Spotting a trio of 20-somethings tipping back glasses of hard cider at Mainely Brews in Waterville isn’t out of the ordinary.
What is: Discovering that the three have fermented the beverage themselves, and here, on a Thursday afternoon in early January, they’re tasting it fresh from the keg for the very first time.
“It’s good,” said Ross Brockman, 23, one of the three recent Bates College graduates behind Downeast Cider House, a hard cider company based in Waterville. “I mean, we knew it was good. But you wonder how it’s going to pour the first time.”
Downeast Cider House officially launched three weeks ago when it delivered its first kegs of hard cider to a handful of bars in Waterville, Richmond and Portland.
Brockman and fellow co-founders Ben Manter, 24, and Tyler Mosher, 23, have done plenty of sampling over the last nine months since deciding to start a hard cider company.
Mosher’s father was the first to suggest the idea, but the concept, they said, had been staring them the in face all along. Manter grew up on an apple orchard in Vassalboro, and bushels were continually finding their way to campus. And of the hard cider options already out there, they found none to be very appealing.
So what were three soon-to-be college graduates to do?
Manter began a semester-long thesis on fermenting. “I told my teacher, ‘This is what I want to do with my life,’ ” he said.
And the trial and error process of measuring, mixing, tasting and tweaking began.
“There was a lot of error,” Mosher joked. Sixty-four errors, in fact. That’s how many recipes it took to arrive at the final version. That’s the “holy shucks, this is really good stuff” version, according to Manter. (The worst-tasting of them all sits in a place of semi-honor in the fermenting room. “In five years, that stuff is going to be gold,” said Mosher.)
Hard cider drinkers in Maine can now sip for themselves at Mainely Brews and 18 Below Raw Bar, Grill & Lounge in Waterville; The Bag and Kettle in Carrabassett Valley; The Old Goat in Richmond; The Thirsty Pig and Nosh Kitchen Bar in Portland; and a growing list of others.
Downeast Cider’s presence in those establishments is a testament to the trio’s determination amid bank loan rejections and naysaying college buddies who weren’t certain about the idea.
“We had discussions (with other friends) on our couches,” Brockman said. The response to their proposed venture had been heavy on skepticism: “You guys are idiots” and “It’s not going beyond this room.”
But the idea did go beyond that room. And now it’s expanding from a home base inside a repurposed mill off Water Street in Waterville, where in January the indoor temperature rivaled the outdoor temperature and the scent of fermenting cider filled every inch of the space.
The fermenting room houses two lumbering, 1,000-gallon tanks. Charts tacked to the wall keep track of the process – the cider’s journey takes about 16 days to go from freshly pressed apples, shipped from Ricker Hill Farm in Turner, to kegged Downeast Cider.
Over the next six months to a year, Manter, Brockman and Mosher are looking to have the cider in 20 Maine bars and restaurants.
“We want to make a good product, but at scale,” said Brockman. “Not make any sacrifices.”
And they want to take time learning the industry and gaining feedback.
Getting there, they said, is just a matter of taste.
“It’s just about getting them to try it,” said Mosher. “They try it, they like it. If they talk to us, we can tell them who we are, why we think this is different.”
Eventually, they’re also hoping to make Downeast Cider available in cans. Until then, Mainely Brews customers like Travis Simpson of Fairfield don’t mind being among the first to sample a glass.
“It’s awesome. It’s like a treat,” Simpson said. “I like it because it’s not too sweet.”
Despite the compliments, Mosher, Manter and Brockman aren’t getting ahead of themselves.
“People say, ‘Congratulations,’ ” said Brockman. “But we haven’t done anything yet.”
Well, they have brought a drinkable idea across the dorm room threshold and into the hands of Maine’s hard cider lovers. And Maine’s soon-to-be hard cider lovers.
Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be reached at 780-9424 or at: [email protected]