I cannot precisely recall the first time I tried apple cider, but I’m almost certain it was at a Thanksgiving dinner when I was a kid. For my family, cider was a turkey day staple, complementing the food on our table while reflecting all the wonderful flavors of autumn in New England.
The first time I tried hard cider? That I remember vividly – and not a little bit fondly.
Sometime in the late 1990s, I was introduced to Cider Jack, which at the time was one of few commercial hard ciders widely available in the United States. As a beer drinker, I was no fan of “malternatives.” But I figured, hey, it’s cider, right? How bad could it be?
Turns out, it could be pretty bad.
Cider Jack was a scratchy, artificially flavored, sharply carbonated beverage that bore scant resemblance to the thick, fresh juice that heralded the holiday season. You know how leaving the cap off a bottle of apple juice for a week or so will supposedly cause it to ferment? I imagine the result would taste something like the now defunct Cider Jack.
If there was one benefit to Cider Jack’s inexplicable popularity, it was that it helped open the door for other – and much better – hard ciders. Eventually my harsh opinion mellowed a bit; I learned to appreciate an occasional Magners and later developed a genuine fondness for Harpoon’s cider, which at least tasted like actual apples had made an appearance in the brewing process. But I never loved it, and I resigned myself to the depressing reality that the chasm between non-alcoholic apple cider and industrial hard cider would never be bridged.
And then, on a summer night in 2012, something happened that forever altered my understanding of hard cider.
I was enjoying drinks in Cambridge’s Central Square with a few fellow barhoppers, and when it came time to change locations, my friend Jen lobbied for a trip to Kendall Square’s Meadhall. Her reason? They had a cider on draft that she really liked. Now as much as I enjoy Meadhall, it hadn’t really been on that evening’s agenda; and going there specifically for a hard cider was hardly incentive. But Jen was persistent, so we headed to Kendall. Upon arriving at Meadhall, Jen ordered her precious drink – something called Downeast Cider – and offered me a sip of the much-ballyhooed beverage.
And that, dear readers, is when I first fell in love with hard cider.
If there was one obvious distinction between Downeast and every other hard cider I’d tried, it was this – Downeast resembled actual apple cider. As in, the stuff I always drank in November (but with alcohol!). Not too sweet, not overly carbonated, and – unlike every other hard cider on the market – not filtered. Whereas you could read a newspaper through a glass of most hard ciders, this unfiltered brew had a cloudy complexion, more akin to that of genuine cider – not to mention a rich, natural flavor.
After that I became something of a Downeast evangelist, talking it up to anyone who would listen and dragging people to Meadhall to try it. Not that Downeast needed my help – their cult following was quickly growing into a regional phenomenon. More bars began offering it on draft, and eventually a canned version appeared on store shelves. In February 2013, Downeast co-founders Tyler Mosher and Ross Brockman moved their operation from Leominster to Charlestown; last December, they hosted a big launch party to officially christen their Downeast Cider House and formally announce their Boston presence. And just this past month, Tyler and Ross were included on Forbes' annual “30 under 30” list. Not bad for a couple of Bates College grads with no prior brewing experience.
A few days before their launch party, I met with Tyler for a tour of the new digs and an education on all things cider.
While Downeast is the sexy choice among ciders these days, the place where the magic happens is more functional than fashionable. The Downeast Cider House, which sits in the shadow of the Tobin Bridge, is a large industrial space filled with brewing tanks, canning equipment, kegs waiting to be filled, and cases of cider ready to be shipped.
The gray, concrete floor is strewn with hoses; electrical cables hang from steel beams on the ceiling; puddles of water await a mop. The only splash of color comes from a huge apple tree painted on the back wall.
A few tables constitute a makeshift office, and that’s where Tyler, Ross, and Ross’s brother Matt deal with the business of making, selling, and distributing cider. And while those matters take up increasing amounts of their time, Tyler and Ross’s typical day is still consumed with making their cider – including the drudgery of cleaning tanks and canning their product. It’s an honest, elbow-grease approach that isn’t too far removed from their earliest days of brewing cider in the basement of their college dorm.
The Downeast story begins in Maine. Tyler and Ross became friends while attending Bates and discussed the notion of starting a business together someday. Cider wasn’t in their plans yet, but after a few overseas trips, they noticed the popularity of hard cider in other countries; the U.S. market was comparatively dry. Another thing they noticed? That most hard cider was “cider” in name only. “It was a real bummer,” Tyler says, “not finding any ciders that were made from freshly pressed apples.”
So when they graduated, they started putting their plans into action. A complete lack of cider-making experience might have given other would-be brewers pause, but Tyler and Ross were undaunted. “We were in college, and we were young and cocky,” Tyler admits with a laugh. But they had a friend whose family owned an apple orchard and an apple press, so that helped. And after eight months of trial and error, they also had a recipe. Before long, the two cider-making novices would be bringing their new product to market. “We had this blind confidence,” Tyler says. “We didn’t know how hard it could be.” They would soon find out.
Downeast set up shop in Waterville, Maine, and began distributing their cider on a relatively small scale. As Tyler recounts, “We made a few kegs, sold them locally, and thought ‘Wow, this is sweet – making and selling our own cider!’” Then a sales trip to Massachusetts resulted in five new accounts – and their first professional crisis. “We got four times the order that we were expecting. We didn’t have enough kegs, didn’t have enough cider.” It didn’t help that it was a bad year for apples, and their supplier ran out.
That led to some tough decisions. Fill the order with an inferior product? Call their new customers back and say “uh, sorry, we’re out of cider”? Of course not. Tyler and Ross ultimately managed to find a new supplier, but it meant moving their home base to Leominster, Massachusetts. Their departure from Maine may have been unceremonious, but it was clear, even then, that the pair were unwilling to compromise the integrity of their product. That “no shortcuts” philosophy remains central to their current vision – and the outcome is a consistently enjoyable craft hard cider.
As we toured the facility, Tyler expounded on what distinguishes Downeast from so many other brands. The cider is made with locally grown, freshly pressed apples – a blend of Red Delicious, McIntosh, Cortland, and Gala. The velvety consistency comes from the type of yeast. “Ale yeast gives it that smoothness,” he explains. “Most ciders use champagne or white wine yeast.” Tannins, known more commonly for their use in wine, provide mouthfeel and body. (In an episode I won’t soon forget, Tyler encouraged me try some dry tannins – which taste roughly like cigarette ash. Apparently something good happens once they make it into the brew. Gentleman that he is, Tyler also submitted to tasting the tannins to share in my misery.)
But if there’s one thing that people immediately notice about Downeast, it’s that the cider is unfiltered. Compared to most commercial hard ciders, Downeast has a darker, richer complexion. “It’s hard to do,” Tyler admits. “When we started, everyone told us we had to filter it.” But filtering affects more than just the cider’s appearance. “We tried a filtered version, but it just stripped all the taste away. We said, ‘we can’t do this to our cider.’”
The process may be more complicated, but the result is a cider with a full-bodied flavor and smooth texture, free of concentrated juices and artificial sweeteners. Other ciders literally pale by comparison.
My tour of the Cider House is illuminating, and not just because of the glimpse at how cider is made. Seeing a business that’s still evolving is just as fascinating. Clearly visible are the vestiges of a young company accustomed to operating on a shoestring budget. There’s the Chinese-made canner Tyler and Ross bought because it was cheap; it didn’t work and they ended up having to buy another one. There’s the pasteurizer that they built themselves, because commercial ones are so expensive.
Tyler still seems astonished by the cost of kegs. And the Downeast workforce is little more than a skeleton crew; aside from Tyler, Ross, and Matt, there are two sales reps and a couple of guys who help with the packing and kegging.
It’s a small operation, but it’s easy to see that bigger things are on the way. Their cider is in ever-increasing demand, and their product line is expanding. Downeast already offers a cranberry cider, an alternative to their original blend. A bit more risky are a couple of non-cider products slated to hit the shelves this year. Tyler seems a tad uncertain about how customers will react to Downeast branching out – a far cry from the “blind confidence” that fueled his and Ross’s earlier ambitions. I’d say there’s little cause for concern; as long as they maintain their dedication to quality and a “no shortcuts” mantra, it’s hard to imagine any of Downeast’s offerings falling flat.
But Downeast’s expansion plans are unlikely to distract Tyler and Ross from their flagship product. And that’s a good thing, because their success is bound to spawn imitators. You can be sure that the market is well aware of Downeast’s popularity, and it’s only a matter of time before an upstart brewery – or even one of the big guys – comes out with their own unfiltered craft cider. It’s a likelihood Tyler is well aware of. “The only way to avoid competition hindering our business is to stay ahead of it.”
I’d say they’ve got a pretty good head start.
If you’re a Downeast devotee and are looking to visit the command center, be patient – the Downeast Cider House isn’t officially open for tours yet. That will be changing, though, possibly as soon as next month. In the meantime, to learn more about the cider, check out the website. You’ll find plenty of amusing stories about Tyler, Ross, and the whole Downeast crew. They even offer cider-based cocktail recipes; I found the recipe for “Downeast on the Rocks” particularly compelling.
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