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How This Craft Cidery Got Off the Ground

In Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery, the staff of Entrepreneur Media Inc. and writer Corie Brown with Zester Daily Contributors explain how you can get started in the craft alcoholic beverage industry, whether you want to start your own microbrewery, distillery or cidery. In this edited excerpt, the authors profile a California-based cidery to give wannabe entrepreneurs an inside look at a successful business.

Brooks Dry Cider, San Francisco, California

Brooks Bennett, Owner - Opened 2014

Somewhere between the London pubs and the ones he frequented in South Africa during his college year abroad, it occurred to Brooks Bennett that English-style hard cider was a pretty great drink and there wasn’t any of it back home in California. After graduating from George Washington University, Bennett began a quest to make hard cider in his home state. A summer internship at Michigan’s Tandem Ciders was followed by a professional cider-making course at Northwest Agriculture Business Center in Mount Vernon, Washington.

A city kid with nary an apple tree to his name, Bennett briefly considered importing hard cider from England. But it lacked the satisfaction of producing something of his own. Living in San Francisco, he operated a pedicab to pay the rent on his Mission-district apartment while he worked on a business plan and fermented endless batches of hard cider in his kitchen. To avoid the funky flavors of some hard ciders, he uses Fuji, Honey Crisp, Ginger Gold, and Granny Smith apples to make his signature light, clean-tasting libation.

A commercial orchard in Oregon sells him pressed-to-order juice. Finding a place to ferment it, however, was a saga. Bennett first connected with Crispin Cider Company in the Sacramento region to use their excess capacity to make his hard cider. But even as he was negotiating the deal, Crispin’s hard cider sales suddenly soared. A beat later, MillerCoors bought Crispin to add hard cider to their portfolio. Bennett could feel the rising wave of demand for hard cider as one after another cidery turned him away. He found no excess cider-making capacity at any existing cideries.

The “aha” moment was when he looked up the road to Napa, where custom crush wineries sit idle nine months of the year. In California’s winemaking capital, fermenting one fruit would be just as easy as fermenting another. “It took me a year to figure that out,” says Bennett. “The great thing about the winery I found is that they had experience making hard cider.”

The 28-year-old entrepreneur raised $345,000 in a “friends, family, and fools” round of investment. “It comfortably launches me in the San Francisco market,” he says. In fall 2014, he produced his first commercial batch: 1,400 cases (24/12-ounce bottle cases) and a couple of hundred kegs; roughly a 50/50 split to distribute between retail sales and on-premise sales at restaurants and bars. Brooks Dry Cider was born. He can make more hard cider whenever he wants by simply custom-pressing more juice in Oregon and fermenting it in Napa where he bottles it unaged. The first batch cost $55,000 to produce. He retails a four-pack for $8.

“I want to make this work and then see about building my own cidery where I can have a taproom. That’s biting off more than I can chew to start. The barriers to entry in the market are low. It’s a simple process. But cider is more expensive to make than beer; the ingredients are more expensive,” says Bennett.

His next step is lining up a distributor. “I’m being very careful. Going slowly. Talking to wine distributors. The hard cider segment is growing fast, so they're open to me.” He's already making sales calls to bars and restaurants and expects there will be strong word-of-mouth support from friends asking for his cider in San Francisco. He also plans to sponsor events that provide an opportunity for consumers to try his hard cider. “I’m really into cycling and want to get our cider in front of people by sponsoring cool California-type stuff like cycling. One investor thinks surfing sponsorships are a perfect fit.” Bennett says he understands he needs to work social media and has set up a Brooks Dry Cider Facebook page.

At this point, Bennett is still a one-man show, doing everything himself. The startup investment allows him to focus all of his energies on building the brand. He no longer peddles a pedicab to pay the rent.

Model for a new craft hard cidery

You don’t have to own your own farm to make craft cider. You just have to have access to the quality fruit that you’ll be comfortable marketing as the primary ingredient of your cider. Take Bennett, for example. He isn’t tying himself down to a farm, even though he's sticking to craft’s requirement of fresh fruit (apples are typical, but pears and quince are other foundation fruits used in cider). He figured out how to have his fresh-pressed juice delivered when and where he wants it. It’s still craft—it’s just not farm-based craft.

“Cider is a new vertical,” says Krista Johnson, the cider and craft beer buyer for K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco. “When something is good, the producer has to grow quickly to meet the demand. The trick is to do that without losing your soul, without compromising quality.”

Great cider? To Johnson, “It’s complex, dry, no residual sugar.” She likes the “funky, earthy, savory tannins from the apple skins, a grown-up drink.”

With so much industrial-strength activity in the hard cider sector, the difference that distinguishes a small craft producer isn't yet defined. Most likely, craft will set itself apart by its fruit. Craft cider has provenance. That fruit can be bought in bulk from large orchards, pressed to order in a giant facility, shipped a thousand miles in tanker trucks to a cider house, where it is fermented into hard cider. But the process starts in an identifiable orchard. Reconstituted juice, high-fructose corn syrup, and flavor enhancers are the marks of industrial hard cider.