Whenever this “new normal” that people have been talking about since last March begins, it’s certain that it will coincide with a new beginning for Sunnybrook Winery.
In fact, that new beginning comes with a rebranding, as owner Richard Liu and staff are officially bidding farewell to the winery name and replacing it with Ironwood Cider.
The change makes perfect sense at this time. The $4 million expansion at the south side of the building is nearly complete. That price tag includes some shiny new equipment that will be used to ferment new types of ciders.
But it’s the new ciderhouse that brings the organization a bold, new modern look that contrasts with the homey atmosphere of the original Sunnybrook barn. The central feature is a large tasting area, but there is an upper level that features a private event space, a lounge, and a room that Liu hopes to use to host podcasts. The entire space should attract more and more cider lovers once restrictions are eased.
And, as Liu tells The Local, cider has slowly overtaken the fruit wines for which Sunnybrook has been traditionally known, to the point where his sales are now 90-10 in favour of the apple-based beverage.
Liu bought Sunnybrook in 2013, when sales of fruit wine were roughly equal to those of the Ironwood Cider brand that was part of the deal. The former marketing manager at a Hong Kong investment bank had no prior experience in either the winery or cider business, but he quickly saw the potential in one of those areas in particular.
“I originally bought it hoping to turn it into a VQA facility,” remembers Liu. “But within six months to a year, I realized that from a growth standpoint it would probably be very challenging. So I started to really look at the Ironwood Cider, and as I got my feet wet in it, it came up as a high-potential category.”
With the new facility, Liu is planning to maximize that potential with a number of different products. The original Ironwood Cider that began in 2005 out of Sunnybrook will still be produced, but Liu sees the brand’s future relying on a mix of artisanal and modern cider varieties.
“We want to make sure when people come here that they can get the full view of what cider can be,” he says. “Some of the artisanal products take a bit longer, just like wine. Two years ago we started to make cider from European varieties that we found from local orchards, basically French or English varieties that are better, smaller apples, that have a lot more tannins. They are fruit that is meant to be fermented, not eaten.”
These aren’t your standard McIntosh, Granny Smith and Gala apples you buy at valu-mart, or even the Russets or Northern Spies that are used for traditional ciders. Yarlington Mills, Dabinett, Stock Red, Tolman Sweet, and Kingston Black apples are referred to by Liu as vinifera-style fruit, akin to the grape varietals popular in local VQA wines.
“About two years ago we started making some ciders using those apples in very small batches,” he says. “We will still offer the fruitier, more approachable ciders that people might be more familiar with. But we want to be the ones showing people what cider can really be.”
When the new ciderhouse officially opens, Liu sees the large tasting bar playing host to three different categories of ciders. One will be a vintage line, which uses those vinifera-style apples he is so excited about. The artisanal line will be what Liu calls the “craft beer” of the cider world, based on an in-house yeast culture they have developed, and using different skin-aging and botanical techniques. Finally, the modern tier will encompass the mainstream, more approachable fruit-forward flavours that drive most people’s first dalliances with the beverage.
Liu promises a staggering 50 different releases in Ironwood’s first year. “We want to be the best in Canada, if not the world,” he says. “I don’t want to tie myself to certain tiers. For me, to do a really good, commercially available product is just as rewarding as doing something for the cider geeks. My satisfaction level is pretty much equal. It’s in our best interest to stay away from being narrow-focused.”
Liu adds, “at the end of the day, it’s all about showcasing creativity, and that creativity doesn’t always have to come from only the geeked-out cider-making process. One of the things we really want to explore is to discover more diversity-driven flavours. Every culture has its own unique flavours. For example, if we decide to do a pineapple Jamaican cider, we’ll go ahead and do it.”
On the subjects of creativity and diversity, Liu and Ironwood’s marketing manager, Megan Voth, will be using the bold, modern interior of the new building to partner with local artists, showcasing their work and providing them with a platform through which to share their stories.
The vision for the art is a contemporary, new-age focus, with the goal also being to reflect the diversity of the Niagara community. “We’re planning to work with five artists a year,” says Voth, “and there’s no shortage of local talent to choose from.”
They have already booked the artists for their first year, and will kick things off with Hamilton-based abstract painter Vick Naresh, who is of Indian descent. His works use metaphor and broad strokes to create narratives that arise from everyday experiences as well as current socio-political and activist themes. This often results in an ethereal feel to his pieces, combining shapes and styles to create striking images.
The bright colours of Naresh’s work will provide much contrast to the stark interior of the new ciderhouse. The art promises to be an integral part of the whole experience at Ironwood, as visitors will be able to peer out through floor-to-ceiling windows to the beautiful setting of the Sunnybrook Farm orchards while standing at the tasting bar.
And speaking of Sunnybrook, the popular fruit wines will still be available to purchase and to taste at Ironwood Cider, but they will no longer be front and centre.
Over the next few weeks, Ironwood will be putting the finishing touches on the interior in preparation to welcome guests to the facility. The opening is planned for the spring, but of course will depend on COVID restrictions. In the meantime, Ironwood ciders and Sunnybrook wines are available for online orders and local pickup. And keep your eyes and taste buds peeled for the announcement of their first new products in early March.