Island Orchard Cider in Door County is a little gem tucked away down a side street in Ellison Bay. This cider house specializes in handcrafted traditional French cider which is lighter and more wine-like. They are also much drier and refreshing with higher acidity.
Being beer drinkers, we were a little reluctant about visiting but when in Rome you’ve got to eat every kind of apple and cherry dish possible. So here we were.
After drinking so many overly sweet cocktails in Milwaukee (the majority of them being Old Fashioneds of course), we thought the ciders at Island Orchard would be no different and just add to the exorbitantly high sugar intake over the last two weeks, which by the way is probably more than I’ve had in an entire entire year.
Apparently Wisconsinites prefer their beverages to be more on the sweeter side. At least that’s what I had been told a few days earlier by cocktail connoisseur Brian Sammons, founder of Twisted Path Distillery in Milwaukee. He said that folks from Wisconsin have a ‘diabetic palette’ which I hadn’t heard before, but after eating and drinking my way through Milwaukee the previous week I wouldn’t disagree.
Fortunately, for those of us without a sweet tooth anyway, Island Orchard surprisingly had a variety of ciders on the dry side.
What else was surprising about this establishment was how modern the tap house interior was in comparison to the traditional Midwest decor we had seen in restaurants and motels across Door County thus far. Nope, no floral wallpaper or frilly curtains here.
The Island Orchard Cider House
The staff at Island Orchard Cider are friendly, and more importantly, incredibly knowledgeable about their cider. They won’t go out of their way to give you the run down on the process though if you don’t ask questions, but if you show any interest at all they will be more than happy to tell you all about their product and cider making process.
We walked into the Island Orchard Cider tap room about 5pm, an hour before they close. We quickly scanned the room for seats but they were already all taken so we headed straight to the bar, which is only about two steps away from the front door.
The bartender came over and looked at us nonchalantly. She asked what we wanted and we told her we’d like to get a flight to sample some of the different ciders before ordering a drink. She informed us that the flights came in four, six, and eight, four ounce pours and we told here we’d go with sampling four. That was the easy part.
She gave us a menu with all of the different ciders listed. Being not only the two most indecisive people when it comes to ordering food and drinks, we also had absolutely no clue about ciders. So we stared blankly at the menu for a few minutes, and I could be wrong, but our bartender seemed like she was getting a little impatient.
I decided to come clean and tell her we had no idea what to order as weren’t cider drinkers. Once we cleared that up, she took on a more enthusiastic demeanor and gave us a big spiel about what made which ciders different. Her enthusiasm for the drink rubbed off on us and we were getting excited about trying some of the drinks now that we knew more about them.
Why Are The Ciders Dry At Island Orchard Cider?
Our bartender informed us that the ciders they make at Island Orchard are much drier than most ciders, which for us was good news.
She explained that the reason behind the dryness of the ciders was due to the apple varietals used which were similar types of apples grown in Normandy, France, where I suppose the Europeans prefer less sweet tasting food? Just kidding.
Apparently, ciders produced in Normandy are often highly carbonated and have a more balanced taste with a subtle, more complex flavor profile due to the bitterness of these particular apple varieties compared to ciders produced using dessert apples which have a deeper sweet flavor.
Island Orchard grow all of their own apples on Washington Island which has a similar climate and growing conditions as those found in Normandy so the apples they choose to grow do really well here in Door County.
Choosing A Favorite
Okay, there are a lot of different ciders they make here and honestly, all four that we sampled were very unique tasting.
I’m not going to lie, we both had a little buzz even though we shared our flight because the glasses and pours are so generously sized.
Of course, everything in Door County is cherry-something and this applies to the ciders here too. Since discovering how incredibly delicious Montmorency cherries grown in Door County are (much better than Washington Rainiers if you ask me), naturally I ordered the Cherry-Apple Cider. It was undeniably exceptional.
Montmorency cherries are a variety of sour cherry named after an area in the northern suburbs of Paris, France, where they were first cultivated in the 18th century. They are now commonly grown on small farms in North America particularly in northwest Michigan and also prominently in Door County. These tart cherries differ from the sweeter varieties in that they are more acidic which really helped to balance out the sweetness of this cherry-apple cider.
The other cider that stood out, was the Lavender-Apple. The floral notes were unmistakable, and it was extremely crisp and refreshing. What was more, it was pleasingly not too sweet. Another bonus!
The Hopped Brut Apple Reserve (6.9%ABV) is a must try if you love your IPA’s and pale ales. This effervescent cider is made using cascade hops and truly does resemble the taste of a hopped beer.
Both the Hopped Brut and the Brut Apple Reserve are made using late harvest apples and go through a secondary fermentation process our bartender informed us. And incase you’re wondering, yes, these Brut ciders were very similar to Brut champagne in terms of dryness and bubbliness.
The Story Behind Island Orchard Cider
Island Orchard Cider’s story begins with owner Bob and Yannique Purman who bought some land on Washington Island (an island off the the tip of Door County’s peninsula) in 2005 where they began to plant two hundred dwarf apple trees. Their farm has since grown in acreage, trees, and apple varieties.
As mentioned previously, the apples planted are similar varietals as those found in Normandy, France due to the similar climate and soil. You can learn more about their apple and pear cultivars here.
They harvest all of the fruit by hand beginning in late September through mid-November which is then boated over to Ellison Bay on the Washington Island Ferry.
Fruit is first pressed at another orchard on the mainland (Seaquist Orchard) before being delivered to Island Orchard where the fermenting and magic happens. It is then bottled at the cider house by hand ready for purchase or poured into your glass.
Island Orchard Cider are a big asset to Door County producing high quality and distinct ciders. Seeing as though apples are a big part of Door County’s identity and economy, you really shouldn’t miss the opportunity to sample the local produce in every form it takes in this corner of Wisconsin.
The establishment itself is clean and modern with a relaxing atmosphere. Pours are generous with many creative concoctions that utilize what is grown in the region.
We were so impressed by their ciders that we returned the next day to order a full glass of our favorite from the samples we had. If we had room in our suitcase we would have taken a bottle home but unfortunately they were already packed with goodies from our time in Milwaukee.
I will say that Island Orchard have turned us into cider fans and this place is one of the reasons we want to come back to Door County.
They do close very early (6pm) so keep that in mind if you plan to visit them. There is a lot of parking space and an outdoor patio if you are traveling with pets.