OWNER, SPIRIT TREE ESTATE CIDERY (AND BAKERY, KITCHEN, FARM STORE AND PICK-YOUR-OWN)
CIDER MAKER, BAKER, BUSINESS OWNER
Tom and his wife Nicole Judge own and run Spirit Tree Estate Cidery in Caledon, which is also where they live.
I’ve been on a guided tour of your cidery, and it was filled with people saying “I didn’t know that” about so many aspects of cider in general… are there some things in general that people are most interested in?
Pretty well the whole thing. It’s funny, when we first started doing it I was wondering, what will stand out to people, and time and again the response is always that they are just impressed with the whole thing. It’s just all new to them. There’s not many people out there that can claim they are cider experts, because the whole industry is so new, and that’s basically the feedback we get, they’re just sponges… they are just taking it all in.
That’s why we built it. We realized when we were getting into this that cider was new ground, and no one knows what a cidery looks like, or what cider is, and we had to build a facility to educate the consumer.
When you say it’s new here, where is it not new?
Quebec has had a longer history of a resurgence of their cider industry. England, it kind of faded out in the ’80’s and then it came back, and a lot of the international demand has been coming out of the UK. There’s some markets in the US that are buying International ciders, but for the most part everybody is supplying their demand domestically, or buying in the UK. I’d say the newest trend in cider is buying Spanish ciders.
France is interesting: their cider industry isn’t enjoying the world resurgence as much as everyone else. So France is kind of missing out.
Is that because people don’t really see France as cider, but as wine?
Yes, they don’t realize that Normandy actually a cider region, and the French themselves aren’t taking advantage of this resurgence like the UK has.
The ironic part is back in the 17th and 18th century, everyone was drinking cider all across North America. Beer was more of a nouveau thing, but when North America was first being founded everyone was drinking cider, so this is sort of an old come new thing.
Even around the time of Confederation?
Even before that. As the country was getting settled, you look at the 1850’s to the 1880’s, that was the golden age of agriculture in North America, when bumper crops started to come out, plant breeding, rail lines to move the product. Before that any grain grown was basically kept local to feed livestock, feed the horses and to feed people. And in the fall you picked the apples, you crushed them into juice, put them in a barrel and it fermented, and that’s what you drank all year.
So you’re part of that lineage, but you just sort of skipped 150 years and picked it up again. You came to cider through the apple side?
I grew up on my family’s farm on Dixie road. There was an apple orchard and we were looking at ways to make growing apples more profitable, something value-added. We saw that craft cider was becoming a popular thing.
Are there any particular apples that are unique to Caledon, to where we are?
Ironically, this area had a bit of an apple industry at one time, but sadly most of those farms are gone.
Why is that?
I’d say partly the Canadian bent of our industry, and partly it’s globalization: we’re just convinced that the Americans do everything better and we should just buy American or elsewhere.
The problem was that a lot of the farms were not keeping up with the times. A lot of them were designed to produce fruit for the juice industry, and that’s all changed. As China started to feed the world with products, one of the first things they did was produce apple concentrate, and this is a world commodity, it’s treated like barrels of oil. It’s stable, it’s basically like an apple syrup and you just reconstitute it to make juice. And China flooded the North American market with cheap concentrate and destroyed the local juice processing economy. When I was a young child in the ’80’s we were shipping a lot of juice apples to Canada Packers in Toronto and other processors, and suddenly all those markets dried up.
So the Canadian apple story is a huge one for you.
Yes, and that’s my problem, because a lot of the old orchards were torn out, they’re gone right when we’ve got this cider industry taking off, and we’re looking for classic fruits, heirloom varietals that were in those old orchards, so the fruit is not there to supply us.
The food part of Spirit Tree, the restaurant, the bakery, it’s almost as big. But I imagine most people don’t know what to pair cider with.
Actually, because it’s fruit based it’s a little easier than things like beer. Grain-based beverages like beer, I find they don’t seem to mesh with food as much. Certain pub food goes with craft beers, but I’m a bit of a foodie so I’ve always enjoyed wine with food, and cider is basically a kind of low alcohol apple wine so there is a little more forgiveness.
Cider allows us to do matchings with classic European-based and especially French foods. We do a lot of pork based items because they go well with apples, and we design our ciders to be more food oriented, to do those matchings.
Editor’s note: For space reasons we left out a long discussion about the cider industry in Ontario, and Tom’s hope for more government support. Just days after our interview, The Ontario Small Cidery Support Program was announced and as Tom put it, “Ontario craft cider makers (now) join the ranks of beer and wine producers as a provincially recognized industry.” Cheers!