Oh, the signs were there all along: The extravagant apple cider-themed dinners at his tony restaurant on the waterfront in Burlington, Ontario. The British heritage and the fact that he was raised on the myriad ciders offered in the pubs of London. And his name on Twitter, of course: @ciderseeker.
It would appear that it was Chris Haworth’s destiny, but it was shocking nonetheless when he came home from a hard night of cooking and told his wife Amy and two young children that he was quitting his job as executive chef of Spencer’s at the Waterfront to chase his dream of making apple cider in a province that is just beginning to show interest in fermented apples.
“She said, ‘What? Are you crazy?’” Haworth recalls with a chuckle. “But she’s a totally, 100 per cent supporter of the project.”
His obsession with cider, and his plan to make it from apple orchards planted in Niagara, didn’t happen overnight. The Manchester-born chef trained under the so-called godfather of modern cooking, Marco Pierre White, a British celebrity chef, restaurateur and television personality, at the famous Quo Vadis restaurant in London.
Haworth spent eight years in White’s kitchens but when he met a Canadian girl he had a choice to make — come to Canada with her and stay in the relationship or break it off.
“I came here kicking and screaming,” says Haworth. He made the decision to follow his heart and set his sights on the restaurants of Toronto.
As fate would have it, he had a chance meeting with the owners of what was referred to then as “Project X” on the waterfront of Burlington. He was given the opportunity to build a kitchen and menu from the ground up that would establish what is now the crown jewel in the Landmark Group’s stable of fine restaurants.
For eight years Haworth was the executive chef of Spencer’s, one of the most important chef jobs in Southern Ontario, often cooking for over 500 diners a day. But always fermenting in the back of his mind was cider.
“My true love came to me four years ago on a trip to the County Cider Company (in Prince Edward County). We were overlooking Waupoos Island, sipping cider, eating a pizza and loving life,” he says. “That’s when the idea came into my head. Cider started consuming my life.”
His “idea” was to buy land in Niagara, plant an orchard with a variety of cider apples and get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning industry that’s on the verge of taking off.
Haworth has his first 7,000 litres of cider ready to bottle. It’s a dry, crisp, fruity style of cider made from a combination of Ontario apples including Cortland, golden Russet, McIntosh, Empire, and Northern Spy that he’s calling West Avenue Spy Cider. It will sell for around $3 for a 341 ml bottle along with a draught style version made for bars and pubs.
He’s also making 3,000 litres of a cider simply called West Avenue that will be aged in used bourbon barrels from Louisville, Tennessee, and packaged in 750 ml bottles that will sell for $12 a bottle.
Hard apple cider is a hot category these days in Ontario. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture (OMA), states the fledgling cider industry is increasing by 15 per cent a year worldwide, a steady climb at the expense of sluggish growth for mainstream beer in mature markets.
According to the OMA:
New cider drinkers are sophisticated craft beer drinkers;
Cider drinkers are split 50/50 between men and women;
Cider drinkers are following a beverage trend toward reduced sweetness, smaller portions, healthier products (cider is gluten free), and a desire to drink artisan, craft, local and natural products.
This isn’t news to Nick Sutcliffe, owner of Pommies Cider, which has exploded on the scene. “People are looking for quality products. The cooler (segment) is losing market growth and consumers are looking for a natural, refreshing product.”
Sutcliffe quit his job in sales and marketing to concentrate all his efforts on the new Pommies Cider, deliciously dry, and refreshing — presented in an eye-catching bottle. Only released in the LCBO last September, it outsold all ciders on the shelf for two weeks in January, says Sutcliffe.
Like Haworth, Sutcliffe comes from a British background. “The first drink I ever had was a cider in the UK,” he says. “It’s part of the culture there.” He’s setting out to make it part of the culture in Ontario.
“The rebirth of a cider revolution is afoot. We’re right at the beginning of the growth. I foresee cider growing considerably over the next 15 years.”
He says that’s evidenced by the fact the big breweries and drinks companies are flooding the market with mass-produced versions in all shapes, styles and flavours.
But that is not the direction Sutcliffe wants to take. He and 13 other Ontario and perry (pear cider) producers have formed a group, the Ontario Craft Cider Association, to help direct the new industry forward and establish some rules of quality that consumers will come to trust.
First and foremost is the fruit content. While most commercial versions are made from fruit concentrate, ciders made under the association’s banner will be permitted only 100 per cent juice from Ontario apple trees (with exceptions for a bad harvest such as 2012 that left local apple trees decimated).
The association wants to help change the rules for cideries in getting their product to market and encourage the liquor boards to understand what this golden drink is all about.
As it stands, says Sutcliffe, cider gets lumped in with the coolers and fruit-flavoured drinks at stores and positioned somewhere between beer and wine.
At the LCBO only four ciders — County Cider (Prince Edward County), Thornbury Premium Apple Cider (Nobleton), and Puddicombe Sir Isaac Pear Cider (Niagara) — are available with Spirit Tree Estate Cidery (Caledon) expected to join the shelves this year.
“Cider is the kind of drink that if you put it into the hands of consumers, they are enamoured with it,” says Sutcliffe.
From the back patio at the County Cider Company, set on the brow of the Waupoos escarpment near Picton in Prince Edward County, you get a million-dollar view of Lake Ontario.
County Cider owner and cidermaster, Grant Howes, is affectionately called the “grandfather” of the Ontario cider industry and has virtually assisted every maker in the province and beyond. And for good reason. He has toughed it out in an industry that was almost made extinct during the cooler revolution of the early 2000s that saw many a producer pack it in and move on to other products.
“I’m just the one silly enough and bull-headed enough to keep going,” says Howes.
He and his partner Jenifer Dean live in the 1832 Conrad David House, an area landmark, which is an excellent example of Regency Cottage architecture.
Next door, the property’s picturesque 1832 renovated stone pig barn houses the tasting room and retail store, along with a lunch program that features freshly made pizza from an outdoor stone pizza oven that pairs brilliantly with any number of the ciders available for purchase.
The family farm Howes owns has been producing apples since 1850 in a region renowned for its wine, food and breathtaking views of Lake Ontario.
They grow over 15 varieties of apples at two different orchards, which comprise approximately 40 acres of apple trees (approximately 15,000 trees). The orchards produce roughly 1,600 tonnes of apples each year. Among the varieties grown to create their ciders are Bulmer’s Norman, Ida Red, Russets, Northern Spy, Yarlington Mill, Dabinett, Michelin and Tremlett’s Bitter. These apples provide tannins and acidity — key ingredients when making quality cider.
Howes, whose background is in financial consultation, took the family orchards from “an apple farm with a cidery to a cidery with an apple farm in 2001,” though the family had been making small amounts since 1995. The move from high finance in downtown Vancouver, where he lived prior to moving to Prince Edward County, to full-time farmer in Waupoos was “quite a lifestyle change” but one that is starting to pay dividends for Howes. “We’re growing at 50 per cent a year. It’s just fantastic,” he says. “For the first time the industry has momentum.”
Howes points to the growing trend worldwide for ciders and, in particular, the US, which, he says, was up 27 per cent on volume last year and 31 per cent on dollar value.
It’s an industry that’s already firmly established in Quebec, New York, Michigan, New Hampshire and other apple-producing states, as well as in BC (especially on Vancouver Island) and is slowly coming back to the Okanagan Valley, where most of the apple orchards were bulldozed to make way for more lucrative vineyards.
County Cider has one of the most diverse portfolios in Ontario. Aside from the flagship brand, there’s the semi-sweet and sparkling Waupoos Cider; the Prince Edward County Ice Cider, made from apples frozen on the tree; the Sweet Sparkling Cider; a couple of flavoured ciders; and the newest cider in the portfolio, to be released later this year, called A Tortured Path Cider, an organic cider made from 50 per cent bittersweet apples and sweeter golden Russet apples that will be high in tannin and built more like a red wine.
There are still many hurdles for the cider industry in Ontario. Distribution is a pain, explains Howe. With the province’s archaic liquor law, he can’t transport his cask cider from Prince Edward County to Toronto while hitching a ride with a local brewery truck. It must be driven in separately, which means a special trip for Howes whenever a keg runs out. There also issues with taxation and shelf exposure at the LCBO for the Ontario-made ciders. Cider doesn’t get the same love that VQA wines get. “It’s been a long haul,” says Howes. As they say, it’s been a long, strange trip … but it’s about to get a whole lot better.
A Wash With Cider
While still at his job as executive chef at Spencer’s in Burlington, Chris Haworth was the mastermind behind two exquisite cider dinners where he paired his dishes with a selection of Ontario ciders. Here are some of the highlights:
Spirit Tree Crabapple Blush 2010 with Lobster Tortellini, Mango and Lemon Grass.
The blush cider from Spirit Tree showed cranberry-cherry fruits on the palate that lifted the subtle lobster and mango in the dish.
Spirit Tree Estate Reserve Cider served with Veal Loin with Pork Belly Gnocchi, Squash and Mustard Greens
This is a French-style, full-bodied cider that spent 6 months in oak barrels to bring out the vanilla, clove and nutmeg spice flavours to go with apple and caramel. It was a special treat that meshed expertly with the savoury flavours and fatty texture of the pork belly and veal.
Pommies Dry Cider with a Winter Salad of Valentine Radish, Turnip, Romelia Cheese and Almonds
The almonds and turnips folded nicely into the apple-fresh Pommies, which added a zesty twist to the salad.
County Cider CHOA Ice Cider 2009 served with a Mélange of Duck, Parfait, Confit and Foie Gras with Quince and Hazelnut.
This is a big cider (12% alcohol) that’s aged in various wood barrels. This match was a perfect complement. The cider’s smoked apple flavours, orange peel, butterscotch cream and vanilla were particularly delicious with the foie gras, not only from a textural standpoint, but also for its contrasting flavours. The cider brought a new dimension to the foie gras, rather than just complementing it.
Coffin Ridge Forbidden Fruit Organic Cider with Waldorf Sorbet made with Celery and Blue d’Elizabeth Cheese and served with Grapes and Walnut Brittle.
The creative take on the classic Waldorf salad was paired nicely with this Grey County cider that uses all organically grown apples from neighbouring growers. Sorbet and cider? Absolutely! The crisp, fresh apples and juicy citrus notes played beautifully with the blue cheese, grapes and walnut brittle.