In 2011, with graduation looming, Bates College seniors Ross Brockman and Tyler Mosher did what many others their age do when facing a decision on their future: they put it off. Amid deciding on whether or not to go to graduate school or look for a job, the pair (along with Ben Manter, who is no longer with the company) founded Downeast Cider House.
"We had no prospects at all," says Brockman. "That was one of the driving forces in starting up."
The goal of Downeast was to "make cider that tasted like the farm," says Brockman. For a while, it was more of a hobby than a way to make money. Living in Waterville, Maine at the time, the founders would make cider in their down time. Brockman, a philosophy major, and Mosher, an economics major, thought they wanted to get MBAs. They would spend their mornings buried in GMAT study books before making cider in the afternoon. One morning, Brockman looked over at his friend and asked, "Are you still doing the whole GMAT thing?" When the answer was "no", the pair drilled down into making cider full time, moving the operation to an apple supplier in Leominster before settling in the Boston area.
Downeast now operates from a 9,000 square-foot Charlestown warehouse directly beneath the Tobin Bridge. The space is about as tidy as a college dorm room, bare concrete interrupted by several massive holding tanks and palates of cans.
"Ugly' might be the word. Maybe 'industrial'?" offers Brockman.
Downeast currently cans two ciders, an original and a cranberry blend. Two key features of the cider are that its unfiltered and fermented with ale yeast. The wort, McIntosh-based from Massachusetts farms, is trucked in. It consists of excess apples not sold at family pick-your-own farms. Brockman filtered one batch and said he wasn't happy with the final product.
"It was too clean," he says. "It got rid of all the funk. It's the difference between drinking apple cider and Mott's apple juice."
Most of the major hard ciders are made from concentrate. Downeast's founders hope to fill a niche in the market for people who want better cider. They produced 1,000 barrels of cider in 2013 and plan to double that this year. Getting off the ground was tough. For two years they borrowed from family and friends before being able to secure a loan from a bank.
"I'd call and they'd laugh at me," says Brockman. "Multiple banks laughed at me. ...The day that we turned two-years-old we finally had financing options open to us."
While Brockman is proud his cider doesn't start with frozen juice, he admits making cider is easier than making beer, where malt and water and hops must first be boiled to make the wort.
"There's significantly less overhead, significantly less space needed."
A new canning line has the capacity to do 29 cans-per-minute. For such a young company, they're not shy about growth. Forbes recently named the pair to their 30-under-30 list, prompting a calls from folks suddenly willing to fund their venture.
"It was crazy. They don't know anything about us," says Brockman. He adds, "We see the market for hard cider like the market for beer 30 years ago. There were tiny little hobbyists that make good cider, but nobody got to taste them because they didn't have commercial ambitions."
The company now has eight employees, and the cider is distributed in New York and in every New England state except Vermont. Noah Burke, who graduated with Mosher and Brockman and worked in the tech field in Boston, came back on to join his friends at Downeast. The business plan, now much more developed, is to drive the flagship, at any given time putting that plus one seasonal cider on the shelf.
"We want to make it available for everybody," says Burke. "People see the big guy as the bad guy, but driving that SKU helps others in the industry."
I sampled the flagship this week. It pours cloudy. Bits of sediment bob around the bottom of the glass. It tastes and smells like something you'd buy in a gallon jug at a farm stand, starting out tart and finishing sweet. Sold in 12-ounce cans, it weighs in at 5.1 percent alcohol by volume.
Downeast is experimenting with a Saison cider and a "session mead", among other one-offs, but unlike Bantam Cider in Somerville or Urban Farm Fermentory in Portland, Maine, the focus at Downeast will be on growing the flagship brand and maybe a seasonal or two. As for future plans?
"We bought a doughnut machine, to make cider doughnuts" said Brockman. "It's probably the most ridiculous thing we've ever bought."
Having recently been granted a pouring permit, the founders hope to make Downeast a destination for tours and samples in the near future.
-- Some brief notes:
-- On March 4, author Tom Acitelli will discuss his book, "The Audacity of Hops", at 7 p.m. at the Belmont Public Library. The talk will be accompanied by a tasting of beers from Craft Beer Cellar.
-- Narragansett beer is on tap at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, just in time for Red Sox spring training.
-- 99 Bottles weekly tasting
We’re getting more interactive at 99 Bottles. Each week, with your help, I’ll sample a new brew. If you’d like to participate in the tasting, pick up that week’s beer, log into Twitter, and tag your tweets with #99Bottles. You can follow the progress of the tasting and see what others and myself are saying at: www.boston.com/lifestyle/food/blogs/99bottles. This week’s brew is Left Hand Milk Stout. The tasting will start at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 5. Cheers.