As a part of my research for becoming a homebrewing genius, I decided to send out interview questions to people behind my favorite breweries- hoping their answers would give me insight into the world of brewing and tips for how to avoid impending disaster.
Included in this list was a man named Joe Heron- Founder and CEO of Crispin Cider. While cider may not be craft beer, it IS an artisan beverage that I tend to enjoy. I had the pleasure of trying a bunch of Crispin wares (as well as ciders from Fox Barrel, another cider company that Joe runs) and I’ve been hooked ever since.
The following is a cut and paste insert of Joe’s answers to my questions about Cider and the beverage industry in general. Cheers!
1. What was your first cider experience?
Probably as a teenager in South Africa. Cider then, was what you drank if you didn’t like the taste of alcohol too much. And even then it was pretty much a “sweet-beer”, for people who didn’t like beer. South Africa has changed a lot since then with some fine ciders coming out of that country.
2. What inspired you to get into making cider?
The “dirty little secret” is this; I did not enjoy cider very much when Lesley & I started Crispin. So my involvement initially was purely entrepreneurial. Cider as a category was exploding worldwide. The cider over ice phenomenon had not yet hit the US in a meaningful way, and it is pretty common knowledge that much of the beer industry turns on a serving ritual (Corona with a lime, Blue Moon & an orange slice, Stella Artois’ focus on it’s Belgian chalice) so that was interesting. It was apparent that that market trajectory was not shared yet in the US. We also looked at data that showed that cider represented less than 1% of the US beer market, Vs +/-5% in most countries around the world, in the UK & Ireland it is around 15% (and growing rapidly) – so the commercial runway seemed very long. In our opinion the cider category had stagnated innovation, taste-profile and image wise. Ciders being mainly positioned as beer-alternatives for people who didn’t really like beer – rather than a standalone proud refreshment option. A little old-fashioned in imagery. That most large cider brands available were made using apple-wine fermented from apple-juice concentrate seemed totally contrary to cider integrity. We set out to make ciders that we would enjoy – dryer, a little more sophisticated. Ciders that would attract cider & NON-cider drinkers. Cider made with fresh pressed apple juice.
3. What is your favorite cider to brew and why? What is your favorite cider to drink (both your own creations and from other cideries as well) and why?
I don’t have any “favorite children”. But ….. our Artisanal Reserve unfiltered cloudy ciders are very boundary breaking. They are challenging to make in terms of mastering alternative ale yeasts, smoothing with natural sugars, and then maintaining product integrity with unfiltered apple-wine sediment/lees left in the bottle. These are truly “American” ciders. I find Crispin Original on draught sublime – full & rounded without being sweet, refreshing enough to drink a few. I love Crispin Honey Crisp, especially with food. Fox Barrel Pear is the easiest cider to drink in the world, in my humble opinion. Truthfully I like all our ciders at different times. We also do very, very small Limited Editions, usually ciders aged in wooden barrels that we are very proud of. Bonnie & Clyde is just great conceptually (true love can be dangerous) and intrinsically (heirloom apple-wine aged in Chardonnay barrels). We have many more coming out, some quite soon.
Final point – cider is not beer, and it is not “cider-beer”. Cider at it’s truest form is apple-wine. Cider is vinted like grape-wine in a cidery, an “applewinery” not a brewery. Cider is not “brewed”. And cider is alcoholic, everything else is apple-juice.
4. What is your favorite beverage event to attend, and why?
I really prefer events in good bars Vs giant beer-fests. I love talking to the bar owners, bar-tenders, and patrons on a personal level. There is a unique face and personality to every bar. The Firkin Fest at The Happy Gnome in St Paul is great, we have had Bonnie & Clyde events at Papago in Phoenix, Beer Bistro in Chicago, Matt Torrey’s in Brooklyn, to name a few. Max’s in Baltimore is a great bar who hosted us alongside Victory & Harpoon during American Craft Beer Week. I am really looking forward to some events in Rattle & Hum & The Blind Tiger, amongst others in NYC. Cider dinners pairing our ciders with appropriate food styles is enormous fun. We hosted a “Ciders & Sliders” dinner a short while ago – where all our ciders were paired with 6 slider “burger” courses from appetizer through dessert. Brilliant, delicious, fun.
5. What upcoming new cider styles should we look out for?
I think the first thing that is going to happen is a flood of standard, typical ciders coming to the market to try and gain a foothold in a fast-growing, yet undeveloped market. Fruit ciders, in particular Pear, will also gain currency as a more natural, tradeup, easy to drink refreshment option. At this moment in time Crispin is the only cider company really stretching the boundaries of cider styles. We work with novel yeasts, natural sugar sources, and barrel aging all the time. This is what makes us feel alive, and what makes us come alive.
6. Do you like craft beer? If so, what’s your favorite craft beer and why?
Yes. I think Victory Prima Pils is a work of art. I think people underestimate how hard it is to make an exceptional Pilsner. There is no place to hide in terms of malt, hops and ABV. Mike Lundell’s limited release India Style Rye Ale, part of St Paul’s Summit Brewing’s Unchained Series – is inspired. Truthfully I am a bit of a wuss with some of the more aggressive craft styles, I lose my ability to talk after more than one West Coast IPA – my tongue seems to become paralyzed. I need a knife and fork to drink some of Sam’s Dogfish Head beers.
7. Do you think there is an easy cross-over from craft beer drinkers to cider lovers? Which cross-over is easier: craft beer to cider or craft beer to wine?
Absolutely. There is a cross-over. Craft beer drinkers are open-minded imbibers. However craft beer drinkers are discerning and demanding. The selection is vast, and the drinker is promiscuous. The rational data shows that craft beer drinkers are twice as likely to drink cider as the general beer population. I believe that craft-beer drinkers drink craft beer instead of wine in the main, especially the core consumer. I think that cider is more part of a craft beer drinker’s repertoire than wine is.
8. What has been your hardest challenge with the creation and continued success of Crispin? What has been your greatest success/ defining moment with the creation and continued success of Crispin?
Ok. The greatest challenge we face is the category itself. It’s perception of being sweet-beer than can give you heartburn. The fact that we, as a start-up cider company, have to do most of the category heavy lifting to help elevate cider is also challenging. We also have a problem with developing cider evangelists. Perhaps this has been because there was nothing to evangelize about. But the craft beer universe is being built on the momentum of people who like beer, on the brewer as “rock-star” cult status, and a sheer open-minded embrace of experimentation and enjoyment. The cider-geek is a conservative ubertraditionalist to the point of Talibanesque dogma. A dogma that has resulted in American’s drinking more non-alcoholic beer than cider.
We at Crispin are far more inspired by Jim Koch, Ken Grossman, Greg Koch, Sam Calgione, Mark Stutrud & Bill Covaleski, than anyone in the cider fraternity. (To call the cider industry fraternal might be moot). We have no one of their stature in our industry.
Then, like every small company in this industry, distribution is challenging. Some distributors can really hurt you through indifference to the point of obstruction. We are fortunate to have a lot truly exceptional wholesalers, who are great people, and love us and our products – they are far the majority. The minority – some of whom are very large, are our biggest commercial challenge. That the Great American Beer Festival excludes cider might be an indication of how low in esteem the category is held in America.
Our greatest success has been the embrace of all our products by consumers and customers in 24 states and counting. I do believe that the launch of our Artisanal unfiltered Reserves started to define our creative personality, which led to the Limited Releases. In the industry, our acquisition of the Fox Barrel Cider Company and the cidery gave us the stature and credentials to be taken seriously.
We are not a company short of self-confidence, but we owe a few wholesalers our self-belief. Without them things would be very different.
We have a pocket full of Crispinite. It’s powerful stuff.
9. Tell us your most fun cider story.
The most fun I have in cider is having someone say. “I’m not really a ciderdrinker” – so 99% of beer drinkers, and then they go “wow that’s really good, different, delicious not sweet, I’ll have a little more, mmm, ok give me a glass”.
10. What is your take on the craft beverage community (beer, wine, alcohol, cider, mead, etc.)? What is your favorite thing about it? What could stand for some improvement?
Without getting in to multiple cliché’s-I love the sheer exuberance and confidence of the craft beer industry. I honestly think it illustrates everything great about America. It illustrates the values, attitudes and spirit that, through these trying times, the USA will end up being okay.
I am envious of the camaraderie in the craft beer fraternity, from the brewer side to the consumer side. People are supportive and embrace a collaborative, creative ethos that combined with competitive spirit is driving the growth of the category overall. We make the best beer in the world. I would challenge any one to counter that argument. (We also make the best cider in the world now.)
I am not informed enough about Mead to comment. But I am intrigued.
I love wine. And my personal tips are South African Chenin-Blanc, Australian Dry Riesling, Gimblett Gravells – New Zealand Syrah, Grenache/Garnacha from anywhere.
I am very interested in artisanal spirits. This is nascent in market development terms, but there is some cool stuff happening, often from craft brewers. I would love to develop something in this space. Frankly I think the relationship between craft beer drinkers and craft distilled spirits may be closer than craft beer is to wine.
I think the biggest challenge the craft beer industry faces is the sheer promiscuity of the core consumer. The consumer is faced with such a barrage of (interesting) alternatives in flavors, formats and from excellent breweries, that consumer loyalty is possibly dead. I find the domination of seasonal varieties alarming – when Seasonals are the top sellers the head is starting to eat the tail. IMHO.
I am not a craft-brewer. And my status is such that my opinion carries little weight. From my individual seat and opinion, I wonder which is more important to craft brewers now – complexity Vs refreshment, and I wonder how the consumer feels about this? And how many IPA’s can possibly be sustained?