CIDER: It’s Time is Now

By: Tracey L. Kelley

Photo credit: Kim Fetrow Photography

North American regional and local cider makers are throwing elbows at major corporate producers, trying to respond to consumers’—particularly those in the 18–24 demographic—demands for alternatives to mainstream products. This is good news for producers eager to tap into the young but evolving cider sector. Current market analyses indicate cider sales will dip slightly through 2022, but some experts report this is only because larger, national brands are losing footing as the craft ciders surge forward.

  Nevertheless, there are growing pains within this emerging product line, especially when there’s so much education necessary to help the public understand that cider:

1)  Isn’t beer or wine.

2)  Is just as complex as those beverages, with particular nuances and unique profiles.

  It’s an interesting challenge for a beverage that relies on a fruit with approximately 2,500 varieties in the United States alone. Apples are grown in all 50 states in America, and five of the 10 provinces in Canada. This means regional and local orchardists offer unlimited possibilities for crafters.

To share the knowledge that’s plentiful for wine, beer and spirits, but less so for cider, we reached out to the following experts:

Peter Glockner, co-owner, director, and brewing/filtration sales, Cellar-Tek. The company started in 2004 as a two-person operation in British Columbia, specializing in winery supplies. Now based in both British Columbia and Ontario, it also provides equipment and supplies for craft brewing, cideries and distilleries.

Bill and Michelle Larkin, co-owners, Arsenal Cider House, established in 2010 and headquartered in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, with additional tap houses in Wexford and Finleyville, plus taps in rotation throughout Philadelphia. Another location in Cleveland, Ohio, is scheduled to open by the end of 2019. The Larkins produce hard apple cider, cider-style fruit, grape wines and mead. Flagship pours include Fighting Elleck Hard Apple Cider, Archibald’s Ado Hard Apple Cider, Picket Bone Dry Hard Apple Cider and Murray’s Mead, with various seasonal and one-off releases on tap at each location. Annual production is more than 50,000 gallons.

Molly Leadbetter, owner, Meriwether Cider Company, with two locations in Idaho: a taproom in Garden City and a cider house in Boise—the first in the state. Opening in 2016, Meriwether is owned and operated by the Leadbetter family: Molly, sister Kate, and parents Ann and Gig. Notable award-winning ciders include Foothills Semi-Dry, Strong Arm Semi-Sweet, Blackberry Boom, Ginger Root and Hop Shot, crafted with Citra hops. Annual production is approximately 30,000 gallons.

Michelle McGrath, executive director, United States Association of Cider Makers, based in Portland, Oregon. Its mission is to “grow a diverse and successful U.S. cider industry by providing valuable information, resources and services to our members and by advocating on their behalf.” The USACM also stages the popular CiderCon each year, which provides new and existing members opportunities for workshops, cider tours and networking.

Tie Information to Innovation

  The Larkins started Arsenal with $60,000 and zero working capital in the basement of their city row-house. Bill was an accountant, and Michelle, a pre-school teacher. His winemaking hobby expanded into a passion for cider and mead. “When we started in 2010, there wasn’t anyone doing what we wanted to do anywhere around us. We had to essentially make up things as we went and hope for the best,” Larkin said. “This is why I always tell new people in the Pittsburgh industry to feel free to reach out to me if they have a question.”

  The Leadbetter family, after years in other professions, chose to band together and open a cider house. “My sister, my dad and I all took cider-making classes at Washington State University’s extension program, and Mom took a business of cider class. And webinar-based classes on our specific areas inside the business,” Leadbetter told Beverage Master Magazine. “We also attended the USACM’s CiderCon the years before and after we opened, which was incredibly helpful, and I recommend to everyone!” They launched Meriwether with a Kickstarter campaign.

  McGrath said the USACM strives to provide as much insight as possible. “Our Certified Cider Professional program educates distributors and retailers about cider, but cider makers may gain tools for conversations with those audiences as well,” she said. “We also have marketing resources our members can use to educate their accounts about cider. Lastly, our recently-refreshed cider lexicon project aims to curate a language for talking to customers about cider. Having the same talking points is good for any campaign—including spreading the cider gospel.”

  Refining cider lexicon is one way to lessen the gap between what consumers currently understand about cider and how makers want to communicate flavor profiles and other characteristics. For example, the USACM suggests “focusing on the accepted scientific classifications of apples: sweet, sharp, bittersweet and bittersharp.” There are also grouping categories so consumers can more easily select what taste appeals to them and have confidence in that choice. So the USACM considers input from producers to create classifications that might include something like:

•   Does it taste dry or sweet?

•   Is it tart? Spicy? Sour? Floral?

•   Is it fruit-forward or tannic?

•   Is it light-, medium- or full-bodied?

  This type of universal messaging helps all cider producers continue to create beverages people want. “Don’t make products for yourself unless you’re planning to buy them all, or you are a social media star influencer,” Glockner said. “Know your market and cater production to the customer base(s) you’ve researched and proven will trade their hard-earned money for your product.”

  Progressive success depends on customer relationships—it’s not a cliché when it’s true. “We have a gold standard of treatment for all of our customers whether they’re tasting room visitors or on-premises licensees,” Larkin said. “Everyone in our company in retail, sales and distribution know the customer is always right and that we’ll bend over backward to make them happy. I can’t overstate the importance of this.”

  “We have four core values: family, integrity, generosity and fun. We don’t make any company decisions unless they fit into this framework,” Leadbetter said. “We run a business we can be proud of, that strives to make our community better, our guests happy, and makes our and our employees’ professional and personal lives fulfilling. Working with nonprofits, connecting with the community, and educating people on cider are huge parts of doing all those things.”

  Arsenal Cider House partners with a local activity and tour provider that plans community excursions. Meriwether Cider Company’s approach includes integrative actions such as Purposeful Pours, a quarterly event that raises money for different nonprofits in its community, and Cider Crews, a tiered club program to encourage a dedicated clientele.

Mind Your Business

  The foundational practicalities of your start-up are often a mashup of reality and possibility. So start with the right advice.

  “We always advise an in-person consultation with one of our cider equipment sales gurus to ensure that our potential customers are correctly assessing their equipment choices using the correct data and math,” Glockner said. “We also try to get them to think ahead, so they don’t face having to upgrade their equipment two-or-three years after opening because they didn’t plan for growth. He stressed the need for reinforced vision. “Production plans and projections need to be backed up with solid sales plans and projections. Otherwise, you’ll have an expensive hobby, not a business.”

  He also pointed out there’s no “right” way for cideries to choose equipment. “’Right’ could mean the equipment fits their budget, or it could mean it matches the processing rates they need to achieve for the total volume fruit they harvest. Assuming that matching equipment sizes to the customer’s projected harvest numbers and product plans is the ‘right’ equipment, doing so can minimize the required time to process a given volume of fruit—typically expressed in kilograms per hour of fruit processed,” Glockner said.

  “If one producer is doing multiple small-batch productions of different styles or varietals, their equipment and tank size choices will be smaller than another producer looking to make large volumes of one or two,” he said. “The latter would benefit from equipment with higher throughputs and larger tanks to process bigger batches for longer continuous periods of time. So getting the ‘right’ equipment is all about creating operational efficiencies for the type of production the customer wants to do.”

Here are some additional tips from Cellar-Tek’s Co-owner:

1)  Most equipment for the cider industry isn’t produced in North America, so expect a supplier of specialized processing equipment containing electrical components to have the equipment UL- or CSA-inspected and approved when it lands in North America.

2)  Also, expect to have the supplier set up an appointment at your production facility to start the equipment and provide basic operations training along with any applicable maintenance and safety advice. This tutorial might not be necessary for “basic on/off equipment,” such as manually-fed fruit mills, pumps, or manual gravity fillers.

3)  If you can find used equipment in relatively good condition and see it working before purchase, it may save you capital during the start-up phase of development. However, lack of warranties and local factory support from a supplier makes it a difficult decision when your equipment breaks down in the middle of harvest, and there’s no technical support in the area to repair it quickly. The cost of lost production, spare parts and labor to repair a broken machine can easily surpass the price of a similar piece of new equipment.

4)  If you don’t have experience with fermentation, hire a pro to do it for you, or at least a reputable consultant with a list of references who can teach you the many ins and outs of a successful fermentation. “The pitfalls of fermentation are many,” Glockner said.

  Our experts all recommended allowing an ample amount of time and patience to make it through multiple layers of bureaucracy to establish your cidery. “Cider regulations are incredibly complicated,” McGrath said. “Anybody thinking to jump into the market should take some time to understand how they differ from wine, beer and spirits.” The USACM intends to provide more checklists to help answer producers’ questions, but consult your regional association for more specifics.

  Larkin added, “Many people think the biggest hurdle is getting the liquor license, but it goes way beyond that. There are zoning and building codes, county and state health requirements, general business licensing, taxes etc….To be in any business, you have to be determined and not let anything get in your way. You need to be a jack of all trades. There’s a solution to almost any problem—you just have to keep on it. You’ll get through it.”

  Leadbetter also pointed to the need for fluidity in your business approach. “We still have our original lineup of year-round flagships, but we added many seasonals, one-offs, barrel-aged and small batches to the mix every year—much more than I thought we would,” she said. “And we never envisioned having a second Meriwether retail location when we started. Truthfully, at the time, we were barely two years old and not ready to expand. But we felt an urgency because downtown Boise was in the midst of a renaissance with new businesses and bars, and we lucked into the perfect space. We might have balked and given up if not for that.”

  Larkin said, “If an opportunity seems like a good one and we can afford it, we do it.” This approach applies to both Arsenal’s stair-stepped location expansion and shifting model.

  “When we first opened, we planned to sell half our inventory by refillable growler and the other half by bottle conditioning in Champagne bottles. We sold through the initial inventory so fast, we never had the opportunity to do any type of packaging, and we’ve just been trying to keep up all these years,” he said. “We finally started canning one product and bottling a mead product for the first time after eight years in 2019. We now have the capacity to expand our product offerings and plan to do so in 2020.  It only took 10 years to get to it!” 

  McGrath told Beverage Master Magazine that “there are certain pockets of the cider market managing to make apple-forward ciders cool. That’s always been a challenge, especially in today’s craft beer culture. It’s controversial, but I think putting these types of ciders in cans is part of what’s helping drive that. It makes a complex, nuanced beverage more approachable.”

  She added that it’s important to “figure out how to incorporate educating consumers about apples into your marketing and branding. Apples are what this industry is all about. We can celebrate a diverse range of products and styles, but when consumers catch on to the variation an apple variety (and season) can provide, it will be good for cider makers and orchardists alike.”

Expanding the Industry

  All of our experts are excited to contribute to the reawakening of this pioneer beverage. Here are some final thoughts they believe about cider’s potential.

  Cellar-Tek’s Glockner: “By far the most exciting trend is the growing global acceptance of locally-made craft beverages—be it cider, wine, beer or spirits—by the sectors of the general public that used to gravitate to the large, corporate-produced beverages.”

  Larkin of Arsenal Cider House: “High-quality products aren’t optional. It’s not just important for your business, but the business segment as a whole, especially in one as young as mead and cider. This philosophy extends to how we source our ingredients, as well. If care isn’t taken with raw materials, we can tell.”

  Leadbetter of Meriwether Cider Company: “After creating a good product, our main mission is to create what Danny Meyers (restauranteur and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City) calls ‘enlightened hospitality’: ‘treat your employees well, and they will take care of your customers.’”

  McGrath of the United States Association of Cider Makers: “Most people who love cider also love food, and the consumer knowledge that cider pairs really well with food is increasing. Regional cuisine cider-pairings, geographical cider cultures, a focus on locally-celebrated apples (like Gravenstein for Sonoma County in California)—these things all make it a really fun time to create cider right now.”

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