Sweet! Niagara farmer earns honours in cider competition

My top three choices in the Ontario Sweet Cider competition, in no particular
order. Beamsville farmer Torrie Warner won second place in the competition
with his cider, on the right.

If Torrie Warner ever offers you a glass of his apple cider, say yes.

Not only will you be sipping on some of Niagara’s fall elixir, you’ll also be enjoying one of the top sweet ciders in the province.

Warner’s unfiltered apple juice garnered second place in the second annual Ontario Sweet Cider Competition held at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Niagara Falls last week. 

And —  this is where the bragging rights kick in — I was one of the judges who chose the pressed fruits of the Beamsville farmer’s labours as a winning concoction of apple goodness.

But Torrie, who sells his cider at markets in Toronto and at the Ottawa Street farmers market in Hamilton, wasn’t letting news of his win go to his head.

“Obviously, it feels great to be an award winner,” he said in an email. “It adds a bit of prestige but anyone who has tried my cider knows if it’s what they like and that’s what’s important.”

Torrie only speaks the truth, this coming from someone who knows she likes his cider. The competition, hosted by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Ontario Apple Growers, featured nine ciders pressed by farmers from throughout the province.

As judges, we had to consider traits such as the cider’s appearance and colour, the aroma, balance of sweetness and acidity, body, finish and overall quality. In the end, Al Ferri and Sons from Huttonville nabbed first place while Delhaven Orchards, near Blenheim, rounded out the top three.

Winning brings with it some serious glory, noted Leslie Huffman, who works in apple management with the ministry.

“When I called and told all three (winners last year) they won, they were thrilled,” she recalled. “It was a really big honour for them.”

Last year, Caledon’s Spirit Tree Cider squeezed out the competition to earn the title of cider champs. 

Word is, there is growth in Ontario’s sweet cider industry and Huffman is championing it.

“I like cider and think it’s a very good value-added business for growers. I think it’s a beautiful product,” she said.

Huffman is also keen to celebrate it. Following the lead of Michigan, which hosts an annual sweet cider competition, Huffman and the Apple Growers were keen to have a similar drink-off here so they started holding an Ontario edition last year. If all states and provinces had their own events, “we could have a cider Olympia,” Huffman said wishfully.

As judges, we whittled down the nine choices to six finalists. From there, we sipped, swirled, sniffed and scrutinized our way to determining the top three. All judging is blind, except when working with the final six, when our cups were numbered so the organizers could keep the entrants straight.

I remember Torrie’s entry well. It was easy to separate it from some of the others. While there were some ciders that fell flat on the tastebuds or gave little apple aroma, Torrie’s smelled like a cold storage room filled the fruit made famous for keeping doctors at bay. It tasted sweet, too, but not cloying. It was lovely and refreshing and so worthy of its prize-winning finish.

While his title is new, making cider isn’t. Torrie said his family has been churning out the fruity liquid since the 1970s. Torrie inherited the family recipe about 25 years ago and ever since, it has been in his hands to determine the apples that go from orchard to cider jug.

So what’s his secret? The fruit, of course.

“Everyone has a different secret,” he explained. “Some say it’s the type of press and process, some say it’s the blend of apples. There are many factors — maturity of apples, types of apples. I blend a minimum of six varieties in each batch.”

My taste buds are grateful for it.

Torrie’s cider is available locally through the Niagara Local Food Co-op and at his farm. You can also drop him a line at twarner@vaxxine.com if you’re thirsty.

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