by: Adam Stanley
Like so many post-secondary students, Chris Noll and Adam Gerrits were money-conscious, especially when it came time to pay for a few drinks.
But the roommates took their lack of funds a step further than most and “out of necessity” decided to make their own cider – an alcoholic version of the treat made from unfiltered apple juice.
“We ate Kraft Dinner, and then we spent the rest of our money on the first batch of (our cider) that ever existed,” he reflects.
While Mr. Noll and Mr. Gerrits embarked on separate careers after finishing school, in 2013, with their wives’ blessings, launched the Greater Toronto Area’s first craft cidery: Brickworks Ciderhouse. The business was kicked into high gear after what was supposed to be a five-minute meeting with the LCBO turned into a three-hour discussion.
The friends-turned-business partners had their first cider order, and although they were excited at the opportunity ahead, personal situations nearly got in the way. “I had just had a baby and Adam’s wife was pregnant at the time. Sometimes in business, the market is at the right time, but your personal market is not,” explains Mr. Noll. “But we buckled down and just worked hard.”
The reason why Brickworks among other Canadian companies have seen success at home is because of the quality of their core ingredient: apples. “The best apples in the world grow in Ontario,” he says.
Another part of the sales success of craft cider could be attributed to the natural health movement happening now. It’s gluten-free, and the cideries have benefited from the near $500-million gluten-free industry in Canada, according to a CBC investigation.
Craft cideries are also, in general, environmentally conscious. In 2014, Caledon-based Pommies Dry Cider ran a promotion in which customers walked away with their own apple tree and Brickworks has partnered withPine Farm Orchards in King City to launch a “Farm Division.”
Pine Farm Orchards will become Brickworks’ official apple farm, and, will play host to visitors who are interested in tasting the cider.
Although cider is the fastest-growing sales category in the province, according to the Ontario Craft Cider Association, they continue to face a number of challenges, including competition from overseas.
Robert Lee, the Chairman and CEO of Thornbury Village Cidery, says another challenge facing cideries is a political one.
“Cider is a misfit within Canada’s provincial liquor board systems,” he explains. “It is categorized as a wine – a fruit wine, to be exact. Therefore, it’s governed by regulations related to wineries in Ontario, but it doesn’t get the same advantages bestowed to Ontario winemakers like guaranteed shelf space at the LCBO.”
Despite these regulations, the room for craft cideries continues to expand. In 2008, there was one craft cidery in Ontario and now there are 19.
Mr. Lee says he thinks the growth is a direct result of the “quality of true local craft ciders that are available.” Thornbury, for example, is in the middle of the apple-growing region in Ontario and sits on 7,500 acres of apple trees.
Going after the ‘big guys’ is a common challenge in the cider business, explains Nick Sutcliffe of Pommies Cidery, but it’s spurred a working relationship with craft breweries in the GTA. The cideries view their beer-brothers as allies, rather than competitors.
“We’ve been really embraced by the craft brewers,” he says.”We’re all working together to build the category. Knowing we’ve got the same ‘enemy,’ we’re all working to get people to drink craft (cider).”
Mandie Murphy of Left Field Brewery in Toronto says breweries and cideries are up against the same sort of challenges and are working towards similar goals, hence the mutual respect.
“The growth of craft cider only helps draw attention to craft beer,” explains Ms. Murphy. “In many cases, it’s a shared consumer who will drink cider as an alternative to beer for certain occasions, and vice versa.”
Cideries are going through common small business challenges, including where to sell their product. Although available in the LCBO, there are fees associated with being there. And, craft ciders don’t get the preferred shelf space as compared to ‘the big guys.’
The Ontario Craft Brewers industry association has proposed to open specialty shops which would challenge The Beer Store’s current monopoly on most beer sales in the province. Premier Kathleen Wynne says she is open to the idea.
“I want to move towards a more rational and fair system, and one that improves convenience.… craft breweries [need] to have more access to the market,” the Premier said. “I’m not closing the door on any of those things.”
The craft beer industry in the province is about 15 years ahead of the cideries, according to Mr. Sutcliffe, allowing them to pursue larger legislation changes.
Mr. Noll says he sees why this would be a good move for the craft brewers. The Ontario Craft Cider Association was created in order for cideries to get on the same playing field as the brewers and Ontario VQA wines – another separate entity.
“We support local Ontario farmers by buying their apples, selling the juice, creating jobs, etc.” he explains.”The government sees value in that.”
Cideries, like breweries, also face competition with larger manufacturers – but, as the overall cider market continues to increase, so do the bottom lines of the cideries.
Brickworks, for example, has just expanded its sales territory to include Asia and the Cayman Islands. “We’re growing so fast right now that we’re trying to re-invest everything we can into innovation. You get a sale in China, but then, boom, you have to invest in the infrastructure,” says Mr. Noll. “It’s a profitable business model, though.”
Mr. Sutcliffe reports Pommies will turn the corner of profitability by the end of 2015. The cidery began, coincidentally, after Mr. Sutcliffe’s wife convinced him to ‘do something’ about the lack of a good, local cider to drink. It now counts the gigantic Real Sports Bar & Grill as one of its accounts.
“It was a cold call. My wife, again, convinced me to walk in there. They did a tasting and they said they loved it,” laughs Mr. Sutcliffe. “We’ve more than doubled in sales every year and we’re ahead of the curve. Usually it’s about five years for brewers before they’re profitable. We’re in year three.”
With spring around the corner, cideries in the GTA are entering their busiest time. But places like Pommies, Thornbury and Brickworks are thinking beyond 2015, and to where they will take their businesses.
“We’ve bet our lives on it,” says Mr. Sutcliffe.
And even with the regular small business worries, Mr. Noll says they’ve never lost sight of why they got into business in the first place: to bring friends together.
“We’re purveyors of good times,” he says. “The name of the game is having fun.”
For article on Globe & Mail website, click here: