Traverse City is already famous for its wines, craft brews and distilled spirits. Now we're poised to be a leader in the world of hard cider.

 Michigan already ranks third in the U.S. in terms of cider production, with 9.3 percent of the nation’s cider makers.

Unlike the familiar sweet cider sold in plastic jugs each fall at farm markets and fruit stands, hard cider is a clear, fresh-flavored slightly carbonated beverage that’s usually served in bottles or fresh from the tap. Like wine, it can be sweet or dry, and its alcohol content can be anywhere from 3 percent to 7 percent or more, and it’s increasingly popular with consumers who are looking for a fresh-tasting alternative to beer or wine.

All across the country, cidermaking is booming. Not since my wife’s famous relative, John Chapman, wandered across Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois planting cider apples in the early 19th century (yep, that’s what Johnny Appleseed was really up to) has this refreshingly potent beverage enjoyed such popularity. In the past five years, U.S. cider sales have gone from $35 million to $266 million -- a growth rate far outpacing that of craft beer.

The popular turn to cider fits in well with the area’s agricultural ethic, since it encourages partnerships between cidermakers and nearby farmers.  That’s particularly evident at the region’s only fully-dedicated cidery, Tandem Ciders, just northwest of Suttons Bay in the steep orchards of northern Leelanau County, which prides itself on its “artisan hard ciders.”

The tasting room at Tandem Ciders

In spite of its isolated location, Tandem has been attracting a steady stream of customers since opening in 2008. From two original ciders, owners Dan Young and Nikki Rothwell have expanded to a dozen “true to the fruit” blends (their menu lists the orchards where the apples in each blend come from) as well as pear, plum and Balaton cherry ciders and a barrel-aged pommeau made from sweet cider blended with apple brandy.

“Black Star Farms distills the brandy for us, then we blend the sweet cider into it and age it in oak barrels for two year,” said Tandem’s J. P. Kent.

Thanks to its proximity to the cool waters of Lake Michigan, the Grand Traverse Bay region has been one of America’s most productive fruit-growing areas in the U.S. And while the area’s growing reputation as a wine-producing region has prompted some farmers to replace their apple and cherry orchards with vineyards, there are still many areas that are better suited to apples.

In fact, it was a local winery, Black Star Farms, that created the first Leelanau Peninsula cider to grab national headlines by winning a gold medal in the 2006 INDY international wine competition, where it elicited praise from Eric Felton of the Wall Street Journal, who declared it “far and away, the best cider out of more than a dozen I tried.” Now cider is offered at many local wineries, whether it’s the traditional heirloom-style hard cider at Forty-Five North or the Spirit Cider at Bowers Harbor Vineyards, which also comes in cherry, raspberry, peach and mango blends.

A selection of ciders from Good Neighbor Cider House

The Good Neighbor Organic Vineyard & Winery near Northport has gotten even more exotic, with fruit-blended ciders (peach, pear, cherry) spiced ciders (coffee and chai) and one called Ciderye, which is aged two years in rye whiskey barrels. “It’s like the next Bond girl,” says owner Ben Crow. “Soft, but dangerous.” Verterra Winery in Leland has created a secondary label, Chaos Ciders, that includes cherry, peach, raspberry and blackberry ciders and a spicy “apple pie” cider flavored with caramel and cinnamon.

But the standout among the area’s cider-making wineries is Left Foot Charley, Traverse City’s first “urban winery,” which started dabbling in cider in 2008 with a small 100-gallon run. This year, winemaker Bryan Ulbrich expects to bottle some 60,000 gallons. Ulbrich makes his cider in small batches, so the menu in his Grand Traverse Commons tasting room changes regularly -- the most recent one I tried was a tasty strawberry-apple blend called Strawppleberry. But there are some hardy standbys like the bone-dry Classic Hard Cider, which relies on heirloom apple varieties.

The biggest seller? It’s always been Cinnamon Girl, a lightly-spiced, slightly sweet cider that manages to evoke the ghosts of apple pies past without overpowering your taste buds.

Not too many local microbreweries have gotten into the cider game. The only one I can think of is North Peak Brewing Company's Nomad (a dry English-style cider made from Old Mission apples, and very tasty!) That’s about to change, now that Short’s Brewery of Bellaire has created Starcut Ciders, a new brand that’s available at many local restaurants -- and even at Traverse City Beach Bums games.

(Photo courtesy of Starcut Ciders)

The company name is based on the delicate five-pointed star that appears in an apple’s center when you slice it horizontally. Starcut Ciders was launched last winter and is gradually ramping up from a modest distribution to restaurants and bars in northern Michigan to a more ambitious statewide distribution later this year.

Yet another cider operation is waiting in the wings, with plans to open later this summer. It’s Suttons Bay Cider, on Hilltop Road (between Traverse City and Suttons Bay). Owners Mark and Madelynn Korzon will be using apples from their own orchard -- and even some wild apples -- in their ciders. The tasting room has a wide deck with sweeping views of West Bay and Power Island.