Cider making can be a fun and easy way to mix up your brewing schedule and pipeline. “Brewing” time can be as little as a few minutes; far shorter than any brew day. It also can be highly technical, with acid or tannin additions. Sometimes, even after you have done all of the right things and followed all of the right steps, the dreaded “rhino farts” may emerge from the carboy, necessitating measures to combat and dissipate the unwanted sulphur.
You can buy store bought juice, source local cider juice, or rent or borrow a press and produce the juice yourself. I have heard of people making great, even award-winning cider from juice bought at discount at a big box store. I, however, have always thought that similar to cooking—you cannot beat using fresh and local ingredients. Living out in the suburbs, I knew of a local orchard that every fall would sell freshly pressed cider juice. This cloudy, hazy juice had a fresh, vibrant apple flavour like no other. One day I asked the owner if I could bring a carboy to buy 20L worth. He had no problem and happily filled up my carboy straight from one of their holding tanks.
The cider turned out great, and one evening as I was enjoying a glass of it and nerding out on Youtube brewing videos, I came across one of the old Brewing TV episodes where they showed a homebrew club which had organized a bulk cider purchase. In the video they showed a club dispensing carboys and buckets worth from a large tank on a flatbed truck. I thought to myself, “It would be great if our local VanBrewers club could do this.” I pitched the idea to the club at the next meeting, and received some support, but still questioned whether we could pull this off. We ended up dispensing over 1,500L that year! Since then, the annual cider buy has been something many in the club look forward to in the fall months.
Every November, a truck rolls in from the Taves Family Farms Applebarn orchard located in Abbotsford, BC, and we dispense pre-paid 20L quantities of delicious recently-pressed, unfiltered and unpasteurized cider juice. The cider juice is made from “eating apple” varieties—Jonagold, Honeycrisp, and others form a delicious blend. The cider ends up great, and a number of members have won medals in the Canadian Brewer of the Year homebrew competition circuit.
In the years since, the orchard has also found ways to make use of their apple press for other juices to purchase in smaller quantities, often packaged in 1 to 4L (and some 15L) containers. These have included gooseberry, white currant, red currant, black currant, and pear. This year we are looking forward to having goji berries pressed and sold in smaller quantities. These other fruits make great additions to the cider, or other creations, such as fruit beer, sour beer, mead, and others. It also provides a way to make use of fruit, which may otherwise go to waste. For example, gooseberries grow on a very thorny bush. Some have a low gooseberry to thorn ratio, which makes it unfeasible to harvest the fruit for sale in a traditional pint container. The orchard owner found that instead of letting good gooseberries go to waste, he could run them through his press while the thorn material adds a bit of filtration in the pressing process.
Our delivery is at a homebrew shop; Centennial Homebrewing Supplies located in Vancouver, BC. The shop stays open a few hours extra, and is the hub for the cider order. Within 2 hours we are able to efficiently dispense around 1,600 to 1,800L of cider juice.
Below I will share some pointers and lessons-learned so that you can bring an opportunity like this do this to your local club.
- Find an orchard and understand their requirements. Call around. Visit the orchards, taste their cider juice. Talk to the growers. Establish a minimum order volume. We found that the minimum volume was 750L to make it financially viable for the orchard we work with, without having to push prices up significantly. Some of these orchards may be an hour or more away from where you will be dispensing the cider, so there is some transportation cost.
- Price Point. There should be some cost savings against buying the individual bottles packaged in 2L or 4L containers. However, we do not haggle or drive their price down. These farmers work hard and take pride in their products, so ask them to make sure the price works for them first and foremost. Our club applies a slight mark-up to raise funds for the club so that we re-invest it in the club and club activities.
- Make it members only. At first we opened the order form to anybody who follows our club Facebook page. Not surprisingly the only no-shows were ever from non-club members. I would get emails the day before cider delivery day saying, “What other days this week are you going to be there? I can’t make it.” When we switched to members-only, we really didn’t see a reduction in order volume. If a non-member wanted juice, they either joined the club or asked a friend who was a club member to pick up for them.
- Figure out your timelines.Work backwards from the date of delivery. The orchard will need at least a week or two to fit this bulk volume into their juice pressing schedule. Your club treasurer may need a week to send out invoices and confirm payment prior to finalizing the order with the orchard. Also, you will need to have the order form up for at least a few weeks; be prepared as every year there is somebody messaging you that they just heard about the order and want to get theirs in.
- Get commitment. We set up a Google Doc, which has drop-down menus to allow for members to input their order. We ask for their name, confirmation of club membership (which we check to see if they are members in good standing), and contact details. We settled on a standard volume of 20L for cider. Members can buy as many increments of 20L they wish. This is much simpler than seeing orders of 16L, 19L, 20L, 23L, etc. They can also indicate on the order form which of the other specialty juices they will be ordering.
- Get payment up-front. The first few years we worked on a cash basis. Then the day of delivery, I would end up with a pocket with over $2,000 in cash, then somehow we would find out we were shorted by somebody who didn’t pay. I am almost certain that we were shorted a few times by non-members who came in and filled their carboy and snuck out. Members won’t do something like that. In the past few years we have sent a PayPal invoice to each member a week after the order form is taken offline. We lock in the order volumes and quantities. After receiving and confirming payment, we will then send the final numbers and quantities to the orchard, and cut them a cheque on day of delivery. Typically for cider, we will bulk up our overall order volume by 10% or so. This gives some contingency, as there will be some spills the day of the order.
- Establish a delivery location. The first few years we would deliver at a local craft brewery, and we were allowed to use a part of their warehouse. This became a bit hectic at times, as the brewery was running a 24/7 operation, with forklifts and trucks whizzing by. We had some good experiences, but recently we have had a better experience by working with a local homebrew shop. This location is central to members, and also to the orchard owner, as it is located just off of the main highway. We encourage members to pick up their cider making supplies, such as yeast and yeast nutrient, or to buy their supplies for their next batch of beer to show gratitude. Brian, the Owner of Centennial Homebrewing Supplies, provides snacks, and members bring in a few bottles of home brew to share.
- Prepare for delivery. Ask members to bring their containers pre-sanitized, and to mark them to the 20L mark. Claim a spot on level ground where the delivery truck or flat bed can park without issue. There needs to be safe clearance for people to come on through with their carboys and buckets. Bring a flashlight. Having a few volunteers helps; you can have somebody managing the traffic, ensuring that people line up. Also having somebody distributing the various smaller containers of specialty juices helps. Additionally, bring some sanitizer spray and funnels, depending on how you are dispensing into the containers.
- Establish a strict time-window for delivery. We set a 2-hour window, you snooze; you lose. We rarely have anybody fail to show up. Once we get to the last half hour or so, we will get on the phone. Any unclaimed cider juice will then go to the volunteers who’ve showed up to help out.
- Share the fruits of your labour. Every February, we ask all members who made ciders or other concoctions from the fall order, to bring them to the meeting for a tasting. We invite the orchard owner to attend, and have had presentations on cider making and progress on the orchard.
As we are going into the 7th annual VanBrewers cider order, we are excited to now see traditional cider apple varieties as part of this year’s juice blend. After seeing the support our club had shown, the Taves Family Farms Applebarn devoted a number of acres to growing traditional cider apples, the varieties being Dabinette, Yarlington Mill, Cap of Liberty, and Major. These are smaller apples, which are more tannic and sharp in nature, and they will give a great complexity to the cider. After the orchard spending time and effort over the past 5 years to grow these apple trees, we are excited to have them available to order. This is a really cool positive feedback loop – in supporting the orchard, they are supporting us. Coupled with the homebrew shop we have the delivery at, it’s a win-win-win situation for all.
Alvaro Reyes is an engineer and homebrewer based out of Surrey, BC. He enjoys pushing the boundaries of brewing by bringing flavours, stories, and history together in his fermented creations. He has been a member of the VanBrewers club since 2012, acting as meetings director, sponsorship coordinator, and cider buy coordinator.