Brad Page co-founded CooperSmith's Pub & Brewing in Fort Collins in 1989, and subsequently launched a brewery in Buenos Aires, Argentina, before gravitating back to cider in 2011.
"We'd always toyed with the idea of cider, but the timing wasn't right for us -- or cider," says Page, who launched Colorado Cider with his wife, Kathe.
The company has an apple orchard in Hotchkiss with 1,000 apple trees planted this year and plans for another 2,000 in 2014. It will be able to use fruit from its own orchards by 2018 or so, and now sources apples from growers in Colorado, Michigan, and elsewhere.
The growing/cider-making integration is not the industry norm, as growers would rather focus on sweet dessert apples instead of the tannin-rich varieties that are better for fermenting.
"People are used to dessert apples," says Page. "They're sweet for eating, but they're not good for fermenting. Making cider from dessert apples is like making beer from just rice and corn."
Heirloom apples were common in the U.S. in the 1800s and early 1900s, but Prohibition and industrialized agriculture stymied cultivation of a "bazillion" varieties, Page explains. . "We need to get growers growing these varieties again. The apples we know today were chosen because they ship well. Cider apples were selected over time for making alcohol."
That's not the case in Europe, especially the UK, where a whopping half of the word's cider is consumed. But in the US, the industry is much less mature, a century after its original heyday came to an end.
"The UK has a whole range of ciders, from white ciders to aged ciders," he adds. "That's what we aspire to."
To this end, Colorado Cider makes eight different ciders.
Most alcoholic ciders are blends to balance the fruit's acids and sugars, and thus Colorado Cider's orchards have nine heirloom apple varieties growing in them. Of the nine, only Kingston Blacks make good cider on their own, says Page. The cider-making process is more akin to wine production than brewing, he adds, largely because of its dependence on quality fruit.
The craft-cider formula is quickly winning converts in Denver. After making 10,000 gallons in 2012, Colorado Cider is on track for 22,000 in 2013, and a recent $175,000 expansion has the capacity for more than 60,000 in 2014. Page says he expects to get most of the way there by this time next year.
Currently, about two-thirds of Colorado Cider's sales are draft accounts and one-third are bottles, but Page says he's aiming for a more even balance in coming years. "Back in the early days, all the microbreweries were on draft -- nobody bottled," he notes.
He says the cider industry in 2013 is comparable to the beer industry in 1985, and the market needs some time to develop a palate. Saisons were considered "infected" in the 1980s. "People used to spit it out," says Page. "Now you pay $5 extra for it."
Challenges: "It's a much more time-consuming process than brewing," say Page, a fact that makes finance tricky. Access to fruit in Denver is also difficult. "The apple industry in the last 20 years has shrunk dramatically in Colorado," says Page, noting that the "big three" apple states are Washington, Michigan, and New York.
Opportunities: In the U.K., the market for cider is one-sixth the size of the beer market, while in the U.S. it's less than 1 percent. "There's huge room for growth," says Page.
Needs: Better cider legislation. "It's crazy the way cider is regulated," says Page, noting it's in a "no man's land" between wine and beer from a tax and regulatory standpoint. To push for reform, Colorado Cider is a member of the U.S. Association of Cider Makers, and is behind federal legislation that will re-categorize cider.