New family-run Central Michigan cidery puts three generations of apple expertise to new financial gain.
By Peter Holmstrom
Photos courtesy of Eastman’s Forgotten Cider
Once you have taken over an orchard that grows more than 1,000 different apple varietals, the next step is to figure out what to do with them. It is to this query that the Ward family of Central Michigan set their minds to tackle, and the result has now offered new hope for their expanding enterprise.
Eastman’s Antique Apples began 26 years ago when Doug Eastman and his son, John, planted 3,500 apple trees in Central Michigan on the families’ 16-acre apple orchard. Since then, the orchard has been in constant production of more than 1,000 different varietals of apples, featuring some of the lesser-known and harder to find varietals.
Family-run since its onset, the small but diverse orchard was purchased by Rafe and Casey Ward (Doug Eastman’s grandchildren), along with their parents and partners in 2007. And this year they’ve decided to branch out and begin a commercial cidery, titling it Eastman’s Forgotten Ciders.
“The first couple of years was really figuring out the trees, getting them back in working order,” Nicole Ward, Eastman’s co-owner and wife of Rafe Ward, says. “And kind of figuring out what the best model would be for getting the apples out to the people.”
Three years after taking over ownership, Rafe and his brother Casey began experimenting with making their own hard cider.
“We’d press our own apple cider, and so it was just a natural progression to start making hard cider,” says Nicole Ward. “They started entering competitions as amateurs and medaled in it. All the while we were selling the bulk of our cider apples. Hard cider apples aren’t so great to eat, obviously, but we were getting requests from people who were making their own hard cider from them. So someone connected the dots eventually. We’re making hard cider, we’re making good hard cider, we’re selling our cider apples to other people. We want to look into longevity for this orchard, how to diversify and what else would help make it sustainable.”
This past February the Ward family took the next big step by taking their award-winning amateur cider into the big leagues by opening up their own tasting room.
Eastman’s Forgotten Cider now offers four bottled cider options, two golden varieties and two red-fleshed varieties. The golden varieties are Rare Harvest, made primarily with Cox’s Orange Pippin and Holstein apples, and Windmill Watcher, which contains a blend of more than 50 apple varieties. The red-fleshed varieties are Scarlet Russian and Mad Russian, made with red-fleshed apples, such as Russian crab apples.
The response thus far has been extremely good, says Ward, with many people coming from hours around to visit the tasting room. But the Ward family isn’t about to stop with just four ciders. Already, there are plans to develop three new brands in the coming months, with hopes of ascending to even greater heights in the near future.
“We’re definitely experimenting with the hard cider varieties, single batch, small batch varieties—that’s all something that we’re in the process of starting,” Ward says.
Even though the reception for their cider has been good, with people come in from all around to try their product, the Ward’s aren’t quite ready to quit their day jobs.
“We each have day jobs, all have families, so there’s really no one who is full time running around the orchard or the cidery,” Ward says. “We are a tree-to-tap company, we do everything. We’re the one’s out there picking the apples, pressing the apples, putting them into the bottle, putting the labels onto the bottles. Facebook, and distribution, and all that stuff. We’re doing all of the right now. It’d be a big help if we didn’t have to wear all those hats, and still do our day jobs.
Currently, Eastman’s Forgotten Cider is only available at their tasting room location. However, plans to introduce their product to local restaurants and farmers markets are brewing. With current sales going very well, and the unique diversity offered in the product attracting national attention, expect to hear more from this cidery in the very near future.