From Hobby to Tasty Success: Empire Cider
This is a Bay of Quinte Craft Success Story, part of Canada’s Largest Rural Craft Beer and Craft Cider Regin. Learn more at http://quintecraft.ca
Entrepreneurship is often accidental. A person has a hobby or passionate activity and through varied and often random circumstances, great timing and hard work, find themselves turning that passion into a fulfilling business.
And it’s a bonus when this new enterprise is on the leading edge of a new trend – one that combines a tasty, old-world traditional beverage and a nod to the region’s heritage alongside a very contemporary desire to ‘shop local.’
This is precisely what happened with Chris McRae and his wife Jennifer Jarrell McRae and their Empire Cider Company. The Codrington, ON, couple, and their partners Laura and Felix Wittholz opened for business in 2015 at 222 Old Wooler Rd., in Codrington, and have not looked back. And it all started with Chris’s love for old-school cider.
“I’d been making it for quite a few years so it was obviously in pretty small batches. But people really liked it when they tried it. It was on Thanksgiving 2013 actually that we decided to make a go of it and started getting organized at that point. And at the time the industry was starting to really gear up, and it’s still growing and expanding. And at the time it just seemed like a good idea. We had a fairly large property here and wanted to do something with it, and this seemed like a good fit,” said Chris McRae.
“I had always liked craft stuff: craft beer, craft cider, artisan cheese, and local wine. I enjoy the odd beverage and I just wanted to see if I could make something that I would like for myself. To make the quality of beer you’d want would need a lot of equipment, whereas with natural cider you don’t need too much to make it. We live in the heart of apple country so there’s no shortage of the raw materials around. So I started about seven or eight years ago, making it on an old antique wooden-framed press. I was making batches for friends and family and I was getting a really good response from anyone who tried it. And that’s what sort of convinced us to give it a go.”
There were various challenges along the way, as with any business operation involving food or beverages, but the McRaes persevered.
“You have to get the co-operation of your municipality so that’s kind of step one, because they have to have something in place to say it’s allowed to take place within their borders. Then you have to go to the federal government and get an excise licence and then after you receive that you can apply through the LCBO, AGCO (Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario) and start going down the path for a manufacturer’s licence,” he said.
“It took about a year to get everything in place when you also include all the inspections, because they want to look at the property and make sure it was sufficient size and things of that nature. Because we have a retail outlet on the property, you have to have a certain amount of fruit growing on the property itself. If you are just going to serve licensees like bars and restaurants, you don’t need to have fruit growing on your property.”
Part of the allure of Empire’s cider is the rustic simplicity behind how it’s made, hearkening back over the centuries to when cider was a key part of the average diet in Europe and England at a time when water was considered to be too fouled, polluted and dangerous to drink as we do today.
“I try to keep it what I call ‘close to the tree.’ We don’t add much to it. I try to do it how they made cider hundreds of years ago. Cider was one of the most popular pre-prohibition drinks in this area and many other areas of North America and Britain all the way back to medieval times. I try to make it how they would have made it – no filtering, without the use of any additives or preservatives. You just literally press the apples and ferment them, and then get the flavours from blending as opposed to adding something to it,” he explained.
“We don’t force carbonate either. All the bubbles that are in there come from natural carbonation, and to get that from some of our varieties we use honey from a neighbouring farm. It’s a great way to produce unique beverages without having to go down the chemical path. And I think I am tying into the trend where people are also looking back to how we shopped and supported local business back a hundred years or even 50 years ago.
“That’s the way a community worked: you bought your beef from the local beef farmer; people got their vegetables from the local market and got their beer or cider from the local brewery. There’s a big movement out there to buy local and for people to know where their food is coming from. And it’s funny because it may be a trend today, but it was the way of life for our grandparents and great-grandparents.”
Located in the Bay of Quinte region, which also happens to be the heart of United Empire Loyalist country, pretty much every aspect of the McRaes’ branding and marketing strategy pays homage to area heritage. The Loyalists were groups of families who sided with the Crown during the American Revolution, and who were often rewarded with land grants in what was then called British North America, later Upper Canada, and now Ontario, in the 1780s and 1790s.
“I am a descendant of United Empire Loyalists so there’s a real tie there. Part of the early history of this region would have been cider. There’s the Empire apple which is a popular type in this region, and I think a lot of the wineries and breweries also have some sort of connection to the heritage in the area and we’re all kind of celebrating it to one degree or another,” McRae said.
The branding of some of the Empire Cider varieties also ties in to some more recent local legends.
“Dark Star was named after the 1953 Kentucky Derby winner, and the trainer was E.C. Hayward who was raised in nearby Brighton. We thought that was kind of a cool little thing that probably not a lot of people from outside Brighton know. And then we do one that’s kind of a throwback to the rum runners of Prohibition,” said McRae, adding that legendary local rum runner Ben Kerr had the fastest boat on Lake Ontario and made regular trips back and forth across to upstate New York. Over the winter of 1928/29 he made a run to Rochester but never came back – his death has never been solved. The Midnight Run blend was named for him.
“I have those two and then one called Extra Dry, and those are the three staples that I have all year round. In a year I might do a total of seven different varieties, just experimenting. We teamed up with Church Key Brewery once a year for the past couple of years to do a cider or an Apple Ale. I do a batch with wild apples every year, just for something different. We go out and pick from all the old trees for Wild Thing and it tastes different every year depending on which trees are producing. And last October we did something called Monster Mash where I used frozen apples and I pressed them in the spring and let them ferment until the fall. We also did a hops variety last summer and we might do that again. It’s fun trying new things, and our customers seem to really enjoy seeing what we’ll pull out from year to year.”
Much like the related craft beer movement, locally-produced, traditional cider is becoming more and more popular with beverage drinkers throughout the province.
“I think people realize, if they really look at it, that this isn’t a new thing. This is the way things had always been for generations. Everyone wasn’t shopping at Costco or Wal Mart in our parents’ or grandparents’ time. So I think it’s a change across the board, not just in the alcohol and food sectors, and it’s a good trend to see,” he said.
McRae said that because of the high tax rate producers of cider face when selling to restaurants and pubs, they have been very strategic in finding partners, particularly in large cities like Toronto, where they perceive they will get the most bang for their buck and receive the warmest welcome from the appropriate cider drinking demographic.
“We’re trying to hit the crowd that would go to a place like The Drake Hotel – a little more hip crowd, and sometimes it’s a bit of an older crowd. We try to do that in Kingston as well, get into those trendy restaurants and places where some of the students might go. You really do have to be smart about it,” he said.
“And we tried some farmers markets last year and that was a huge success. We will expand that aspect and try to do even more in the future. That being said, we’re not looking to be huge. We want to try and change people’s attitudes and educate them as to what cider really is and what it really should be. Farmers markets are a great way to do that and show people what cider should actually taste like when it comes directly from the tree.”
And again mirroring with vibe within the Bay of Quinte’s craft beer sector, McRae said the business climate is remarkably supportive and collegial.
“I think in this region the more the merrier. In this region there’s a couple of other places making cider, and we’re only tapping into two or three per cent of the overall Ontario market. So the more the merrier. It does the whole craft industry as a whole good. For both craft beer and craft cider it has to be a co-operative and community-minded mindset. There can’t be competition when you’re trying to expand a whole industry, because none of us are going to be big enough to do it on our own,” he said.
For more information, visit www.empirecider.ca.