Putting Hard Cider on the Map
In 1999 Mike Beck, the 5th generation Beck to run the farm at Uncle John’s Cider Mill, made the decision to branch out the business and add hard cider to the farm’s sweet cider business. Mike’s parents made a similar decision to add sweet cider and family events to the farm, so entrepreneurialism runs in the family. Beck says that the idea for hard cider came to him as he became a fan of Michigan’s fledgling wine industry and the delicious dry riesling its wineries produce. “Why not apples,” Beck wondered.
With a USDA Value Added Grant in hand, Beck received his license to make alcohol, put his marketing hat on and in 2001 the first Uncle John’s Hard Cider hit the market. With 250,000 annual visitors to the farm, the first hard ciders were sold at the farm’s market. It didn’t take long however for sales and production to increase tenfold through the addition of distributors to handle the external market. Beck was encouraged to expand the business when restaurateurs visited the farm and inquired about putting the hard cider on their bar menu. In 2003 Beck opened the farm’s taproom.
Not long after, in 2004, Beck, along with fellow cider enthusiast Rex Halfpenny, started an annual hard cider tasting at the farm. The tasting eventually became GLOWS – Great Lakes Old World Syder – competition. The first tasting included less than 20 hard ciders from a handful of producers, and the crowd was good but not overwhelming. Within a few years there were over 100 hard ciders to taste and the crowd had become massive. Word spread and cider was starting to make a name for itself.
GLOWS eventually became GLINTCAP, the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry competition, the largest cider tasting competition in the world. It will take place for the 17th year this May 17-19, 2023 at the Embassy Suites in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
IN 2022 Uncle John’s Cider Mill celebrated 50 years in business. The current business is apples, fresh to eat, sweet cider, hard cider, wine and coming soon spirits as well. There’s also a bakery and a farm store packed with good things to eat. In the fall there are pumpkins to pick and cut flowers. During the warmer months you can also visit the farm and listen to live music or take the kids around to visit the renovated barns.
It’s been a captivating ride for Uncle John’s, and Mike Beck is excited for the future. The key to the hard cider business is that “it represents something local, something people have a natural feeling for,” according to Beck, and the market bears this out. Hard Cider sales continue to increase 8 to 11% a year, while generic drinks like the hard seltzers come and go regularly.
Farming apples and making the cider is the operation’s side of hard cider, but there’s also the sales and marketing side. For this Mike turns to his wife Dede. It’s never easy to find space in the retail market shelves or on the taps of local bars and restaurants but Mike and Dede have put in the long hours and now have Uncle John’s Ciders in 5 states (Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin) and countless bars, restaurants and stores.
But it doesn’t happen by accident. Hard Cider owes its incredible growth to makers like Mike Beck who continue to push the market forward. Just recently, Mike drove a trailer full of Michigan ciders to Chicago for the annual CiderCon hosted by the American Cider Association. With a booth on the floor of the conference and a trailer full of Michigan Ciders, Mike says “we were the most popular place to hang out.” Each year CiderCon attendance increases by 15 to 20%. Not hard to figure out why!
Uncle John’s Cider Mill is located at 8614 North US-127 just north of the town of St Johns Michigan. Visit the website at https://www.ujcidermill.com/.