“Super-premium” is not a modifier typically applied to hard cider beverages. Long a bastardized beer alternative — viewed as a sweet, fruity beverage for the underage and otherwise naive — cider has suffered mightily in the United States, a step or two above Zima but not particularly worth considering on its own merits.
“It’s the Smirnoff Ice of my generation,” says Crispin Cider CEO and founder Joe Heron. “It’s for people who don’t really like beer. My friend Scott came around and asked: ‘Do you drink cider?’ And I said, ‘Not really.’ And he said: ‘In the UK, we drink it over ice.’ And for me there was this intuitive logic, that really sounds quite good! That sounds refreshing…”
Heron had sold a thriving beverage business — the Hopkins-based airforce Nutrisoda — to PepsiAmericas in Jan. 2006, and was looking for his next move. Cider caught his eye.
“I started looking around around at domestic cider, and it was of really poor quality,” he says. “Really sweet. You had these traditional sweet brands like Woodchuck or Hornsby’s that weren’t very good. People knew about cider, but nobody was really doing anything to get people to reconsider cider.”
Heron points out that cider’s history runs deep in the States. “The original American drink is cider,” he says. “Johnny Appleseed planted apple trees to make cider. John Adams would drink a pint of cider every morning.”
As Heron played with the idea of jumping into the cider market, he first faced the challenge of how to differentiate his product. The first question came down to the make procedure.
“People would tell us, ‘buy apple wine from Canada, bring it down, and dilute it with spirits,'” he recalls. “Spirits are cheap… apple wine comes in at about 10 percent [alcohol by volume] and you dilute it to 2 percent and then add 3 percent spirits. And that just doesn’t sound premium to me.”
The answer came from Northern California, where the Minneapolis-headquartered Crispin Cider is produced. “We found a small cidery in Northern California, who made cider in the classic French style, very soft, from pure apple juice, and then we knew we could do it.” He launched Crispin Cider Company in the fourth quarter of 2008.
Heron says that Crispin’s flavor profile parts ways with the competition based on how the product is made.
“Once you’ve got the level of alcohol that you want, it’s a little rough — it’s not like red wine which inherently has the right taste,” he says. “Most people add sugar. We don’t. We get pure apple juice, and we smooth it out with apple concentrate. And that’s why you open it and you smell it, you get a big apple nose — it’s apple wine, water, apple concentrate, and natural apple flavors — you get a consistent flavor over time.”
A lack of preservatives and colorants also help to give Crispin a look and feel that sets it apart from its competition. “From a product point of view, we tried to give it more of a wine feel,” Heron adds.
Crispin’s flavor profile may be more remarkable for it’s not than what it is; unlike the majority of widely available cider beverages, the stuff is not cloying, overly sweet, artificially colored, or hamfisted. Brut — restrained, almost dry in flavor with a delicate floral / apple nose — could easily substitute gastronomically for champagne. “I love Brut with sushi,” says Heron.
The original variety of Crispin is a bit sweeter and more distinctly apple-inflected, and can stand up to strong flavors in food without punching the “apple” note to death. “I think Original is the best drink ever for spicy food, in the same way as a dry Riesling or Gerwurtztraminer will not be overpowered by [strong flavors],” says Heron.
The Light variety is the one weak link in the lineup — it’s arguably too retiring, dangerously close to sparkling water passed over apples once or twice on the way to the bottle.
Crispin mixes remarkably well, at least in the one application the Heavy Table sampled: the Crispin Velvet (left). A simple drink, the Crispin Velvet is just a modified black-and-tan (Guinness floated atop Crispin instead of Bass or Harp). It’s got all the Guinness depth and smoke, with a profoundly smooth and crisp aftertaste. There’s no collision between Guinness and apple; the two marry well.
At the moment, Crispin shows up at liquor stores including MGM, Haskell’s, and Surdyk’s, and at restaurants such as Red Stag, Heidi’s, and Meritage — unusually high-end destinations for a beverage typically pegged as lowbrow. The product has good distribution throughout Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Chicagoland — Heron says a sweep into Wisconsin is next on the agenda, followed perhaps by Colorado and Arizona.
Looking forward, Heron — who says the Crispin customer base is split almost evenly along gender lines — sees potential to win over craft beer and wine drinkers.
“Our biggest challenge was to make it appeal to men,” he says. “We appeal to a more sophisticated guy who is drinking more interesting beers and is in the wine universe. Women have always been more experimental consumers.”
“We wouldn’t even attempt to change a Bud guy,” he adds. With the way that craft beer consumption has increased in recent years, that business plan may spell years of healthy growth for the fledgling company.