Maker: Uncle John’s Fruit House, St. John’s, Michigan, USA
Style: Hard cider flavored with cinnamon candies.
Price: $11 (Binny’s)
Note: At the time of purchase, I received a complimentary bottle of premium cider and of Uncle John’s Apple Brandy. I got a 30% discount on the rest of my purchase.
Appearance: Nearly fluorescent pink. Lots of fizz.
Nose: Apple juice, hint of cinnamon.
Palate: Apple sauce with red hots, flint.
Finish: Cinnamon candy, then dry. Goes quickly.
Parting words: The last cider I reviewed was Cinnamon Girl from Left Foot Charley. That was flavored with single origin cinnamon from two different places and no sugar was added. Uncle John’s took a completely different approach to creating a cinnamon hard cider. They threw a bunch of Atomic Fireball candies into the fermentation tank. The result is something like when my grandmother made applesauce and put red hots in while it was cooking. I enjoyed the flavor then and I enjoy it now, but it’s not as nuanced as Cinnamon Girl. Atomic Apple is cheaper and still pretty good, though. All that said, my wife hated it. Atomic Apple is recommended.
Apples: Golden Russet, Razor Russet, Knobby Russet and Baldwin.
Price: $13 (Binny’s)
Note: At the time of purchase, I received a complimentary bottle of this and of Uncle John’s Apple Brandy.
Appearance: Medium gold. Persistently effervescent.
Nose: Cut apple core, sweet cinnamon, old oak, green cardamom.
Palate: Medium dry and chewy. Apple juice, big tannin, tart cherry juice, seasoned lumber.
Finish: Dry, bitter tannins that linger in the cheeks.
Parting words: My visit to Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery & Cider Mill is chronicled here. This is the second of Uncle John’s premium ciders I’ve taken notes on for this blog. The first one I took notes on was Melded, a delicious blend of American, British and French cider apples. That one had tannins and minerals but on a bed of citrus. It was very food friendly and refreshing. I planned on highly recommending it, but I lost those notes due to poorly designed word processing software. I’ve begun handwriting notes so that doesn’t happen to me again.
Russet is different from Melded. There’s plenty of fruit here but it’s all apple and it’s wrapped in a chewy, tannic package. It works well with food too, but the tannins are leading the charge here with fruit and acid playing backup. It’s a very good cider and leaves me excited to try the rest of the premium line that I have haunting my cellar.Uncle John’s Russet Hard Apple Cider is highly recommended.
Style: Apple cider with peach juice, ginger juice and sugar.
Price: $11/4 pack of pint cans (Binny’s)
Appearance: Bright gold.
Nose: Light ginger, golden apple, peach nectar.
Palate: Medium bodied, medium dry and well-integrated. Tart with a little tannin. Fresh cut peach and a pinch of ground ginger.
Finish: Much bigger peach in the finish. Dry, underripe peach. Lightly lingers.
Parting words: At the annual early June party my wife and I host, I went with an all Michigan theme. I wanted to make sure there was cider there since I like it and like variety. I also bought a six pack of Beard Bender dry cider from Blake’s. I assumed the Blake’s would go quicker, but Ginger Peach did. After tasting it, it’s easy to see why.
When making a fruit flavored cider it is critical that the cider base is of good quality. When it’s not the fruit element has to be increased to hide the flavor and the whole thing ends up being cloying and gross. The best flavored ciders, like this one, let the tannins and apple character come through while harmonizing with the flavorings. Ginger Peach goes well with food, too, especially grilled meats and South or Central Asian food. Ginger Peach is recommended.
Once a summer, our family has what we call Grandparent Camp. We send our daughter to Indianapolis for a week to spend time with the grandparents, all four of them. When we were thinking about what to do that week, returning to Lake Michigan Shore wine country was on the top of the list. The wrinkle was that we would have the baby with us, since he’s still too little for Grandparent Camp. As most parents can tell you, taking a baby along on trips is actually much easier than taking a toddler or an older child, though. The baby doesn’t complain about getting bored or knock over shelves or have temper tantrums. If the baby cries changing the diaper or feeding will usually do the trick.
Anyway, we wanted to visit some new places but also hit some old favorites in our limited two-night stay. On the way over, we stopped at Lawton Ridge in Kalamazoo for a tasty crepe supper and some wine tasting. The whites were good as was the service. Friendly, homey, neighborhood type place. The next day (Thursday) was our busy day. We started off with a visit to Fenn Valley in Fennville (north of the cluster of wineries around Baroda but worth the trip), got lunch at Crane’s Pie Pantry (good pie and cider but mediocre food otherwise) and then headed back south stopping at old favorites Domaine Berrien (great as always), neighboring Lemon Creek (cozy tasting room) and newbies Dablon with their beautiful hilltop tasting room.
I had wanted to do a “A Visit To…” profile on one of the LMS wineries and I thought Round
Barn would be the perfect choice. I had a nice conversation with winemaker Matt and then Brand Ambassador Bethany of Round Barn/Free Run Cellars at the Michigan Wine Showcase so I thought I’d send Bethany and email and ask if she’d be available to give us a tour for blogging purposes. A man named RJ replied that Bethany was no longer brand ambassador, but he was now and he’d be able to give us a tour. Unfortunately, he ended up having a conflict himself, and we got our tour from veteran tour guide Jessica.
Round Barn opened as a winery in 1992. It was founded by Rick Moersch, who was winemaker at nearby Tabor Hill at the time. He had owned vineyards since 1981, so he used them as the basis for his own winery which he named Heart of the Vineyard. In 1997 the round barn was purchased and moved from Rochester, Indiana to the property where it was reassembled by Amish builders. Rick intended it to serve as a home for a brandy distillery. In 2004 the winery was renamed after the remarkable building. The spirits and brewing program began then as well.
We arrived at Round Barn shortly after opening. The place has changed quite a bit since our first visit several years ago. When we last visited, the eponymous round barn was used for production and the tasting room was in the other barn. The round one has been beautifully remodeled and now serves as the tasting room. The bar runs in a circle around the interior with bottles on the wall opposite. The second level has another bar
and six compartments for small group tastings. The group tastings are a popular bachelorette party activity according to Jessica.
Our tasting was on ground level and went through the usual tasting procedure with a few add ons. The system has been in use since mid May. You can see the tasting menu and the format they use in the photo. The menu changes monthly. Nothing we tasted was bad, but the standouts were Vineyard Tears (dry Riesling/Pinot Gris/Chardonnay blend), Albariño (American, but estate grown grapes are in the mix), estate Merlot (we had a lot of Merlot on this trip!), Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (also estate). Farm Market Blueberry and the wine-based Black Walnut Crème were standouts in the dessert arena (also the name of my new gameshow). When I mentioned that I wanted to try the Farm Market Blueberry, Jessica and had a short discussion about fruit wines. We agreed that fruit wines are really their own category that shouldn’t be judged by the standards of wine grape wines.* As I put it, it would be silly to say that a Chardonnay was bad because it lacked hop character. It’s just as silly to dismiss fruit wines for tasting too much like fruit. That’s entirely the point.
According to another employee, Round Barn has eighteen acres of vines, plus an additional four used for Free Run cellars (see below). Another two acres are used for something else, but I forgot to write it down in my notes (fruit maybe?). The vineyards didn’t suffer much damage in the polar vortex, according to Jessica. The only losses were their black currants, which I thought were illegal in Michigan, but can be grown with a special license.
We also tasted their spirits. The rum and agave spirit (distilled from imported agave juice) are both unaged and of mixer quality (as you can see above, those spirits are offered in cocktail form in the tastings). The real standout was the bourbon which is a very pleasant surprise. It is of limited production and will be reviewed in the near future. They also produce an aged brandy and a “grappa” but those are under the Free Run label and not currently offered for sale at the Round Barn tasting room. They are available at the Public House (see below). According to Jessica, there are no plans to produce an aged rum or agave spirit. There is also a blended American Whiskey on the menu that is a blend of rye and bourbon, according to RJ. I did not taste it. An Applejack is in the works too, made using locally grown apples.
The roof of the round barn
Round Barn’s best known spirit is DeVine Vodka, made from grapes. As I’ve ranted about on Twitter a few times, I don’t understand the desire to take perfectly good fruit like grapes or apples and turn them into a spirit that is by nature flavorless. It’s always seemed like a waste, but as the saying goes, you can’t argue with success and DeVine Vodka has been a success. They recently followed up the success of DeVine with 269 Gin, named after their area code. It’s a basket infused gin made using the grape spirit used for the vodka and will be reviewed in the future as well.
The column on the still
After touring the upstairs, Jessica led us through a beautiful courtyard to the not-
roundbarn (built in 1907 on the property), now christened the Round Barn. Upstairs is a smallish bar and gift shop with seven Round Barn beers on tap and all their spirits behind the bar. It’s a decent size space with a good sized deck attached. It seems like it would have a good flow of people between the two spaces when busy (and warm). We tried a sample of Vanilla ‘Stache, a vanilla porter, there. The vanilla comes through but in a subdued way. I liked it.
Deck at the other barn with hop vine
Black Walnut tree
The next stop was the production facility. It’s a non-descript industrial building set several yards away from the barns. It houses the winemaking equipment, automated bottling line, still and oak barrels, (all French for the wine). Since 2014, all brewing has been located adjacent to the Round Barn Public House in downtown Baroda (such as it is). That was our next stop. RJ’s meeting was over so he was able to meet us there.
The Public House is a red building with a bar and a large seating area and a large covered patio. It once served as a tool and die shop, owned by RJ’s father, as a matter of fact. The food is limited but good. Sandwiches mostly. Our lunch (RJ comped us for this) was good. They exclusively serve their own beer and spirits. With my lunch (turkey Bahn Mi and a cup of chili) I ordered a pint of Escaped Goat, the Hef PA. It was good. I told RJ that I was a fan of wheats, so brought me a couple samples of their current wheats (Vacation wheat ale and Straw Beery Strawberry wheat ale, both good) plus a couple experiments. The first experiment was a Saison they had been working on. It was good, but was not as flavorful as I had hoped. The second was a dry, tannic cider with Balaton cherry juice added. It was really intriguing. The result was closer to a sour beer than a fruit cider. It was not ready for prime time, but it had a lot of potential that I hope is realized soon!
RB Public House & Brewery
Public House bar
The one aspect of Round Barn’s business that we didn’t get to see was Free Run Cellars. Free Run is a multifaceted project. The name comes from the juice produced from the initial pressing of the wine, called free run juice, but also from the Rick’s sons (Matt and Christian) being given “free run” in the Round Barn Cellars. All the wines under the Free Run label are from free run juice (appropriately), and are single vineyard, estate wines. Free Run also has its own facility (opening later this month) that will host four wine, four appetizer pairing tastings with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients.
Many businesses that try to do a lot of different things end up letting their ambition getting the best of them. They are mediocre at everything instead of being good at one or two things. Round Barn does not fall into this trap. Some products are better than others, obviously, and wine is what they do best, but their beers and spirits were good too, some of them very good. If anything maybe they to be more ambitious with their beers and spirits. An aged rum could be very good. Ramping up their production of brandy might be a good idea as well. Bourbon is hot right now, but rum is also popular and getting more so. Brandy is on the way up as well. Copper & Kings in Kentucky is getting a lot of attention for bottling and selling Michigan-made brandy. Michigan producers need to be getting that attention.
Beautiful grounds, well run facilities and delicious products. Round Barn does it all and does it well. A visit to Round Barn is highly recommended.
Note: I received a free lunch at the Public House and a 25% media discount on purchases on this visit.
*”Wine grape wines” may seem redundant but the phrasing is intentional. In my opinion, wine made from grapes like Concord, Niagara or table grape varieties belongs in the “fruit wine” category. While they are grapes, they are not grown for the express purpose of winemaking. The line gets fuzzy when it comes to some native North American grapes like Muscadine that are eaten as fruit but also have a long history of being made into wine. Maybe this discussion would make a good My Two Ounces post.
Appearance: Light coffee brown with a big foamy head.
Nose: Roasted coffee, chocolate syrup, brown sugar.
Palate: Dark roast coffee with 3-4 packets of sugar in the raw, a little malt and bitterness, dark chocolate.
Finish: Sticky but not really sweet. Almost exactly like dark roast Sumatra but without the smoke I often get in that coffee.
Parting words: From the folks who brought the world Breakfast Stout, now we have another coffee beer. I like that it’s more than just that, though. They’re using Sumatran coffee (working my way through a bag of Sumatra Mandheling from Chazzano right now, actually) provided by Ferris & Co. roasters of Grand Rapids (details on their Sumatra are here). They also used two types of malt, Aromatic and Munich, and two types of hops, German and Perle. In sum, Founders put a lot of effort and care into this, as they do with everything.
That said, I think this beer missed the mark. There’s too much sweetness here for my taste. It comes off closer to a fudge or milkshake stout than a coffee-flavored brown ale. $12 isn’t crazy for an imperial seasonal offering but it’s too much for something I’m not particularly fond of. Sumatra Mountain is mildly recommended.
Uncle John’s Cider Mill/Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery is in St. John’s, Michigan 31 miles north of Lansing, about a one and a half to two-hour drive from Metro Detroit. The Cider Mill has been open to the public since 1971 but the Beck family has owned a farm in that location for five generations, growing fruit and vegetables. Their current business is typical of many destination-type cider mills around the Midwest. Cider, doughnuts, pies, jam, farm stands, kids recreational area, local bands, car shows, bicycle races and the like. They have also made wine for many years as Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery. A red and white blends are made but most of the wines are fruit-flavored or 100% fruit wines. They make Concord grape, cherry, cranberry and sparkling peach wines, Cyser, and Pyment.
Apples have always been grown by the Becks on their farm and according to Mike Beck, current co-owner and operator, apples are where their hearts are. They started selling hard cider to the public in 2002, back when cider was small. They were already focusing more on fruit wine, so moving to hard cider was an easy transition. They were one of the first commercial hard cider producers in Michigan so they got a solid head start on the cider boom. They are also one of the few producers nationwide to grown their own fruit. According to Mike, many of the cideries in the Pacific Northwest don’t grow any of their fruit and know little to nothing about growing apples. Uncle John’s takes pride in their long standing “relationship with the apple”. They have 80 acres of apples on site and own another 80 acres of orchards in West Michigan. Uncle John’s also sources fruit from as far north as Leelanau and as far south as St. Joseph’s. There are subtle differences between northern and southern fruit, Mike explained. The northern apples tend to be more acidic (and prettier) and the southern tend to be sweeter. Mid-Michigan apples are the perfect balance of the two (of course).
Mike’s training was almost entirely on the job. He was operating the cider press by the time he was nine years old. He has also studied at Michigan State University and spent time at Black Star Farms, Fenn Valley, and St. Julien, which he praises for their commitment to helping anybody involved in producing wine, cider or spirits in Michigan.
When I arrived, Mike took me through the highlights of their canned ciders and then their premium line. We started with the semi-dry flagship cider (reviewed here in its former can design), a favorite of mine. We then moved onto the cherry which was good, and then the apricot which was very good. The Cherries for the former are estate grown, but the apricots are not (although they are from Michigan). Blueberry, cranberry and pear fill out the rest of the line of fruit flavored ciders. If I recall correctly, the blueberries are Uncle John’s own. The pears are Michigan grown as are some of the cranberries. Getting all Michigan cranberries is harder than it may seem. Michigan is a major producer, but they belong to the big interstate cranberry co-op as soon as they are harvested and are all pooled together.The co-op assures Mike that there are some Michigan berries in the mix. The odd ball (no pun intended) of the canned cider line is Atomic Cinnamon. It’s the standard apple cider infused with Atomic Fireball candies. A review of that one will be coming in the near future. In addition to those, they have cider cocktails available at the tasting bar. When I was there, they had their own version of a spiced Spanish cider punch. It was tasty.
The canned ciders are good family fun (if your family is all over 21) but the premium ciders
seem to be what Mike’s most proud of. They’re all on the dry end of the scale and are all excellent. He said he doesn’t have any particular regional style (English, Norman, etc) in mind when he makes these, he just lets the fruit lead the way. I tasted Melded (a blend of
English, French and American heritage cider apples), Russet (blend of Russet varieties, with Golden Russet making up the majority), Baldwin (single variety cider from Lake Michigan Shore apples), and the award winning perry (from Bartlett pears; they’re especially proud of this one). Look for reviews of the first two and the perry in the next few months. The two I didn’t taste were American 150 (blend from 150 y/o+ cider apples) and Cider Rosé (made from all red fleshed apples). I did pick up a bottle of Cider Rosé, though so expect a review of that one too!
I asked about whether they had plans to make an ice cider, like the one made by Blake’s (reviewed here). Mike didn’t seem to be interested in the idea. He poured me some of their apple dessert wine and said he was fine with that one occupying the sweet end of their range. It’s a fortified wine made using spirits distilled from Uncle John’s own fruit. It was cloying and unrefined but drinkable. I hope Mike reconsiders. I would love to see his considerable skill applied to an ice cider.
Uncle John’s produces spirits too. Mike informed me that their pot still used to be at their facility in St. John’s, but when they expanded it was moved to Red Cedar distillery down the road in East Lansing. When I asked if Uncle John’s spirits were contract distilled, Mike replied, “We don’t actually have a contract, but they do it for us.” Mike oversees the spirits production, but doesn’t distill any of it himself, allowing the expert staff at Red Cedar to do that.
They are currently selling two spirits, an apple vodka and an aged apple brandy. The apple vodka is surprisingly flavorful, tasting more like apple eau de vie than vodka. “I know it’s supposed to be flavorless but…” It made a good sipping vodka, but I didn’t try it in any cocktails. The vodka is made in the big column still at Red Cedar.
We then moved on to the really good stuff, apple brandy. They have twelve barrels aging at the Cider Mill. They have two different types of barrels to age their brandy. Some is aged in toasted French oak (in barrels intended for Calvados) and some in Michigan oak barrels, also toasted. The Michigan oak barrels were sourced by St. Julien’s to be distributed to wineries across the state. Mike prefers the French oak barrels but again credits St. Julien’s with doing a good thing for wineries in the state by facilitating the use of home grown wood in wine and spirits production. It’s a cool thing for a Michigan producer to be able to say that your product has been aged in Michigan oak. Uncle John’s has barrels of brandy as old as 12 y/o but what gets bottled is 2-6 years old. It’s only sold at the tasting room and at a couple restaurants in Chicago. It’s sold in 375 ml bottles. I received a complimentary bottle of the brandy, so watch this space for that review too.
Uncle John’s has more spirits in the works. They are currently working with Red Cedar to develop a gin using their apple vodka as a base. Mike also said they have two barrels of whiskey aging. When I asked him what style they were he said, “I don’t know.” The whiskey originally belonged to Michigan Brewing Company. Uncle John’s was forced to take possession of it in MBC’s notorious bankruptcy. If it turns out to be any good, it will be released.
They have a cozy tasting room with bar for tasting or just buying a drink. As is usually the case, the tasting room also contains a shop. All their ciders and spirits are sold there along with apparel and locally made snacks and other products. A pleasant-looking patio is outside. Uncle John’s is a bit of a hike to be a regular hangout for me, but it looks like it would be well worth the drive from Lansing to spend a warm summer evening relaxing with a glass of cider. Even if you aren’t close, a visit is recommended. Big thanks to Mike Beck and all the other staff for their patience and hospitality.
Nose: Apple wood, dry heirloom apple, lavender, grape soda.
Palate: Medium bodied and sweet. Bubbles, unoaked chardonnay, mango, papaya.
Finish: Botrytized wine. Fades quickly into a light tingle.
Parting words: Ice cider is similar to ice wine in concept. There are two styles: cryoextracted, and cryoconcentrated. Cryoextracted is similar to ice wine in its process. The fruit is left on the tree where it freezes. It is usually harvested in January and then cold fermented for an extended period of time (this differs from cryoextraction in wine which is a process that involves freezing grapes by artificial means). This cider is cryoconcentrated. That means the fruit is harvested late in the season, made into juice and then allowed to freeze. It is then cold fermented.
This is the first ice cider I’ve ever tried and it’s a winner. It lacks the sexy unctuousness of ice wine but it also lacks its often cloying character. It’s well balanced and complex but never obnoxious, at a least to me. I love it and I could drink it all day. This is what a $16 cider should taste like. Amshiré Ice Cider is highly recommended. I have no idea what the name means, though.
Palate: Medium dry, medium mouthfeel. A little brett, a little tannin. Fades to cheap moldy swiss cheese.
Finish: Bitter, musky finish. Fades to candle wax.
Parting words: This one started OK and finished awful. The website recommends that it be chilled and that does improve it but once that wears off, it’s very difficult to drink. I think they’re going for a Norman style dry cider here, but either this bottle is contaminated or they need to keep trying. For $16, this needs to be more than a work in progress. Rebel Jack Hard Cider is not recommended. They seem to have started with meads, hopefully those are better.
Style: Wheat beer with grapefruit peel and coriander seed
Appearance: Cloudy gold with a lasting foamy head.
Nose: Wheat bread dough, citrus peel.
Palate: Citrusy, slightly sour, with a little spice.
Finish: Sour and a little bitter.
Parting words: Griffin Claw is located in Birmingham, Michigan, the affluent suburb just north of Royal Oak, location of Sipology Blog HQ. Birmingham is a women with big hats and little dogs kinda place. Which makes the quote that appears at the top a little #problematic. It’s a quote from Elmore Leonard: “There are cities that get by on their good looks. Detroit has to work for a living.” I’m sure Leonard meant it as a tribute of sorts, but coming from a brewery in one of the wealthiest, whitest cities in the metro area, it sounds more like a dig than a compliment.
That aside, there’s nothing wrong with this beer. It’s something I would order at the brewpub or someone else if I was in the mood for a spiced wheat beer. This is Michigan, though, and the competition here is fierce. If a brewery is going to make a beer in the style of the most popular beer from the most popular brewery in the state, it needs to stand out. Bluesky doesn’t. It’s not worth seeking out if unavailable near you. Mildly recommended.
Parting words: Bock is a style of beer that drinks like an ale but is brewed like a lager. It’s also one of my favorite styles. Bock has a long history in Germany but was hard to find in the US for many years. The microbrewer movement changed all that and now almost every small brewery makes one or more. The story goes that the style was originally made in the Lower Saxon town of Einbeck, but the name was corrupted to ein Bock (a billy goat) by brewers in Munich. That story sounds fishy to me, but beer history is not my field, so I’ll let it go for now. At any rate, most bocks carry a picture of one or more goats on the label as a play on the name.
Doppelbocks (i.e. double bocks) are brewed at a higher ABV than the standard bock. They usually have a name that ends in -ator as a tribute to the first brewers of the style, the Paulaner Franciscan friars, who called their beer Salvator. Consecrator is a good example of the style, but as noted above it shows more fruit than most. It still works very well, though. I don’t normally buy beer that’s this expense (I admit that I probably overpaid), but this one is just worth the price. Consecrator is recommended.