Farm-to-table restaurants and even artisanal denim makers have boomed. Now it’s hard apple cider’s turn at the table in the growing go-local movement.
Industry heavy hitters like Boston Beer Company-owned Angry Orchard, which holds 56 percent of national market share, and C&C Group’s Woodchuck, have seen a plateau in the growth rate of cider as of late 2015.
One reason is consumers are turning to their local cideries for a drink. Nellysford, Virginia-based Bold Rock has seen year to date sales grow more than 100 percent to nearly $8 million. The company is now the sixth largest cidery in the nation despite being the only privately-owned company in the top six and distributing its products in only nine states.
“It’s funny to say that we’re a family-centric alcohol company, but we are,” said Lindsay Dorrier III, director of retail operations at Bold Rock Hard Cider.
Just look at Brew Ridge Taps in downtown Lexington to see the trend. Autumn McFaddin, Brew Ridge general manager, has watched cider’s popularity rise as part of the craft beer trend of the last four or five years. Locally, demand for cider comes from those who are gluten-free, don’t like the taste of beer, or are looking for an alternative to wine, earning hard cider a permanent spot at Brew Ridge.
“When people think of cider, Bold Rock comes to mind,” McFaddin said. The pub has 18 taps of craft beer on draft at all times, and McFaddin makes sure at least one of them is always a hard cider. The taproom also carries a variety of bottled ciders along with craft beer.
No surprise to Bold Rock co-founders John Washburn and Brian Shanks, who started the company in 2010. Washburn owned the land in Nellysford for more than 30 years when he was approached with an offer to buy the property for a beverage company. Semi-retired in New Zealand, the concept of owning a beverage company on Route 151, a stretch of road in Nelson County that was known for its wineries, breweries and distilleries, appealed to Washburn.
Washburn saw how popular cider was in New Zealand, so he called up Brian Shanks, the foremost cider maker in the country to discuss his idea of start a cidery in Virginia.
Shanks had been in the cider business for over 35 years. He caught the cider bug when a storm knocked all the apples off the trees at his family’s orchard. Nice detail! Puzzled as to what to do with the fruit, they decided to ferment it and made their first batch of hard cider. Since then Shanks has worked with some of the largest cider brands in the world before starting his own cider company in New Zealand.
Washburn and Shanks ended up flying to Virginia to look at the land in Nellysford and they shook hands on the plane ride home, deciding on the name Bold Rock – a tribute to Black Rock mountain nearby. Two years later, in 2012, they were producing in the cider barn.
From the very beginning, Washburn and Shanks made strategic decisions to make Bold Rock a household name. They designed the company to have more of a kinship to craft beer, using 12 ounce bottles and a lower alcohol percentage of 4.7 percent, about the same as a light beer. Other cideries in the area use wine bottles and sport an alcohol percentage up to 7 percent.
“You can have a handful of ciders and not be too worse for the wear the next morning,” Dorrier said.
Unlike most craft breweries that scale to the point where they want their product out far and wide, Bold Rock paired with distributor Virginia Eagle before they had their first six-pack, planning on having product sales through retailers as the majority of their business.
The taprooms have also been an intrinsic part of the business from conception. Washburn had blueprints for the cider barn in Nellysford completed before they had made any money, wanting an immersive experience for the customer, who could taste the product while overlooking both the meadow and the production facility.
Right now the company has four different taprooms, three in Virginia and one in North Carolina. The Nellysford flagship location is referred to as the “Chapel of Apple.”
“When we bring people to visit, that’s when folks really establish that engagement with the brand and brand loyalty. We hope that when people come here they really remember that experience when they see us in the grocery store or at a restaurant or a bar,” Dorrier said.
All of the apples for the Nellysford cidery are sourced within a 30-mile radius. They arrive in 900-pound bins and are pressed on site in the juicing barn. The pulp is given to local farmers to feed their animals. The juice is then pumped uphill, where champagne yeast is added. The brew is fermented, a champagne carbonator tempers the sweetness and the beverage is bottled in view of visitors.
The process from apple to bottle takes 18 to 20 days, shorter than other cideries that let fermentation run its course on their product. The staff refers to the quick turnaround, which results in a lighter, cleaner flavor, as “bottling the freshness.”
In order to keep that freshness going year round, Bold Rock has both a cold storage and a climate control system to keep apples fresh. The climate controlled facilities are buildings the size of the juicing barn with mechanisms that pump all of the oxygen in the building out and replace it with nitrogen, putting the apples into stasis so they don’t ripen or spoil. Because this does affect the flavor of the apples after a few months, it’s up to the cider makers to balance the different taste profiles of the apples so you have a beverage that tastes the same year-round.
Bold Rock is poised to take over Angry Orchard as the top cider seller in Virginia sometime next year, said Travis Sensabaugh, area manager of Virginia Eagle Distributing. In the Verona region of Virginia, which covers Covington, Lexington, Luray and everything in between, Bold Rock is outselling local favorite craft beer Devils Backbone Vienna Lager.
Bold Rock is not the only regional cider company experiencing rapid growth. Blake’s
Hard Cider in Michigan and Citizen Cider in Vermont each have large chunks of the cider market in the North. Because of the competition, Bold Rock is setting its sights on expanding south, which is challenging because the company must first build awareness of hard cider and then their brand. They recently sent a state manager from Virginia to Georgia to spearhead the growth of product there, and just sent their first load of cider into Florida.
The success of the hands-on approach is why the company will remain private even as the trend for consolidation in the alcohol industry increases. Greg Allen, former CEO of Advance Food Company, came on board as a private investor for Bold Rock, joining Washburn and Shanks to form the controlling body of the company.
With the national trends for cider awareness and excitement contracting it’s more difficult for new cideries to get capital from investors. Some say that the craft beer sector in general is in a bubble, with more breweries opening than the market can accommodate.
Ogden Guthrie is a sales representative of wholesaler Specialty Beverage of Virginia, which distributes seven different hard ciders along with craft beer and soda. He said that in the cider industry there is still high enough demand for continued growth, particularly because cider bridges the gap between wine and beer drinkers and also appeals to those who didn’t previously drink alcohol regularly.
“It is a good time to be in the cider business,” he said.