AN EXCURSION INTO FALL: SPIRIT TREE CIDERY
PHOTOS & STORY BY CHRIS TIESSEN
As we tear across open countryside somewhere between Guelph and Caledon – red and orange and gold autumn leaves flying up in our wake – I think to myself that it doesn’t get much more Canadian than this. Two folks from a company called TOQUE visiting an apple orchard and cidery. During harvest. As we approach our destination I can feel the anticipation building. ‘I can’t wait to get back to the cidery,’ I tell TOQUE Partner Cai Sepulis from the passenger seat of her two-tone Rav. ‘Especially at this time of year.’ Cai, eyes glued to the dirt road ahead, chimes in: ‘Ya. Me too. Spirit Tree has got to be one of my favourite fall road trip destinations.’
Spirit Tree Estate Cidery. Thomas Wilson’s place.
Located among the rolling hills and bucolic farmland of Caledon, this fifty-acre family farm with nine-acre high density orchard founded some ten years ago by Thomas and his wife, Nicole, has become an increasingly popular destination for folks craving a weekend excursion into the countryside. Folks like us, of course, who are looking to sample a selection of hard ciders in Spirit Tree’s tap room. And also friends, families, co-workers eager to venture out into the expansive orchards, pick apples during harvest season, take a guided tour of the operation, enjoy an incredible meal in the cidery’s bistro, or simply pop by the farm shop for jams and jellies, prepared comfort foods, focaccia pizzas, and bread prepared in Spirit Tree’s massive brick-lined, wood-fired oven. (Throughout our visit, I will find myself returning to this behemoth of an oven time and again. ‘It burns so efficiently,’ Thomas will tell me, ‘that it produces no emissions at all. Ten dollars of wood is all it takes to heat it for an entire day.’)
A few more minutes on the road and Cai and I arrive at our destination. If you’re a first-time visitor, not to worry – you won’t miss it. Indeed, along the road the estate’s main building rises up from the fields, almost evoking a French chateau. ‘I like to think of it as some combination of Cowbell [Brewing, in Blyth] and Willibald [Farm Distillery, in Ayr],’ Cai declares as we pull into the parking lot. ‘Caledon’s own Mont Saint- Michel,’ I add with a chuckle. One thing’s for certain: the place is both distinctive and functional. Designed by Thomas and Nicole, the building is a true marvel in sustainable design and execution. Straw bale construction. A ceiling made of shredded recycled paper. Geothermal heating and cooling. Biodigesters for waste, treated on-site.
‘We’re essentially a carbon neutral operation,’ notes Thomas when we meet up with him in the farm shop. I admire the open concept space – including soaring cathedral ceiling. From where I stand in the shop, I can see into the commercial kitchen (with aforementioned wood-fired oven), the bistro (which is absolutely packed for lunch service – on a Wednesday), and the cidery’s apple pressing room too (through a window on the shop wall). ‘The guys are pressing today, if you’d like to take a look,’ Thomas tells us. I’m eager to check it all out. But first we pause to take stock of the vast selection of Spirit Tree ciders lining the shelves of the Farm Shop.
Single varietal ciders. Hopped ciders. Barrel-aged ciders. Ice ciders. Pumpkin and pear ciders. Sparkling (‘champagne’) ciders. And so many more. ‘We grow forty-seven varieties of apples right here at Spirit Tree,’ Thomas tells us as he leads us out back of the building to the orchard (with that stop in the pressing room along the way). While most of the trees have already been picked, there are still stacks of massive wooden crates filled with fresh apples from which Thomas picks a couple for us to sample. ‘This one’s a golden russet,’ he notes as he hands Cai a firm round fruit with a rough, rusty skin. ‘And this one,’ he declares as he hands me a small butter yellow orb with a distinctive ‘suture line’ along one side, ‘is a tolman sweet.’ Both are delicious and would surely, it seems to me, make some incredible ciders. Sensing my desire, Thomas asks us if we’re ready for a couple flights and some lunch in the Ciderhouse Bistro. ‘Lead the way,’ I say without hesitation, ‘because I’m certainly keen to try one of everything.’ Which is almost what we did.
The lunch is memorable, so richly evocative of autumn’s bounty: the ‘Momiji Tempura’ (salt cured maple leafs fried with tempura batter, drizzled with maple syrup and peanut praline), ‘Three Sisters In The Woods’ salad (chard, spinach and arugula tossed with roasted squash, sautéed button mushrooms, roasted apples, coloured carrots, shallots, red lentils and roasted corn with mustard vinaigrette, topped with apple smoked cheddar and toasted walnuts), ‘Autumn Gemelli’ (gemelli pasta & light cream with herb roasted squash, carrots, red onions, and mushrooms, sautéed in garlic oil and deglazed with pumpkin cider and then topped with pumpkin seeds and parmesan shavings),
and ‘Black n’ Blue Limousin Burger’ (Nimmo farm ground Limousin beef patty with blue cheese and caramelized onion on a brioche bun with roasted garlic aioli, grainy apple dijon, boston lettuce and fire roasted tomatoes). Oh my. I want to return already.
And the ciders. From Spirit Tree’s ‘Sparkling Estate Reserve’ (aged in French oak barrels) to the cidery’s ‘Applelager’ (finished with a lager yeast), the ten samples presented on two flight boards keep us intrigued, engaged, and content. About halfway through our meal, Thomas returns for a visit. ‘What do you think of the tempura fried maple leafs?’, he asks. It’s a question that, before this meal, I would never have imagined being asked. And a dish I’d never have expected could work this well. Like everything on the menu, they’re delicious. Unique. Inspired.
I nosh on my third leaf – crispy, sweet, like a bite of autumn – and wash it down with a mouthful of the cidery’s ‘Dry Hopped Cider’. The citrus and herbal notes of the hops pair perfectly with the sugary flavour profile of the maple leaf. I look through bistro windows at red and orange and golden fall leaves waving in trees outside. And down at my plaid shirt, where I spot a rogue maple leaf. I reach down, pop it into my mouth, and think about the many ways we can ‘get Canadian’ here in southwestern Ontario – especially at this time of year.
‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,’ Anne of Green Gables declares in that classic Canadian novel. ‘It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?’ Anne would have certainly enjoyed a trip to Spirit Tree Estate Cidery. In Caledon. The perfect destination for an excursion into fall.