By: Alyssa Andres
Over the past decade, the cider industry in Canada has taken off, with over 150 cideries across the country and 55 in the province of Ontario. The cidery that continues to stand out amongst the crowd is West Avenue Cider House. Since establishing in 2012, West Avenue has drawn massive attention from cider lovers and connoisseurs alike, winning awards nationally and internationally for their line of ciders. The Ontario cidery not only uses traditional, slow fermentation methods and an array of Heritage apples to create their unique brand of apple cider, but owner and head cidermaker, Chris Haworth, also experiments with alternative techniques and approaches to cidermaking, creating never before seen products that are changing the way people think about apple cider.
Haworth started his career as a chef in the U.K., working in some of London’s best restaurants, including Quo Vadis, owned by three Michelin star chef, Marco Pierre White. Haworth made the move to Canada in 2005 with his wife, Amy Robson, and that is when he started to take an interest in fermentation, brewing beer at home as a part-time hobby. As the couple got settled in Canada, Haworth noticed there were a lot of apples in Ontario, but not a lot of apple cider. It was in 2008 that he decided to leave the kitchen and make the shift into full-time cidermaking.
Haworth takes a very traditional approach to cidermaking. All of his cider is made by traditional methods using slow fermentation. He only ferments when there are apples on the trees because he is focused on quality ingredients and authentic flavors. While many cideries can take only three weeks to get from ferment to shelf, West Avenue cider takes six months to go through the same process. Haworth believes this is what sets his cider apart. The cool ferments lend his ciders more complex aromatics and distinct flavors that are native to Ontario and cannot be reproduced anywhere else. He adds yeast from previous batches of cider to his new ferments to encourage this unique West Avenue flavor.
Haworth’s first release, the West Avenue Heritage Dry, is a 6.5% alcohol by volume, traditional cider made from 100% Heritage apples. The cider took home “Best Cider in Ontario” at the 2014 Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention Hard Cider Competition and a silver at the 2014 Great Lakes and International Cider and Perry Competition. It continues to win awards each year, as does the cidery itself. West Avenue has taken home “Best Cidery in Ontario” four years in a row at the Golden Tap Awards.
After mastering the art of the dry apple cider, Haworth started to experiment with blends, releasing West Avenue Cherriosity Cider in 2015 – a mix of Heritage apples and Montmorency cherries from Niagara. Cherriosity took home a silver at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention that year and won Best in Show at the 2015 Royal Winter Fair. The two ciders – Heritage Dry and Cherriosity – are mainstays at West Avenue Cider House and can be found in liquor stores across Ontario.
After experiencing such success with his first two releases, in 2015, Haworth decided to move his growing business to Freelton, Ontario, just north of Hamilton, purchasing a 75-acre piece of land and starting his own organic apple orchard. Since then, Haworth has become what he calls an “apple collector,” planting over 6,000 apple trees and over 110 different varietals of Heritage apples on his property, with more on the way. Some of these species of apples are 200 to 300 years old and are extremely uncommon.
Right now, Haworth’s trees are still young, but he says the quality of the fruit is increasing from year-to-year and the true characteristics of the apples are starting to come through. He ultimately wants to capture the unique terroir of his orchard and figure out which varietals thrive in Ontario and where, in the orchard, they produce the highest quality fruit. He is also learning about the different flavor profiles of his extensive varietals of apples. Some of the apples are so high in natural sugars that they can reach 35% ABV when fermented on their own. Others are extremely high in acidity.
In the long run, Haworth wants to determine the perfect blend of apples to make the ultimate apple cider. He has started planting several other native Ontario fruits, herbs, edible flowers and shrubs on his property to use in his ciders. He currently has 10 varieties of pears and other unexpected additions like sea buckthorn, black locust, elderberry and sumac, just to name a few. He says it’s like he’s trying to create his own cookbook of sorts with a multitude of cider recipes and concoctions that he has developed over the years.
He is able to focus more on his experimental ciders since opening a tasting room on the property in 2017. The tasting room has a growler program that Haworth says has really taken off. Guests can come and fill their growlers with the latest on-tap offerings, and Haworth doesn’t have to worry about the cost of bottling. Currently, West Avenue is producing half a million pints a year. Haworth estimates the production is 50/50 experimental versus traditional flagship ciders he sells to restaurants and retailers. He has taken full advantage of this opportunity to experiment and has an extensive number of offerings in the tasting room in various styles and flavor profiles.
Haworth is continuously searching for new approaches to create a remarkable cider. Just as a chef continues to learn different kitchen techniques, Haworth continues his education in cidermaking. Once he masters one method, he moves on to learn another. He has also begun to study winemaking and is now experimenting with using traditional winemaking techniques on his cider. As a chef, he says it started with the idea of not leaving any waste and using all of his raw materials. When he saw wineries throwing out their pressed grape skins, he decided to take them and add them to a vat of fermenting apple juice. The result was a beautiful rosé-colored cider, with bright fruit and mild tannins that won a silver medal that year in an American competition. A lightbulb went off in his head.
From there, Haworth started buying grape juice from local producers and creating wine-cider hybrids. Rhineapple, one of the tasting room’s current offerings, is a blend of 35% Niagara Riesling grapes and 65% Northern Spry and Snow apples. This 9.2% ABV traditional method sparkling wine-cider hybrid is bright and floral with pear and honey notes. The apples and grapes are fermented together in bottle using an in-house strain of yeast. Haworth also experiments with wild yeast that is naturally occurring on the skins of the apples. He uses it to produce ancestral style ciders. One of his latest ciders, Pommerage, uses a Meritage blend of grapes fermented in oak before being combined with apple cider. At 11% ABV, this unique hybrid is a perfect substitute for wine and pairs excellently with food.
Haworth is also experimenting with the use of a variety of barrels – from wine to tequila to rum. Genevieve is an apple cider aged in gin barrels and blended with ginger, peach, lavender and lactose. The barrels add depth and complexity to ciders rarely found in the industry. It is obvious when visiting the West Avenue tasting room that there is a chef at hand.
Haworth is even making “ice cider,” made in the same way as ice wine – by pressing frozen apples, so the sugars are incredibly concentrated. Northern Lights is an ice cider aged for five years in cognac barrels, producing a syrupy sweet cider with an incredible body and notes of caramel, pecan and orange zest.
Firecracker is a dessert-style cider made using a totally different technique – a maple syrup evaporator. Instead of freezing the apples to concentrate the sugars, Haworth wanted to try using the same method as maple syrup, essentially cooking the apples over a Maplewood fire to evaporate the water. The result is a thick and viscous 8.5% ABV cider with maple, nut and smoke notes. It’s perfect for sipping around a campfire.
It’s hard to fathom what is next for Chef Haworth. Each year, he continues to hone his cidermaking skills and try new and innovative methods. He says, ultimately, for him, the obsession is to be able to create the “perfect cider.” Just as a winemaker seeks the perfect blend of grapes, he believes there is the perfect blend of apples. He says that in five years, he should be at the point where he has figured out that perfect blend, whether it be a blend of three different apples or ten. That is something cider lovers should look forward to.