Start-ups Take a Bite at Trying to Make it in the Hard Cider Industry

Photo Credit: Capital Cider House

By: Cheryl Gray

Hard cider start-ups are not for the faint of heart. Those in the business have as much appreciation for determination and due diligence as they do for the fruit and fermentation that give a “bite” to this popular beverage.

  Just ask Jared Fackrell, whose Capitol Cider House in the Petworth area of Washington, D.C., offers more than 150 different craft hard ciders, created both in-house and from other Mid-Atlantic producers. The wide selection emphasizes gluten-free products with modern flavors, excluding any chemicals or preservatives.

  Fackrell’s advice to hard cider start-ups is to do your homework, starting with selecting the best property for the business model you are shaping. “Visit as many properties as you can! That said, you really need to understand your business model. Are you more retail or manufacturing focused? Who’s your target customer? Where do they live or congregate?”

  As for equipment needs and space requirements, Fackrell said that it all depends on the kind of hard cider being crafted and how it will be packaged. He also recommends looking at similar concepts and getting advice from already established businesses that may offer insight on immediate equipment needs versus those that are not as critical.

  “Broadly speaking, the cider industry has done an excellent job ascribing to the ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ mantra, so definitely reach out to other cideries if you need some help,” he said. 

  When it comes to acquiring space, Fackrell told Beverage Master Magazine bigger can sometimes be better. “Space requirements really depend on the use, but non-load-restricted floors, high ceilings, a loading dock, etc., are always helpful. And, if your budget allows, try to secure more space than you need as growth can come quickly and unexpectedly.”

  However, for some hard cider start-ups, the greater challenge is getting the proper zoning permits to operate, sometimes in the most unlikely spots. InCider, Inc., located in West Bend, Wisconsin, just outside of Milwaukee, makes Hass & Stock Cider inside a 420-square foot home garage.  Owner Daniel Hass sought permits earlier this year to begin the hard cider start-up in his available space. With help from his mother and step-father, a carpenter by trade, he transformed the garage space into a mini-production house.

  InCider already had its federal operations permit and was on track to receive its state permit, contingent upon West Bend city officials approving a conditional use permit for Hass to operate out of his garage. The arrangement ruled out a storefront because that would have been disruptive to the neighborhood.

  “We are lucky that we are in West Bend. The zoning department was extremely helpful and very informed, so we did things correctly through them,” said Hass. “We also have a very open and thoughtful zoning board willing to give us a shot. I have heard stories of other areas not being so open to new ideas.”

  In his proposal, Hass told West Bend city planners that InCider would use three small-scale fermenters to make its cider, with each of those fermenters producing a 14-gallon batch of hard cider. The turnaround time for each batch is roughly two to three weeks. To gain further support from both the city and his neighbors, Hass promised a virtually no-noise operation as well as no distracting outdoor signage.

  Equipment choices, he explained, had to be affordable, long-lasting and functional. “We are still a small scale operation, as we operate in a 20- by 21-foot space. So we needed equipment that works well in our available space,” said Hass. “We use a lot of techniques and equipment we used when just making cider for ourselves. The [FastFerment] fermenters are an upgrade from the five-gallon buckets popular in homemade cider, but we still use Cornelius kegs to create flavors and carbonate. We had to purchase Sanke kegs to transfer the finished product into, as that is what is used in the industry. Most of our equipment is used from other industries – mostly beer makers.”

  Hass said he was introduced to the idea of cider making through his friend and now business partner, Trevor Stock. After taking some classes and entering some contests, the latter of which produced some medal-winning results, Hass, Stock and Hass’s sister, Tiffany Downey, became the three-person team to launch the company. The InCider business plan calls for it to operate as a wholesale business with no sales directly to consumers. Accordingly, its customer base includes bars, restaurants and other outlets serving its different varieties of hard cider on tap and in bottles.

When it comes to selecting fruit for hard cider, relationships are key. Hass’ company relies upon nearby orchards and is working to build long-term partnerships. For Fackrell and Capitol Cider House, having a wide variety of nearby fruit is an advantage.

  “We work with more than a dozen orchards within 200 miles of the Capitol Building,” said Fackrell. “The best thing to do is visit orchards, talk to the growers about your needs and repeatedly order to develop grower-making partnerships. All cider is made like wine, but the approach can vary quite drastically, so whether you make cider exclusively with apples or with apples and adjuncts (non-apple components such as other fruits, spices, etc.) will determine who is on your supplier list.”

Challenges

  Whether it is a small batch, tap room-focused operation or a large scale package cidery, the unexpected can happen. The year 2020 has presented its own set of challenges, none more debilitating to this niche industry than COVID-19.

  A case in point is the planned grand opening of Pomona Cider Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, headquartered in a former 2,100 square-foot film production house on the city’s east side. Co-owner Tom Gabert said that the cidery, slated to feature a tasting room with on-tap hard cider produced in-house, decided to put things on hold rather than compromise their customer service options. 

  “COVID affected our original opening date because when we open, we don’t want to limit ourselves to what we can provide to our customers. We have discussed the pick-up window sales and whatnot, but part of what is going to make this place so great is the experience and the atmosphere of it,” Gabert said.

  For Capitol Cider House, which also has a tasting room, operating during COVID-19 became a matter of quickly re-thinking where and how to get its hard cider into the marketplace. Options included farmers’ markets along with pick-up and delivery. Partnering with some 100 retailers also helped.

  “We pivoted toward retail channels less impacted by on-premise restrictions and invested heavily in wholesale by putting our cider in 12-ounce cans,” Fackrell told Beverage Master Magazine.

  For Daniel Hass and InCider, Inc., starting in his home garage may have shielded his business from COVID-19 restrictions. “We got that conditional use permit on March 3rd of this year, then on March 17th, all the coronavirus shutdowns started. Had we been anywhere else but the garage, we would have been out of business before we started.”

  Many hard cider start-ups turn to organizations to help them navigate the unknown. The American Cider Association is one channel at the national level whose membership ranges from newcomers to more established cider makers. The non-profit organization promotes education, advocacy and membership designed to strengthen the cider industry. One of its current marketing tools is a campaign known as “Pick Cider,” intending to capture more market shares for cider and promote it as the go-to beverage for food-focused holiday events.

  The ACA also offers individuals the chance to become credentialed experts through a Certified Cider Professional program, the first-of-its-kind accreditation service for food and alcohol professionals. CiderCon, an annual conference about to enter its 11th year, will be a virtual online event held during the week of February 3-5, 2021.

  Local and regional organizations sharing common interests can be just as helpful. For example, Hass and his partners turned to the Badger State Winery Co-op, which also distributes Hass & Stock Cider products. Hass said that speaking directly with state and local administrations with oversight authority is a good idea, as is communicating directly with vendors and others with the ability to get hard cider products directly to consumers.

  “The more people you know in this industry, the better. The first vendor to give us a try was Three Cellars in Menomonee Falls, run by Gino Gaglianello. He led us to other cider makers and our graphic artist, Branden Bakken,” said Hass.

  Most experts in the hard cider industry agree that experience is the best teacher. Fackrell, who opened his doors in 2018, wants to pass on what he has learned that nothing short of being in the thick of things could have taught him. 

  “Be prepared for your business environment to not only change rapidly but also to stand ready and adapt these constant changes that normally lie outside of your orbit/control.”

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