Food Service & Agriculture and Small Business & Startups

Good cider is pretty simple

Engelsma’s Apple Barn wins the statewide cider contest again this year.

December 19, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Engelsma Farm
Jim and Bridget Engelsma have an award-winning recipe for their apple cider. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Jim, Becky and Bridget Engelsma’s recipe for award-winning fresh apple cider is pretty simple as far as the ingredients go: several varieties of apples, period. No preservatives, either.

The magic in the production process at their Walker cider mill is pretty simple, too: total cleanliness, starting with the apples. They don’t use “drops” — the apples that have fallen on the ground — and the fresh-picked apples they use, which are all from their farm, are washed carefully.

Apple cider is a product “that will pick up taste very quickly if you’re not clean” in the process of making it, said Jim Engelsma. Even a little too much chlorine in the water used for cleaning the cider mill equipment can affect the taste of fresh Michigan cider — or at least the aficionados can tell, and they definitely like Engelsma’s Apple Barn Cider a lot.

Englesma’s Apple Barn took home first place in the 18th annual Michigan Apple Cider Contest at DeVos Place Convention Center Dec. 10, part of the annual Great Lakes Farm Expo. Sponsored by the Michigan Apple Committee, the competition included 30 cider makers, out of 154 licensed cider makers in Michigan this year.

The win wasn’t a first for the Engelsmas. In the past 10 years, the Apple Barn has won first place five times, second place twice, and third place once.

“This competition started 19 years ago with three goals: to help promote our fine Michigan apple cider industry, to improve the quality of our cider, and to provide additional educational and learning opportunities for our cider makers. We’ve come a long way over these 18 years,” said Bob Tritten, district fruit educator with Michigan State University Extension, and founder of the contest.

“For this year’s contest we had 30 entries from across the state of Michigan. Judging took place with the help of nine judges who worked hard to choose the best of the best Michigan ciders.”

Blake’s Orchard and Cider Mill of Armada and its cider makers, Pete and Paul Blake, won second place. The third place winner was Klein Cider Mill in Sparta and cider maker Stephen Klein.

“Michigan’s cider makers put a lot of hard work into their cider,” said Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, co-sponsor of the contest. “Most of them grow the apples and work for years on just the right mix of varieties. The contestants take this competition very seriously. We are proud that Michigan can boast so many delicious ciders.”

Tritten began the Michigan Apple Cider Contest in 1996 to improve cider making, promote the industry and educate the public. The contest is sponsored by the Michigan Apple Committee, the Michigan State Horticultural Society and the Fruit Growers News.

Jim Engelsma, 49, has been working in the family orchards since he was 9 or 10 and started making cider at age 17. His father, Jim Sr., is “semi-retired” at age 83 but still works on the farm, which is on O’Brien Road, about a mile southwest of Lake Michigan Drive at Covell Avenue. About a half-block north of Lake Michigan Drive, on Covell, is The Apple Barn, where the Engelsmas have been selling their apples, peaches, cherries and cider since the mid-’50s.

The cider mill is on the farm near the orchards, and while Jim Engelsma says it is a “mom ’n’ pop farm,” that might give the wrong impression to people who aren’t familiar with the scope of modern agriculture. With 45 to 50 acres of high-density apple orchards, the Engelsmas produce from 60,000 to 70,000 gallons of cider each year. In 2004, they made a big move into wholesale sales of their cider across the Lower Peninsula, but there is also a retail customer in Missouri that sends refrigerated trucks up to Michigan for its weekly orders each fall.

The move into wholesale entailed an investment of about a quarter of a million dollars in a modern cider mill. The interior of the cider press building is “all cooled — we never allow the building to get warmer than 38 degrees while we’re making cider,” he said. The cold temperature “promotes clean cider,” he noted.

Fresh fruit sales at The Apple Barn start in July when the sweet cherries ripen, followed in August by peaches. On the farm, there is a controlled atmosphere cold storage facility where the fresh fruit is stored.

While many cider producers add sodium benzoate to help preserve their cider, the Engelsmas do not. Instead, to meet government food purity regulations, their cider is piped through glass tubes where it is exposed to ultraviolet light — “a very expensive contraption,” he said, which kills any bacteria.

The Engelsmas also maintain a HACCP plan — Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points — which tells food safety officials exactly what is done at the mill to prevent contamination of the cider. The facility is inspected each year by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and, Engelsma said, “we typically score very highly.”

They are also investing gradually in more high-density apple orchards, with most of the old trees now gone. Those acres are being replanted with specially developed varieties that can be planted much closer together — about three feet apart — and are kept pruned to a maximum height of 11 feet. High-density orchards are costly, said Engelsma, because the apple trees can range in price from $7 or $8, up to $11 or $12, and a high-density orchard can have 1,200 trees per acre.

The Engelsmas’ apple varieties are heading toward mainly Gala, Honey Crisp, Pink Lady and Fuji. He said the best mix for cider is a combination that varies, but a good one is Fuji, Empire, Gala, Golden Delicious and Jonathan.

Jim Engelsma’s expertise at combining the varieties is undoubtedly part of the secret to the award-winning cider, but Jim and Becky’s daughter Bridget, 26, “really manages the cider mill for me,” he said. In addition to her work on the family farm, she is an RN who works a floating schedule at the Spectrum ER. Her mother is also a nurse at Spectrum.

The extreme frost damage to the Michigan fruit crop in the spring two years ago left the Engelsmas with zero. “We didn’t harvest any fruit that year. We’re still recovering” from that loss, he said.

The cider mill can put out a little more than 400 gallons an hour, and in the fall, “we run long days,” he said. But the farm has proven to be “very enjoyable for our family. I don’t think we look at it as a job. Just a life that’s very enjoyable,” said Engelsma.

The Michigan Apple Committee is a grower-funded nonprofit devoted to marketing, education and research activities to distinguish the Michigan apple and encourage its consumption in Michigan and around the world. For more information, visit

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