Hard cider maker opens downtown production facility
Using apples grown at a North Carolina farm, Bull City Ciderworks is making batches of golden-colored, gluten-free hard cider in a new production facility in downtown Durham.
Located at 113 S. Elizabeth St. next to an operating auto mechanic business and inside an industrial building, it started production in May and began selling cider earlier this month. It’s the only cider maker producing hard cider in Durham right now.
“It’s a great, refreshing beverage,” said John Clowney, who is one of the five friends and business partners behind the new venture. He had just taken a sip from a glass of one of the cider house’s brews, a dry cider called Brightleaf.
He had poured a glass from a jug-like container called a growler. It was set out on a pull-down bar that he and his partners built inside their production facility using reclaimed wood from the former Joe’s Crab Shack off Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard.
They made the bar so they can sell cider on-site at the facility. Already, they’re selling their cider at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and at the Durham restaurants ’Que, the Litter Dipper, and Mattie B’s Public House, Clowney said. Soon, they plan to sell cider to local bottle shops and grocery stores.
Behind the bar, they have two large, 1,500-gallon vats where they’re making new batches of cider. They have smaller tanks as well that were used to make their first batches of cider. A cold storage facility at the facility now contains their dry Brightleaf cider that was made in their first production runs.
“We’re big do-it-yourselfers,” said Ryan Bogard, who is the cider maker for Bull Ciderworks and one of the five partners behind the business. He and Clowney pointed to work they’ve done themselves to set up the production facility.
They have installed pipes in the walls, assembled their own cold storage room, and put together a microprocessor that controls the temperature inside the fermentation tanks. They can use their smartphones to check and control the temperature of the tanks.
Bogard, a former doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, grew the yeast that they use in the cider fermentation process. In addition to capitalizing on Bogard’s experience in the lab in the cider business, they’ve also used the expertise of other partners in real estate, law, and other areas of other partners to help launch the business.
Bogard, Clowney and one other partner were already avid home beer brewers before they began making cider. They first started testing out making cider in Bogard’s back yard last year, grinding apples using a modified sink garbage disposal and mashing them using a hand-crank press.
Before they got the idea for cider production, they had been knocking around the idea of starting a brewery. But Bogard said his eyes were opened to cider after moving to Boston.
“In Massachusetts, there is incredible cider,” he said. “There’s tons of them,” he added, and many unique varieties of apples.
They see an opportunity instead for ciders in North Carolina, which has a sizable craft beer industry, but a smaller craft cider business.
There are nine hard cider makers in operation in the state, according to The Cyder Market, an information provider on cider, and two others are planning to open in the Charlotte area. The vast majority of the state’s existing cider producers started in the last several years.
“Since 2008, the cider industry just took off in America,” said Dale Brown, managing partner for The Cyder Market. “And in North Carolina, it really took off in the past two to three years.”
Cider is still a niche segment of the overall U.S. alcoholic beverage market, according to IBISWorld Inc.’s report “Wineries in the US,” but cider sales have accelerated “rapidly” in the last five years.
The report said the market right now is largely dominated by five brands: Woodchuck, Crispin, and Ace, along with the Irish imports Strongbow and Magners, but growing demand has led to new market entrants and new-product launches. That includes Boston Beer Co.'s Angry Orchard and Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Ultra Cider. And IBISWorld expects the cider market to continue to grow through 2019.
“It’s growing at a phenomenal rate, and I think it will continue for quite some time,” Clowney said of the cider market.
He said the drink has a fresh, clean taste, and there is room for experimentation on flavor. Cider producers have experimented with fruit blends. Bull City Ciderworks is looking to try a blueberry blend as well as ginger and cinnamon flavors, he said. And Bogard said they plan to make ciders with additional apple varieties in the future.
Right now, in addition to selling Brightleaf in kegs, sixtels and growlers, they also have a sweeter cider called Sweet Caroline in production, along with their flagship cider, “Off Main.” Bull City Ciderworks’ hours at the facility on Saturday are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The cost is $13 for a growler. Pints, which were not available as of Wednesday, will be $5. For information, go to the website http://www.bullcityciderworks.com/ciders/.