Northern Natural’s Organic Success
The Kaleva cidery quietly earning an international reputation
By Todd VanSickle | March 23, 2019
Travelers might expect to find a tractor sputtering along the country roads about 50 miles south of Traverse City, but they’ll also find the home of the award-winning Northern Natural Cider House & Winery, which is producing some of the state’s only organic-certified cider.
Dennis Mackey, 70, is the CEO of Northern Natural. He has white wispy hair and blues eyes that twinkle when he smiles. In a soft voice he talks seriously about making organic cider at his tasting room and brewing facility in Kaleva. He grew up about one mile from the cider house and has been involved in agriculture for most of his life. At the age of 12, he recalls working on his great grandfather’s farm.
“When you’re this close to Lake Michigan, a lot of it is fruit,” Dennis said. “It is some of the best fruit growing land in the country — in the world probably.”
Dennis first tried his hand at growing organic apples in the late 1980s, before the United States Department of Agriculture had an organic certification program, which started in 1997. However, there weren’t a lot of products you could use and still claim something organic, he said. Not to mention a slew of pesky challenges, including 43 insects and about six fungal diseases that target apples.
Between 1990 and 2000, he became more actively involved in organic farming when he managed two orchards and farm markets in Wisconsin for a well-known heart surgeon, who was interested in healthy food. When Dennis was interviewed for the job, he was asked whether he could grow organic apples.
“No,” he responded. “And nobody else can either in the Midwest.”
He was hired anyway, and in 1992, the Japanese developed a pheromone disruption tie that fastens to the tree to prevent codling moths from mating and eventually creating worm holes in apples.
“Once I got a hold of that, I could grow organic apples,” Dennis said.
Today, he still organically farms what was once his grandfather’s 100-acre plot with about 200 fruit trees and a garden, but it is not certified. So, he relies on three organic-certified growers — two north of Onekama and one in Northport — to produce Northern Natural ciders.
He said having his ciders certified is a special designation.
“There are not very many organic apple growers in the state,” Dennis said. “The USDA certification is a rare thing in itself. There might be four places in the U.S. that do organic certified cider. There is another one in Michigan — JK Scrumpy in Flushing — but I don’t know of any other ones this side of the Rocky Mountains.”
Each year, Northern Natural follows a long list of requirements and guidelines outlined by the USDA and are subject to inspections.
“It is an ongoing process,” Dennis said. “We are very particular. We choose apples while they’re still on the tree and grade every apple that’s pressed. We have a zero tolerance for rot. All these little things add up to produce a good-tasting, clean cider.”
However, creating an organic cider can be a challenge, according to the brewer Kyle Mackey, who is Dennis’ 36-year-old son.
“It is pretty limited with what you can use,” Kyle said, who is a Great Lakes Culinary Institute graduate. He learned how to brew cider about nine years ago from both a world-class brew master and a winemaker.
Before he started brewing in-house for Northern Natural, a Leelanau winery took the juice the company pressed and turned it into alcohol.
The company has five USDA organic certified ciders: traditional, blueberry, lavender, elderberry and Northern Star — a gold medal winner.
“I am pretty proud of this one,” Kyle said, as he showed off his award from the 2016 World Cider Championships in Chicago for Northern Star. “I don’t think I had ever won a trophy before.”
The brewer also has a silver medal under his belt. The two medals now hang on a chalkboard in the tasting room that lists Northern Natural’s ciders.
The brewer is in the process of eliminating the use of sulfur in all production of its ciders. Sulfites in wine and cider production is common to eliminate any wild yeast. By introducing a known yeast gives the brewer more consistency and control when it comes to taste.
Northern Natural has been in its current building for the past three years. It is about 17,000 square feet and was once a tractor dealership. From the outside, the building looks like an ordinary pole barn. But inside, guests are greeted by the aroma of apples and 10 ciders on tap in a brightly-lit, colorful tasting room.
The facility produces about 40,000 gallons per year and is bottled onsite. The power usage is offset by 200 solar panels on the roof.
By summer, Northern Natural is planning to serve food at its tasting room. The menu will include smoked barbeque and organic pizza.
“And whatever I come up with for seasonal specials thru the summer and fall,” Kyle said.
Outside, a wooden shelter has been erected that will be used for open mic nights on Thursdays.
“I am working out a summer weekend schedule with some great Michigan musicians,” Kyle said.
In a room adjacent to the tap room, which is not open to the public, several jars filled with organic herbs and flowers line the shelves. The room is a test kitchen of sorts where Kyle creates organic extracts that give Northern Natural ciders their unique flavors. One jar was filled with lions mane mushrooms that he foraged locally. The brewer hopes one day to make a cider with the mushroom.
“I am not sure how it is going to taste,” Kyle said. “We are always looking for something new to infuse.”
The Kaleva-based venue is Northern Natural’s third tasting room. The cider house was on Front Street in downtown Traverse City for three years, but Dennis said the rent in Kaleva is more affordable and he lives about one mile away. His son lives in the house about 20 feet in front of the tasting room.
Northern Natural’s ciders are still available in downtown Traverse City at Tap Root on Front Street, which has four to six ciders on tap.
“My wife and Kyle thought I was crazy to move out here,” Dennis said. “They said, ‘Who would drive all the way out here?’ But believe it or not, people will drive a long way to get an organic cider.”
And customers have made the drive and continue to do so, Dennis said. He routinely has cider patrons commute from Newyago just to pick up a growler or two.
“We tend to be the first stop for cider drinkers who are migrating north,” said Kyle, who added that most customers range in age and are eager to learn about cider.
The organic hard cider can also be found at Oryana in 12-ounce bottles. At the moment, not all of the bottles on the shelf have the USDA organic seal, but Northern Natural is currently in the process of updating the labels to reflect the certification.
“We do cider two ways: fresh and hard,” Dennis said.
By producing the two products keeps the company more competitive, he added.
The fresh cider is sold around the Midwest at retailers like Whole Foods and other smaller organic stores. In Michigan, the fresh cider can be found at various vendors and Meijer.
“We started off with the idea to do fresh organic cider in the late 1990s, but there wasn’t enough of a market for it,” Dennis said. “It took me a while to figure it out, so I decided doing hard cider in 2007. Between the two, it works out.”
Northern Natural employs about 10 people during the busy season. For the most part, it is a family business. Dennis’ wife does all the record keeping and makes sure the bills are paid, like taxes. And, although, his daughter doesn’t work for the company full time, she has been involved with the labels and marketing.
Overall, the family business runs smoothly, according to the father-and-son cider-making duo.
“There are no shouting matches to speak of,” Kyle joked. “For some people, I am sure they don’t want to hear it from their kid, and some don’t want to hear it from their parents as a working adult.”
Dennis says he tries to keep a good sense of humor when working with his son.
“I will tell him what I want done, and he will do what he wants to do,” he said.
However, the affable CEO has butted heads with distributors who wanted him to lower his prices, but he said he isn’t in the business for the money.
“I am not doing this to make the cheapest possible product, like a lot of people are,” Dennis said. “I am doing it to make the best possible product; the healthiest and best tasting. There is a small percentage of people out there that appreciate that — that’s the people I want to reach.”