Craft beer is an industry on the move. Just ask anyone who has bothered to browse the beer aisle at their local supermarket or who has taken the time to lookup breweries and brewpubs in the local area- they will affirm that there are more craft beer choices, more interesting and unusual varieties, and more brands than they have ever seen before. The industry is enjoying a boom as of late, and more and more entrepreneurs continue to jump on the craft beer bandwagon, hoping to tantalize consumers and create the next award- winning product.
Craft beer is certainly a growing business, but there is a related business that, in percentage terms, is expanding at an even faster rate. The business is hard cider and it continues to win over fans who enjoy it as an alternative yet often equally enjoyable substitute for craft beer. In the Houston, Texas area, there is a newer cider business- one founded by a young and ambitious entrepreneur by the name of Jake Schiffer. The company is Leprechaun Cider and it has won over thousands of fans and critics who find its taste and quality superior to the majority of hard ciders on the market. I have had the opportunity to meet Mr. Shiffer on a few occasions and learn a little more about his business and what direction he expects it to take in the coming years. Here are his thoughtful responses to questions about his business and its future:
What got you interested in the business of cider?
When I was in college, I traveled abroad a great deal with friends. In my junior year, I lived for a total of 8 months in both Italy and Ireland, mainly Ireland. Cider is a staple beverage in the European community, all the way from Scandinavia to the south of Spain. Everywhere I went, I was introduced to local artisanal ciders or sidras. All of them had a unique, crisp, refreshing quality to them and I was a huge fan from the get-go. However, when I returned to the States and I went to the local pubs and stores to get an American equivalent, I was disappointed to learn there was none. All the ciders available were the “American Style” version, just like Europeans call our beers (pre-Craft Beer movement within the last few years). They tasted as though they were made very cheaply, very poorly. They seemed to be alcoholic candy drinks posing as “ciders.” I realized the opportunity immediately. If I could produce a cider that paralleled the best European ciders in quality and taste by sticking to the traditional methods, it could be the first of a new rising market, Premium Hard Cider, not just another overly sweet “American” hard cider.
Where are Leprechaun ciders presently brewed? Is there an open house/tour or other publicly- accessible venue for product fans?
When I started the company, I really wanted to build a cidery in Houston. Houston is not just my hometown, it’s also an amazing place where people are open to trying new things. Houston is a very individualistic community, and I knew cider had amazing potential here. And Houston clearly supports its local craft brewers. But my problem was two-fold: 1) The apples we needed to use do not grow in our climate in Texas or anywhere in the South, and even if they did, there are inadequate crushing facilities; and 2) Not many people in Houston had my experience abroad, and most were unaware at all what cider even was.
So when I started, I decided that, instead of throwing a whole bunch of money into a cider facility which might be idle much of the time while we grew the consciousness of Southerners about hard ciders (especially to the difference between premium and mass-produced ciders), we would do better to produce where our apples originate – Oregon. In our journey, we became friends with the owners of the largest orchard in the nation’s apple country, Oregon, just steps away from the Washington state line. We talked and came up with a plan – we’d produce and blend our ciders alongside them in Oregon, while we worked here and in other states to grow the market.
Which flavors of cider does Leprechaun currently offer?
The process of how we make our cider is very much what separates us from our competition. We produce our ciders with two varietals of hand-picked north-east Oregon apples at their prime ripeness. Then we crush the apples and ferment the juice in champagne yeast similar to the European style of producing cider. True cider base is extremely dry, so we needed to sweeten it a bit. But instead of adding back any granulated sugars, apple essences, malic acids, or apple concentrates, we add back fresh crushed apple juice for sweetness. It comes out to 6.9% ABV, 100% Gluten-Free, and zero added sugars. We currently offer two blends of year-round ciders, Golden and Dry Cider. The Golden is our “American Sweet” cider, where our Dry is our “European Dry Style” cider. We also will be coming out with what was our first highly successful seasonal, Pomegranate Cider, available year-round starting in February.
Where are Leprechaun products currently sold? What are the immediate plans for expansion?
In Texas, Leprechaun Cider can be found at all the major retail stores which sell craft beers. We like to tell people it’s the “diamond in the rough” because we are packaged in the universal craft beer bottle, a 22oz bomber. So most of our neighbors on the shelves are hard-core brews, where we are the hidden treasure, “Apple Prosecco,” of the lot. We’re sold in many outlets, but can almost always be found at most Whole Foods, Trader Joes, HEBs, Krogers, Central Markets, and Specs. We are also available in most craft beer and premium drink bars, as well as many restaurants in almost all major cities throughout Texas.
We have been approached for some time now to expand into new markets with our premium ciders for the same reason I started the company: as people all over the country learned that cider is an option they didn’t know about before, the demand was growing and the well from which to pull premium style ciders was dry. This wasn’t partial to just American states either; we have had exporters knocking on our doors from other countries where cider is taking off as well. Until a few months ago, we were solely available in Texas or sold online. Since September, however, we have slowly, and organically, expanded into new markets, including Minnesota, Louisiana, California, and Iowa. In terms of future expansion, we are very much an organic company. If the demand is there, and we can fill it, we will see what we can do.
Most are already familiar with the craft beer industry in Texas. How does the cider industry compare in terms of size?
In terms of Texas, the premium cider world is small. Craft beer growth in Texas is an amazing creature to watch and is such an exciting world to grow alongside of. Even though cider is a different style drink in terms of taste and manufacturing, we are packaged the same and poured the same – so in turn we get the same variety of fans. Where Leprechaun Ciders are being used in weddings instead of champagne, we are still alongside Stone and Russian River at craft beer festivals. So it is an interesting dynamic where cider “fits in” in American right now. It’s something that will be defined more clearly in a few years, but now it’s too much of a trailblazing market to know exactly where we fit. I personally think we fit everywhere. If you like cider, drink it. Doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are (over 21), who you’re drinking it with, or where you’re drinking it.
Where do you see the cider industry in the next five to ten years?
In the next five years, I see the cider industry still on its remarkable rise in popularity. Hard cider, especially premium ciders, not cheap, mass-produced ciders, will take the same route craft beer is taking right now, and I think they will still be in five years. In terms of something extremely marketable, I know the American consumer is looking for more bang for their buck. The craft beer movement is experiencing the same extreme boom as the cider demand in America. We are a country in a dire recession, but still these consumers demand premium beverages, food, and experiences, and will pay top dollar to get them. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to add some luxuries to their lives. There are too many people in the world getting mass-produced nonsense and most of the people who are interested in cider know that their individuality allows them to purchase what they want, not what they are being told to want. Until a few years ago, there were only about four ciders nationwide you could purchase. Most people are tired of them. They’re mainly mass-produced, and have left some people thinking they don’t like cider. I don’t blame them for that. But that’s where our premium blends come in. Our ciders have grown at an exponential rate since March of last year and we show no signs of stopping, and that’s just in Texas.
Texas has already overturned several of its restrictive beer laws, but many still remain on the books. Is Leprechaun Cider bound by the same laws? Are cider makers provided with more flexibility/leeway than craft breweries?
Cider is not classified as a malt beverage in Texas, but as a wine. In some ways, that places fewer restrictions on what we can and can’t do to market, both to the consumer and to the retailers. But it’s still a highly regulated industry, so we don’t have substantially more freedom than do beer producers. Texas, like many states, has severe restrictions on both breweries and wineries, places where the products are not only made, but served.
How does making cider compare to brewing beer? Can it be accomplished in the home, similar to making homebrew?
Of course! You can make ciders in your home just like craft brews. The same rules apply too. Make sure all your equipment is sterilized and clean. Make sure all of your ingredients are fresh. And watch it diligently. Nature does the rest of the work. Cider has fewer ingredients than does beer, only juice and yeast.
What is the best way for fans of Leprechaun Cider to keep up with the company’s news and events?
Leprechaun Cider Company is highly active when it comes to making sure anyone and everyone who is interested in Leprechaun Ciders get all the information they need on where they can get it. We have a map on our website which has not been updated in some time due to technical problems, but we are working on it. But if anyone emails us, email@example.com, we will help them find the places in their city where they can get a few bottles or score some pints. Also Leprechaun Cider Company is very much online. So follow us on Facebook,www.facebook.com/LeprechaunCider , as well as on Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, etc – @LeprechaunCider .
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting a cider- producing operation?
I would say best of luck and let me know if you’d need any help. It is a new and emerging market, but it’s a trailblazing one filled with tons of problems most new craft brewers don’t even have to deal with. Just like any owner of any successful craft brewery will tell you – it’s not just good drinks…it’s work.
Note: Article originally posted at Examiner.com