They’re young, and excited to bring their cider to the American table in just a few weeks. The Downeast Cider House’s hard cider reaches to the roots of good ol’ fashion sweet cider right off the farm.
Story by Tess Jewell-Larsen
Photographs provided by Downeast Cider House
In an old brick mill in Waterville, Maine, Downeast Cider House finishes the final touches to its first commercial batch of cider. Recent graduates of Bates College, the three, young co-founders, Ben Manter, Tyler Mosher and Ross Brockman started working on their ciderhouse dream just over 5 months ago, although the idea began in late October 2010. With a cheap rent, 1600 square feet (148.6 square meters), three rooms, and interior walls of brick and wood, the old mill is a perfect spot for the start-up company. DownEast Cider House makes its début cider launch later this December or within the first weeks of 2012.
We asked the Downeast guys, on Tuesday, December 6, 2011, how exactly they started their involvement in the cider business, and what they hope to bring to the re-establishing American cider culture. Here are their responses.
To start off: How did you meet each other?
Ross Brockman: Ben and I met during our senior year of high school. I had just transferred to Carrabassett Valley Academy, which is a ski academy at Sugarloaf in Maine. We became friends, eventually taking the next year to travel around the world pursuing our dreams of becoming professional ski racers. We both ended up at Bates College.
I met Tyler the first night at Bates, as he was Ben’s roommate freshman year. We had a lot of fun.
Tyler and I also took a semester “abroad” and went to Hawaii for sun, warm surfing, and everything else that Maine doesn’t have.
Tyler Mosher: Ross was actually in the room when I walked in with my parents. I felt a little like the odd man out for the first few hours because there were some other relationships that had been established before school, but when they were leaving to go on their first beer run, Ben turned to me and asked if I wanted to come. I said yes. We spent the rest of the night playing beer-pong on a stolen lunch table and getting to know each other. After that first day I knew I had found the friends I would share my college experiences with.
Ben Manter: After high school, [Ross and I] took a year off to travel and ski race before entering Bates College. Tyler and I ended up being roommates freshman year, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Why did the three of you—Ben, Ross and Tyler—decide to start a cider house together?
TM: During our first months of senior year at Bates College we had several conversations about starting a company together. One [in October 2010] day my father came to visit and took us out to dinner, we shared with him our company starting ambitions and he suggested we start a hard cider company since Ben had grown up on an apple orchard. We were rather embarrassed we hadn’t thought of the idea ourselves; but we took it and ran. We’d done a fair amount of traveling and had noticed the marginal role cider played in the market for alcoholic beverages in the United States and we decided we wanted to change that.
RB: We had always spoken of starting a company of some sort, and we were brainstorming all sorts of different ideas. We got on the topic of beverages because a couple of young guys from Ohio State University had put out Four Loko, which took the country by storm. Tyler’s dad had taken us out to dinner, and mentioned hard cider. This was immediately followed by an argument with one of our friends, who told us it was a stupid idea and it would never work. We talked about it for a while, and over the winter it built some steam. Eventually we were having regular meetings at night, and to say enthusiasm for schoolwork plummeted would be an understatement. I guess we’ll find out soon enough who was right.
How did you pick the name?
BM: Being a Maine based company using Maine apples, we wanted to incorporate Maine into our name. I had always known the geographic location of mid-coast Maine was called Downeast, but I never knew how it got its name. When we stumbled upon the definition of Downeast we liked the irony that Maine was North, yet considered Downeast due to trade winds.
TM: The term down east was originally used by sailors leaving Boston for the ports of Maine because the trade winds were at their back and they were sailing downwind. It actually took us about two months to decide on a name, we had elimination rounds to hone in on what name we liked the most. Looking back, it was good practice for group decision-making.
RB: We ended up with Downeast Cider House while golfing, which is where we go to make any major decisions. We pick a decision, grab our clubs, and vow to make a final decision by the time we’re done. Hopefully the decision of the name is better than our collective golfing abilities.
When did you first start working together to make the ciderhouse a reality?
RB: It started with the meetings at school, and about a month after graduation we took all of our money and belongings to Maine to work full time.
TM: Conversations started the day after we went out to dinner. We started having sporadic meetings in January. Ben decided to do his senior thesis on cider and bubble size. One day Ross and I were helping Ben with his thesis and we were putting cider in bottles and capping them. I remember thinking there was a good chance I’d be doing a lot more of that. Work, in the traditional sense, started in late August. Ross and I moved up to Maine and we started waking up everyday with one thing on our minds: cider.
BM: We have been at this now for a solid 5 months.
BM: I grew up on a relatively small 50-acre apple orchard that my great-grandfather planted; and my family has been making non-alcoholic cider for a few generations. As a kid, the orchard was an endless playground, and there was always something to do whether it was climbing trees, picking drops, or playing massive games of capture the flag with my friends.
The orchard was mainly “pick your own,” but my parents had a cider press and we pressed as much [sweet] cider as we could from the drops and the apples that did not get sold. The orchard was not my parents’ primary occupation, and because of that the atmosphere was always pretty laidback. My sister and I ran the farm stand after school, and many times during the day there was a scale, price per pound, and a box with change in it. I loved working on the farm and really defined myself around the orchard and farming, so when the idea of a hard cider company came up it all seemed very natural.
RB: All three of us have traveled quite a bit and have seen the popularity of hard cider outside the United States. My first full experience was in South Africa at the World Cup. Ben and I went down there, and it was impossible to ignore the presence that cider had at liquor stores, bars, and restaurants. It just seemed obvious to reintroduce the popularity of cider back to the American market. It’s delicious!
TM: It wasn’t till after we began researching cider that we learned about its current state in the market for alcoholic beverages in the US. With that said, I’d say it was more of a why not cider?
As a small start up, what have you found to be the most exciting things, the most frustrating and the most terrifying?
TM: One of the most exciting days was when our two 1,100 gallon primary fermentation tanks arrived. We were preparing to leave for a meeting with a distributor and we got a call that the truck driver was ten minutes away from delivering the tanks. He opened the door to the truck and we saw the two tanks standing up at the opposite end. We had absolutely no idea how we were going to get them on their side and into our room. But the truck driver went in, grabbed one of the tanks and jerked it around and said, “They aren’t too heavy.” We had to make some doorways wider to get them in but it was a really fun morning.
The most frustrating and terrifying aspect of starting a business is the endless list of things to do. It’s all about making decisions and progress everyday.
RB: The most exciting thing has to be the opportunity. It’s hard to avoid daydreams where the company is as successful as we imagine. Making a living while working with your friends, doing something you enjoy is as good a dream come true as any.
Frustration is another feeling that is easy to come by. There are just so many things to do. When you are stuck on something and aren’t able to move forward, the frustration can mount. Also, we like to work all day and night. While we don’t expect people to respond to 1 AM emails, it can be infuriating when our work is dependent on an email or phone response from somebody who is taking their sweet time. We won’t be 23 forever though, and realize that some day we will also have families and other obligations.
BM: The most exciting thing about a small start up is the idea of running a company that produces a product that we really believe in. The most terrifying thing is actually running the company.
Who does what in the ciderhouse?
BM: I am in charge of operations. Growing up on an orchard definitely gave me a lot of great cider/apple knowledge, plus I studied biology in school. My senior year, I ended up writing my thesis on how yeast strains affect the physical parameters of hard cider. The results of my thesis were inconclusive, but it taught me a lot about the process of making hard cider.
TM: We recently claimed responsibility for different aspects of the business. Ben has operations, Ross has marketing, and I claimed sales. Each person is responsible to take initiative in his field. But, we’re a team. We’re all working together to accomplish what we need to do.
RB: Last week we finally gave ourselves roles. In reality though, everyone does everything
What are your specific titles?
Ben Manter: Co Founder
Ross Brockman: Co Founder
Tyler Mosher: Co Founder
I believe these titles will get more specific as time passes, but until then I think co-Founder captures the wide variety of activities we’ve done to start this business.
What type of cider do you make (i.e. does your cider have any specific origins: British, French, American, etc.), and what is your inspiration behind making that type of cider?
RB: This is the aspect that we think separates us from the crowd. While the existing ciders on the market have their own respectable qualities, we are bringing a cider that is our own style and matches the movement that has already begun in the craft beer industry. If you are familiar with the taste of fresh pressed apple cider, you will know what we mean. The flavor is amazing and cannot be compared to store-bought apple juice. We are bringing this flavor to our hard cider.
We feel that commercial ciders on the market now resemble an apple wine or champagne. The same components that work for wine are not necessarily the ones we want to display in our product. You will be able to smell the fresh apples, and the taste is unmistakable. We are also using an ale yeast, as opposed to champagne yeasts that are often used in cider. This brings about the feel of a craft beer as opposed to the feel of a dry champagne as we have experienced in certain commercial ciders.
TM: Our inspiration came from Ben’s childhood experiences with apples and sweet cider. It also came from what other ciders on the market aren’t. We’d often taste the cider and be disappointed it didn’t taste more like apples or be unhappy with the balance between sweet and dry. We thought some cider makers were too concerned with following traditional cider-making methods. We wanted to create a cider that was truly ours. And we did.
BM: When making our “recipe” we really didn’t try to mimic any specific style of hard cider. The inspiration came much more from the non-alcoholic cider that we grew up drinking as kids. Our goal when making this beverage was to bring out more elements of fresh pressed unfiltered cider like we grew up drinking.
What type of apples are you using and why?
TM: We are using a blend of apples that will be available year around. Red delicious, Yellow delicious, McIntosh, Cortland, and Gala. We experimented with a lot a different apples over the past couple months. The process of experimenting with a different blend of apples was always a fun day.
We’d decide on the blend of apples by reading and understanding what each type of apple would bring to the blend. Then, we’d run out into Ben’s orchard and pick several bushels of each type of apple we wanted. The Manter’s have this old apple press, so we’d then spend the next three hours manually grinding and pressing apples on that. We’d only stop to taste the different ciders coming out of the press. Two weeks later we’d try the finished product and talk about what we could add and repeat the whole process over again.
Do you also use other fruit?
TM: Not yet, but we’ve got some other ciders in the works. We normally have some testbatches fermenting and we are always looking for inspiration for our next ciders. I like cranberries and blueberries a lot, and they are grown in Maine, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we make a cider with different types of fruit.
What do you believe makes your cider different from others already on the market?
TM: A couple things, we’re using a different strand of yeast. We are using freshly pressed apples, never from concentrate. Mostly, we have a different idea of what our cider should taste like. We’re not trying to make a traditional extra dry (when I say extra dry, I actually mean it) champagne cider or a cider sweetened with sugar or concentrate like many American ciderhouses have done.
We’re making something true to the roots of sweet cider, a cider that has a refreshing, well-balanced flavor with a slight tang like sweet cider. We believe cider hasn’t caught on in the States for a reason, that Americans are looking for different things from their cider than Europeans. I believe when someone says the word cider in America they have different connotations than when someone says cider in Europe.
RB: The same components that work for wine are not necessarily the ones we want to display in our product. You will be able to smell the fresh apples, and the taste is unmistakable.
BM: Our cider really separates itself because of how fresh and unprocessed it is. We are not filtering our cider and it is made from 100% fresh pressed, locally grown Maine apples. Freshness is something that you can taste in our product.
Have you had any public taste your product yet? Or will the launch this month be the first public tasting?
TM: Not really… A lot of people have tried it, but I wouldn’t say we’ve had a public tasting. We are hoping to work with some local colleges and restaurants to get the product out to the public.
RB: Aside from friends, family, and our distributors, we have yet to produce for the public yet. When we hit bars in a few weeks that will be our first public showing. Now that I think of it, this is definitely that terrifying aspect that I said didn’t exist. But I’m confident in our product, so the excitement trumps the fear.
What is the specific launch date? In your first launch will you be coming out with more than one type of cider?
RB: We can’t give a definitive launch date, but it should be around the first of the year. We will be starting with one flavor on draft. That will be followed by at least 3 different small batch flavors that will be available in 750 ml bottles, and as soon as we can finalize the arrangements, we will launch a 12 oz can.
BM: We are tying up a few loose ends as we speak, and we should be putting the cider into the fermenters at the end of this week.
In your area in Maine, what is the cider culture like? Or is it relatively unknown still?
BM: The cider market is still somewhat unknown; however, Maine has a very strong apple culture and sells a lot of non-alcoholic cider, especially in the Fall.
RB: You would think there would be a larger cider culture, but it still remains relatively unknown, especially on a commercial level. We will probably be the largest producer of hard cider in Maine within weeks of our launch. Hopefully having a local company producing on a commercial level will raise awareness in Maine. This stuff is delicious, so I remain confident it will catch on fairly quickly. The alcoholic beverage industry in America is a little weird in this aspect. With only beer on tap in most bars and restaurants, it feels a little like a convenience store only carrying chocolate bars in the candy rack. We feel like our job is to come in and say, “hey guys, you know there are other kinds of candy, right?” Hopefully the general public will respond with a collective “Holy crap, there is!”
TM: Plenty of people I talk to have never even tried a cider. Whenever I am talking with someone who hasn’t tried or even heard of cider I get excited. I think to myself, I’m the one who gets to educate this person about cider.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
RB: I should touch on the canned aspect we plan on bringing to cider. The reason cans get such a bad name is that many years ago, the cans used by the big boys of beer weren’t coated with the protective layer that separates the beer from the metal, which is something that is used today. When the beer reacted with the aluminum, the result was a bad metallic taste, which is where the rumors that canned beverages taste worse came from. In actuality, canning is not only as good of a package as bottles, it is better. It lets in zero light, travels well for picnics/hiking/etc, is cheaper (resulting in a lower price for the consumer), and is friendlier to the environment.
The craft beer industry is moving towards cans for all of these reasons, and there is no reason why we wouldn’t join them. Some people question the cans, but it’s indisputable that they are better packaging.