Ross Brockman and friends Tyler Mosher and Ben Manter started fermenting apple cider in the basement of their Bates College dorm in the Spring of 2011. Of course, making hard cider to sell is a lot more challenging. Fortunately, the fledgling brewers are part of the Internet generation. So, they Googled it. Today, their company (minus Manter, who parted ways with Mosher and Brockman in 2012 to be replaced with Brockman's brother, Matt) Downeast Cider House can be found at 7,000 bars, restaurants, and stores across the county, helping it generate $6 million in 2015 revenue. Coming in at No. 63 on the 2016 Inc. 5000, the Charlestown, Massachusetts, brewer is also the fastest growing adult beverage maker on the list.
--As told to Bartie Scott
Apples had always been a big part of our lives. When Ben's parents visited us at school from their orchard in Maine, they would bring bushels of apples. We always had cartons of apple cider--like good, fresh apple cider--in the dorm room. Ben did his senior thesis on cider. (He was a biology major.) After graduation, Ben, Tyler and I all moved up to Ben's family's farmhouse. The three of us would end up being the ones to start the company.
The popular ciders of the time were all very similar. They tasted like apple juice, not apple cider. Apple cider is the fresh stuff--the cloudy, thick stuff you get from the farm. Apple juice is the processed filtered stuff that comes out of the juice box. One night we were drinking and one of our buddies was slugging from one of these cartons of cider and was like, 'Is there a way to make hard cider that's like actual cider and not like boozy Mott's apple juice?'
We knew nothing about making cider. We dragged an old apple press out of the barn at the orchard; it was Ben's great grandfather's press. We'd go around picking apples, testing out different yeasts and levels of sugar.
The challenge of making an unfiltered cider is stability. The cloudy finish is bits of apples and it's known as turbidity. That's where bacteria can hide. At some point that bacteria can awaken in the package and start fermenting again, creating off-flavors, in which case you can get bad product--even exploding product because the carbonation builds up. We had to figure out how to make a shelf-stable, unfiltered product.
If it had been thirty years prior, I have no idea how we would've done it. Besides the bacteria, there are a lot of technical pieces to the fermentation process. Thankfully, home brewing is very popular. Some of these guys have been doing it for 30 years and they're very passionate about it. We were able to get so much information about the cider making process off the internet.
We'd find some guy that sells lenticular filters or something to multinational companies. We'd call and start asking amateur questions about making cider and how the filtration process works, and he'd be more than happy to take an hour or two out of his day to help.
At the time we didn't have mentors. Since then, I don't have enough good things to say about the people at Woodchuck Cider. They've helped us out on a few occasions.
We knew nothing about sales, either. We'd drive to, say, Portland, Maine, park in the center of town and go door-to-door. They always thought were looking for a job. It was illegal to give out samples in Maine if you're not a licensed alcohol salesperson, so we would hide our bottles in the bushes. If they agreed to try some samples, we'd go grab some, but since we didn't have small bottles sometimes they would go flat. What you would do is work into the conversation somehow, 'Oh it's so good, let me try it with you.' If you tasted that it was flat you'd have to do a swap--like a magic trick--you'd have to distract them while you switched the bottle out for another because you never want to say 'Oh this sample sucks.'
At first I could be intimidated. I was only 22, I'd only been able to drink legally for a year. But pretty quickly you realize, nobody knows anything. You start to realize, Boston Beer is a multi-billion dollar, publicly traded company, but Jim Koch is not the manager of the Angry Orchard brand; it's probably some journeyman or a young, rising guy. You realize everyone's kind of faking it, and that's where we're sitting. As long as you're confident and you're like 'I'm people too,' you're set.