are in the world, and what makes their region a special place for making cider. Could you talk a little bit about Michigan—and maybe your own orchard—and what makes it a special place to be making cider?

BECK: You’re already starting out with my favorite thing to talk about! I’m an industry guy, I’ve spent many years on various boards of the apple programs in this state. One thing I’ve found out is that Michigan is the variety state. There’s more varieties planted in a commercial aspect here in Michigan than any other state in the union.

We have lots of things in the ground in pretty good quantity. Semi loads of Winesap, semi loads of Winter Banana, semi loads of Rhode Island Greening, semi loads of Northern Spy, semi loads of Jonathans. McIntosh, Cortland, Empire, all the Mac varieties. Just as a standard, we have a greater depth of apples to choose from—at a reasonable price at that—to make ciders from.

WEST: Did that make it easier to enter the hard cider market? Because you had access to all these historic, heirloom varieties that were once used for producing hard cider?

BECK: Certainly that. A six-figure federal grant also helped a lot.

WEST: As far as starting the hard cider production?

BECK: Correct.

WEST: All over the country, orchards have disappeared over the generations. What was it that allowed Uncle John’s to survive? There must have been, at some point, a much greater number of orchards in Michigan. How is Uncle John’s still around and still being successful?

BECK: For a long time, since the ’70s, we’ve relied more on being a retail farm operation. Back in the ’70s, the apple market took a real dive. We’re commercial apple growers. Back then, we were probably 200 acre growers. We pared back down to about 80 acres in the ’70s and became retail focused. We started making fresh juice back then. And things like donuts, cider donuts are a very popular thing here in Michigan. Fresh cider and donuts.

We’ve been practically a retail farmstand for the last 40 years. And growing our orchard bigger now, since then, just to handle the fresh cider and hard cider market. Just this last year, we’re now starting to produce more cider than fresh juice for our business. And we make a fairly significant amount of fresh juice for fall sales.

WEST: I know from my visits there that you have a very diversified operation. Can you talk about what it’s like there in the fall? It seems like Uncle John’s is a legendary institution there. I know from my visit there were thousands of people there! Can you talk about that experience of what people get when they come out to Uncle John’s in the fall?

BECK: It’s practically like a mini version of a Disney World. Lots of themed areas. You can watch us make fresh cider. You can go to our bakery and get donuts and pies and other baked goods that we make here. We have a confectionery where we’re making fudge and caramel apples and candied apples. We have all sorts of on-farm fun. Come pick a pumpkin. A fruit fling where you can buy a bag of apples and shoot them at targets. We have wagon rides, we have a train, we have gemstone mining, we have an inflatable park for kids, a corn maze, a nature walk. You can obviously taste hard cider as well.

WEST: It sounds like you have a built-in audience when you started the hard cider, for people who are already interested in all the other things you’re doing. It’s just another aspect of the entertainment.

BECK: Yes. When we started the hard cider business, our intent was to never sell it beyond the farm gate. I knew we could sell about 10,000 cases of cider here, just in the retail operation. There are certain days where we have 15,000 or 16,000 or 17,000 people here in a day. The audience is here, absolutely. If they’re willing to wait in line! Sometimes it’s a 45-minute wait just to get up to taste the cider.

WEST: It is a pretty amazing experience. If anyone wants to go and experience what a fall weekend in Michigan is like, I definitely recommend a visit to Uncle John’s.

Let’s talk about your cider. You were one of the first cidermakers in the US to can. Can you talk about your canned cider lineup, and how that came about?

BECK: Once again, that was another federal grant. A value-added grant, to try new, innovative ways to market value-added products. It was partly spurred on by earning a federal grant, writing a good enough grant. That got us off the fence. We would’ve been in it earlier, if we didn’t wait for the grant. It still got us in the game pretty early.

It’s a fantastic way to package cider. Aluminum seems to be so much easier to work with than glass. So much less safety concerns as far as the production end of it. Space concerns, it’s really fantastic. The equipment is fairly easy to operate, as easy as any bottling line that I’ve used in the past.

WEST: So you’re using 16 ounce cans, and packaging them in a 4 pack?

BECK: That’s right.

WEST: You have the flagship Apple. And you have other flavors in the cans now?

BECK: Yep. We can our seasonals—our standard cider with some sort of fruit juice or spice adjunct. Right now we only have five. But who knows, the list may expand.

WEST: What do those retail for, a 4 pack of the cans?

BECK: Usually around $11 to $12 at the retail shop.

WEST: And those are available throughout Michigan, or your part of Michigan? How far are those being distributed?

BECK: At least through all of Lower Michigan. Upper Michigan is coming real soon. And Chicago and the suburbs around, as of right now.

WEST: Let’s talk about your bottled lineup. They’re the ones I’ve always been super impressed with. Let’s start with the American 150. You talked about how Michigan has all these different varieties already in the ground. Can you talk about how the American 150 came about, and what its flavor profile is like?

BECK: Most of those on the list, there’s lots of them. There’s two of them—Grimes Golden and Baldwin—those are a little bit harder to find. But I can get practically a semi load of each in a season. Which isn’t a lot, but isn’t a small amount either. 92 bins times 18 bushels, I don’t know how many thousands of pounds of apples that is, but it’s a lot! We can get about that much of those two.

Rhode Island Greening, Winesap, Northern Spy, Winter Banana…I could bury myself in them. These four varieties, practically anyone else could have the same blend. To me they’re still special, we just have a lot of those. American 150 is one of the few that I can actually make a fair bit of in a season.

As far as the method on it, I put a bit of an Old World spin on it. A little bit of barrel for some of it, but a lot of it’s still stainless aged. It’s only got a slight prickle to it, as far as carbonation. It’s bottled in a still wine format. The first vintage was completely bone dry, but that was a little too austere. So I added a tiny amount of sugar this last vintage.

WEST: I find that it’s excellent both ways. It’s definitely one of my favorites in your lineup.

People who are just getting into cider, they maybe have this impression that more ciders are estate bottled. But it sounds like from you’re saying, in order to get some of these varieties that you want to use in your cider, you have to source them from other places. It sounds like that’s true for the American 150. Is that true of your other bottled ciders as well?

BECK: Mostly. So the American 150 is a blend of three farms, if you want to get right down to it. My farm, a guy right off Lake Michigan, and a guy over in what we call The Ridge, north of Grand Rapids. The other ciders are a blend of my farm and the Wards, Tim and Cindy Ward over at Eastman Orchards in Wheeler, Michigan. So right now the ciders are limited to apples from my farm and maybe one of two other guys.

WEST: Do you want to talk about the Russet next? The Bath & West winner?

BECK: Sure. It’s a blend of probably about a third of mine, and two-thirds of it comes from Eastman Orchards. I only have Golden Russet in the ground, but they have probably 40 different kinds of Russet in the ground. And I love them all, they’re all great! There’s a huge range of flavor profiles in Russets, too. A Knobby Russet is so earthy. And others are so tropical fruit tasting. I love the range of flavors that you get with Russets.

WEST: For those who aren’t familiar with russeting, can you describe what russeting is on an apple?

BECK: The best I can compare it to is potato skin. That’s where the apple feels very rough skinned, something like a Bosc pear. They may not look so appealing, but typically every one of them is a great tasting apple.

WEST: Golden Russet has pretty high alcohol potential. Is that true of the other Russets as well?

BECK: I’d say it varies over the board. The overall Brix of such a huge different variety load ends up being around 16 Brix and change. My average one for the standard canned cider would be around 14 Brix.

WEST: So you also make a cider from Baldwin apples. That’s a really popular one. Do you want to talk about the Baldwin?

BECK: I get those from a gentleman over in Oceana County, it’s right close to the lake. It’s a very old orchard, those are all on old standard trees.

I was inspired by West County Cider in Massachusetts. I had always wondered if there were any varieties out there that are worthy of being made into variety ciders. Most of what we have here in America, it’s sketchy. But their Baldwin, it was pretty dynamic for one apple. So I started playing with it. At times, Baldwin can be interesting to very cool. Is it as dynamic as some of the European varieties, absolutely not. But in its own right, it’s a pretty cool apple.

WEST: You do have the Melded, that does use some of the European apple varieties?

BECK: Correct. English and French ones, primarily. There’s one or two Polish apples in that blend too.

WEST: Another fan favorite is the Rosé. Can you talk about that one, the red-hued cider?

BECK: That’s a real special one. We were able to get a lot of production this last year. That’s exclusively from our friends over at Eastman Orchards. There’s one apple that they have a fair bit of, I can’t even begin to pronounce it. You’ve seen the label.

WEST: I have. The one that starts with an N?

BECK: Yeah. If you want to try it, you go ahead. [See Malus niedzwetskyana.] It’s definitely the Cabernet Sauvignon of red-fleshed varieties. It’s a fairly big apple. You can cut it through and it’s deep red to the core, even inside the core. It’s a really big, bold apple. If you can eat a whole one—for one, their size, they’re pretty darn big—but they’re quite tannic. That’s the one that really makes the red hue in the cider.

The Albert Etter ones, they’re much fruitier. A lot of those they have are the Albert Etter varieties. A lot of those are pink-hued in the middle. Lots of nice bright acids. Really cool, sugary fun.

WEST: Are these varieties like Pink Pearl?

BECK: Exactly. Pink Pearl and Thompsons Pink and Cripps Pink, there’s so many.

WEST: I’d like to see that as a trend. Those rosé ciders could be very popular.

Could you talk about the balance between having a great tasting, complex cider and getting that red hue? Is that a difficult bargain to make work?

BECK: I’m going to be real honest here. The blending involved was just me keeping all the red-fleshed ones set aside, using every one of them, and seeing what comes out of it. The selection was strictly based on red-fleshed-ness. There’s a couple crabs in there, too, a few that are quite red as well. I wasn’t trying to get anywhere outside of using all the red-fleshed ones together.

WEST: I think we’ve talked about most, if not all, of your ciders. Can you talk about your distilling operations? That’s something that not as many people know about as your ciders.

BECK: For one, it’s very difficult in this state to sell spirits, because it’s a control state. We’ve used it so far as a way to get apple spirits for fortification. And a little bit of sales of spirits through the tasting room. A lot of what we’ve done with it is custom work for other people.

When I was venturing, 15 years ago, around Michigan and other parts of the state, I was looking at wineries and their model. Which is the tasting room to create the brand, essentially. Make a fun experience for people.

WEST: Even though people can get your ciders in other parts of the state, they still have to come to Uncle John’s to sample the spirits. Is that right?

BECK: That’s correct. They’ve been very popular here. They have a fairly high retail price, but we can still sell several hundred cases of them through here. And we can make a very good fortified spirit. Some people can only get neutral grape spirit, or some neutral spirit, for fortification. When you’re using your own apple spirit for fortification of making pommeaus, you can really step it up a notch and make a first-class pommeau that way.

WEST: I think your Apple Dessert Wine is fantastic. It’s very clean. It’s not like your Normandy style, it’s a very clean fortified pommeau type. I think it’s great.

BECK: To be quite honest, when I was bouncing around the state looking at these places…Michigan has several places that have these beautiful copper and brass stills. Quite frankly, I said I want one of those! That was as big a push as anything. So when we got our license, we decided to get licensed as a distillery as well.

We started out very modestly. We never even sold a spirit until we had some spirits aged at least four years, that we could blend with some two year old spirit. We waited at least four years before we even sold any spirit itself. We were selling our pommeau well before then. But we wanted to wait until we had a really nice product before we released a brandy.

WEST: It’s very nice.

BECK: I can’t even pronounce eau-de-vie. I don’t know how to say it, so how can I sell it? That you can sell quick and early. And now we make a vodka from apples. That’s one of the smoothest vodkas you can get. It’s not a neutral vodka, but it’s very easy to drink.

WEST: I’ve had some of that, it is very smooth. I’m not much of a vodka person, but it’s something I think everyone should try.

You wear a lot of different hats. Do you mind talking about USACM and your role with the national cider association?

BECK: Sure!

WEST: Can you give us a brief history? When was the organization founded, why was it founded, and what are the current operations of the association?

BECK: It’s got a fairly old start. People started getting together to talk about the industry back at a CiderDays event, maybe going on eight years ago now.

WEST: And this is Franklin County CiderDays in Massachusetts?

BECK: Correct. We talked about how we have industry issues. We recognized that we all had other hurdles besides marketing. No one could agree on anything about marketing. But the other things, sure, there were a lot of things we could agree on.

We started getting together in places like Portland, Oregon, as more people got in business. They were put together on a shoestring by people like Ben Watson and James Kohn. Or it was just having an impromptu meeting during one of the Great Lakes events, or whatever.

It’s got a bit of history behind it, but it was only about two years ago that it became official. I’m in my second term as president as an official organization.

WEST: So this would’ve been in February 2013, that it was formed?

BECK: You’re right, I do believe.

WEST: So a board was elected, and you were appointed as president. What have you and the board done so far to further the cause of cider in the US?

BECK: Our main focus for developing this group was our legislative issues. That’s where the board grew from. And that’s been what we’ve been trying to tackle so far, beyond trying to put on a great conference. Last year, we really did have a great conference. There was a lot of really good material that I went away very excited about.

WEST: And this is the CiderCon event that’s held in Chicago?

BECK: Correct. A lot of great educational material. A lot of great momentum from the public as well, with the Cider Summit that’s put on out there on Navy Pier. So there’s a tremendous amount of industry coming together and sharing ideas. There’s also a great pull from the public about cider. The bars and restaurants are all about it there. The people come out to the events and support them. There’s a lot of great momentum that happens from CiderCon.

So two main goals. The legislative issues and putting on a great event. As we grow as an organization, we hope to do more.

WEST: Could you talk more about the legislative issues? I know, with you being in the trade, you’re very aware of those. But for your average consumer, what legislative hurdles is cider facing right now?

BECK: In simple terms, we’ll call it a gas tax. By gas, I mean CO2. If a cider ends up over a certain threshold, the tax goes from a very reasonable amount to a very unreasonable amount. In gallons it goes from 17 cents for the small producer to 2 dollars and 90 cents. That’s a big swing in federal tax. That is the biggest scope of the legislation, to get a tax rate that is in line with the European Union standard.

Same with the ABV on the product. We’re looking to go for a slightly higher alcohol product. And the inclusion of pears, to be in the same tax definition.

WEST: So right now, it seems that the 7% threshold is limiting cidermakers in what products they can put out on the market. You’re saying the idea is to increase that 7%?

BECK: Yes, to 8.5%.

WEST: Increase the alcohol a little bit, stop the punitive taxation for carbonation, and allow the use of pears, which were historically used as well as apples to make cider. Is that a good summary?

BECK: Correct. Great summary.

WEST: CiderCon for next year, in 2015, it’s also slated to be in Chicago?

BECK: At the Swissotel, a very nice hotel. A great rate, too. We secured a rate of around $119 a night for the event. So a great deal on a fantastic hotel. It’s very close to Navy Pier, which is where the Cider Summit event is at. If you go to the USACM website, I believe you can register and reserve rooms.

WEST: Even though it is an industry event, it is something that people who are in the planning stages of starting a cidery, or even are just huge enthusiasts, is it something that they can attend as well?

BECK: Absolutely. I would say at least 15% of last year’s attendees were people that did not have licenses yet.

WEST: There’s a lot of workshops, educational opportunities, informal networking.

BECK: I’ve not seen any lineups put together. But the last two years, there’s been educational programs designed for the very small producer and for very large producers too. A lot of those are put on by people in the industry. So you’re getting practical experience from people that are actually doing it. Also, we bring in academia and other professionals to talk about finances and other aspects of business.

WEST: If you’d like to learn more, the website is ciderassociation.org. You can also find information about the Cider Conference at that website.

Mike, one last thing before I let you go. I know that you’re a busy guy. You’ve been involved with the Great Lakes Cider and Perry Association since its inception. Could you talk about the two big events that the GLCPA puts on each year?

BECK: The biggie is the competition.

WEST: The Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, or GLINTCAP as we call it.

BECK: Right. It started out as a fairly small competition. It’s grown now to be a very large competition, somewhere between 500 to 600 samples. I know you have a better gauge on that number.

WEST: I think it was 531 this year.

BECK: 531, nice. Which is as big as any around, I’d say. We started fairly modestly. Very much pushed by our initial director, Rex Halfpenny. He puts on a lot of beer competitions throughout the country and throughout the world. He helped us through our early challenges. We’re working with the BJCP Style Guidelines, which are the only style guidelines for cider judging that exist.

WEST: And the authors of those guidelines are often with us to judge at the competition.

BECK: Yes. People like Dick Dunn and Charles McGonegal and Gary Awdey. People that know and care about cider. The guidelines match pretty well with what’s going on in the cider industry. Although there’s new things happening in the cider industry all the time. So it’s hard to keep up.

It’s another opportunity to bring in as many industry professionals as we can, to make it a learning experience. We’ve always had the session before the judging where we go through the styles of cider that are out there, and taste examples of them. We also do some sensory training, where we learn about faults and other things that can happen to cider. We treat it as much as an educational opportunity as we do a competition.

WEST: The sensory analysis and the educational seminar, that’s the highlight of the weekend. Many people walk away from that thinking wow, I just learned so much about cider! For those of you out there, keep your eye out for announcements about the 2015 GLINTCAP. We would love to see some people out there.

And you have an event in the fall, at Uncle John’s?

BECK: We have the Great Lakes Cider and Perry Festival. An event that I put on here for anyone from throughout the country to send cider. For people listening, if you send cider, we’ll find someone to pour it for you and present it in a nice manner. We bring in mostly Michigan trade professionals, but a few others from around the Great Lakes have shown up. People like Gidon Coll from Original Sin, people from outside the region. Herdie from Maiden Rock has been here before. Charles McGonegal from AeppelTreow. Gary Awdey brings ciders up from Indiana. If you just send the ciders, we’ll get them out, get them iced down, we’ll get some volunteers to pour them.

The volunteers that come and the trade professionals that come, afterwards we have a really nice dinner for them. It’s a nice, casual event. Since we’re a non-profit board, we don’t have a ton of money to advertise, so it’s not a huge event. A little less than a thousand people usually show up for it, so it doesn’t draw the huge numbers.

WEST: But it sounds like a fantastic variety of ciders that are being poured.

BECK: Typically well over a hundred different ciders that you can try.

WEST: From visiting greatlakescider.com, it looks like this year’s event is on September 6th.

Mike, thanks for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I hope we meet in person again sometime soon.

BECK: Yes, absolutely.

WEST (Outro): It was a pleasure to talk with Mike and I hope you enjoyed our conversation. To learn more about Uncle John’s, visit ujcidermill.com for the retail operation and ujhardcider.com for the cider, perry, and spirits.

To learn more about the United States Association of Cider Makers and their annual Cider Conference, visit ciderassociation.org and ciderconference.com.

And to learn more about the Great Lakes Cider & Perry Association and their events, visit greatlakescider.com.