Sutton Bay Ciders in West Grand Traverse Bay
Wintery wonders for all the senses
The first thing I noticed when I walked into the tasting room at Suttons Bay Ciders was the fireplace. Actually, no. The very first thing was what just might be the best view of West Grand Traverse Bay in our entire region. But then, through the wide-open vista behind the bar, I noticed the stone fireplace. And on an early summer's day in 2016, when we in Northern Michigan were still thawing out from last winter, my first thought was, "I cannot wait to come back here in winter."
In hindsight, it was an appropriate thought. Suttons Bay Ciders has a decidedly alpine feel to it, as if a little part of the German Alps had been airlifted to the Leelanau Peninsula and set just below the summit of Hilltop Road, right above the now-famous M-22.
Maybe it's the "lodge feel" decor that owners Mark and Madelynn Korzon are going for. Maybe it's the incense smell of fallen needles off the pine trees that surround the tasting room. Everything about the experience here wants to pull your senses higher. That starts with the wooden staircase that leads to the weighty front door of the bar. When you reach its peak and head through, you feel like you've summited a mountain. And like climbing a mountain, the view is the ultimate payoff, a reward for stumbling across such a special place.
The view certainly lures people into the cozy environs of the Suttons Bay Ciders tasting room, with its floors made of white pine from Beaver Island and walls covered with the tattered sides of an old Michigan barn. The place feels like a lodge.
But once you get past the wow factor of the view, the hospitality of Mark and Madelynn makes you want to linger, chatting with the other folks at the bar over a pint of cider made with local ingredients like sumac, culinary lavender, cherries and maple syrup. The ciders are the product of Old English, French and early American apple varieties with peculiar names like Brown Snout and Kingston Black. Suttons Bay Ciders offers a singular experience, something residents of this patch of Northern Michigan and visitors alike will appreciate.
I sat down with Mark recently, right next to that fireplace, and talked with him over a creation called Sumac, a cider made with Northern Spy, Ida Red and Honeycrisp apples infused with sumac berries and aged in a bourbon barrel they got from the Traverse City Whiskey Company. Suttons Bay Ciders had just celebrated their one-year anniversary in September and I asked Mark, why did they choose to get into the cider business?
"About 15 or 20 years ago, I started talking to Madelynn about our next venture in life because I was getting a little bored with what I was doing. We knew that cider was the next wave," he told me while Madelynn tended bar and entertained a couple from Colorado. "And I grew up in [now] extinct apple orchards. We grew up having apple wars and eating apples. And apples lend themselves to this area. They are conditioned more for harsher climates."
Mark and Madelynn's philosophy revolves heavily around what comes naturally to the area.
"Because we come from a horticulture background, we've seen some of our native plants underappreciated."
The result of that philosophy is using as many local ingredients as possible to make a wide range of ciders, from bone dry to naturally sweet. When they first opened in September of 2015, three ciders were on the menu. Today, that number is up to eight–and it is ever-changing, thanks to the efforts of cidermaker Chris Guest and his assistant, Todd Morgan.
"I like ciders that are high in tannins and bitter sharp," Mark tells me before he gets up to go check on Gordie, his border collie pup named after hockey great Gordie Howe. Gordie's collie instincts mean you'll probably be herded into the tasting room upon arrival. What makes Mark nervous is that those same instincts mean Gordie is leading visitors' cars out as well. But he walks back in with Gordie in tow.
I ask about their current favorites. "Right now, Smitten is our biggest seller. It's lower in alcohol because we back-sweeten it after fermentation with fresh cider, instead of using sugar. I like it because it tastes like apple," Mark answers.
A visit to Suttons Bay Ciders can be as varied as the menu. They offer a wide variety of tasting flights and you can also get full pints of cider and small plates along with the bowls of popcorn that are always on the tasting bar.
But a highlight no matter the season is the deck that overlooks West Bay. On a clear day and without the help of the ever-present spotting scope, you'll have a commanding view of Power Island and the entire length of the Old Mission Peninsula. Suttons Bay Ciders may still be a bit of a secret to savvy locals, but it won't be for long.
And this winter, Mark and Madelynn plan to turn their 10-acre property, complete with apple orchards (500 trees and counting), steep valleys, hardwood hollows and pine forests into a winter wonderland. Once the snow starts falling, make sure you bring a pair of snowshoes with you when you visit. Mark has cut out a snowshoe path that takes in the best of their beautiful little patch of Northern Michigan. He's currently working on a bridge made from fallen maples to take visitors across the stream.
"We're going to have a fire going here all winter. And on some days, we'll have three fires going: one in the tasting room, one out on the deck where people can roast some hot dogs, and we'll also have a fire going out by picnic table," Mark says.
In addition to the snowshoeing and daytime winter fun, Mark and Madelynn plan to continue their regular game nights throughout the season. The usual suspects of darts, Jenga and playing cards around the fire will be there but they are also planning on bringing the outdoor game of Cornhole indoors to add an extra element of fun to the tasting room.
For those in the Grand Traverse region who get a little case of The Shining from our long winters, Suttons Bay Ciders looks to offer a bit of reprieve from those North Country blues. And for those who embrace winter and are looking for a new adventure not far from home, Mark and Madelynn–and Gordie–are waiting for you at the summit of Hilltop Road.
IF YOU GO:
Suttons Bay Ciders
SuttonsBayCiders.com • 231-271-6000
10530 E. Hilltop Rd., Suttons Bay
Bob Lovik is a journalist and travel writer living in Traverse City. He also runs his own tour company, which includes education on the wine and craft beer scene in the area. Reach him at GrandTraverseAdventureCompany.com.