Woodchuck Hard Cider unveiled a new facility in Middlebury, Vermont Wednesday. The $34-million, 100,000 square-foot cidery can fill and cap 600 bottles a minute of crisp alcohol made from fermented apple juice, the company said. "We are poised for growth," CEO Dan Rowell said. “And with the cider category exploding, we expect to get our fair share of that.”
The new digs are a far cry from the humble garage in Proctorsville where Woodchuck was first made, bottled by hand, in 1991. Today, hard cider accounts for just about 1 percent of the U.S. beer market, Rowell said, but with customers eager to try new flavors, he's seen huge sales increases in recent years. Woodchuck sold 2.8-million cases of the naturally gluten-free beverage last year alone, Rowell said. "Do I think cider in America can be 5 percent of the beer market? Yeah. It is, in some states, already," he added.
Hard cider was a favorite drink in colonial America, and has been experiencing a rebirth in recent years. For its future growth, the hard cider industry is looking to Congress for help. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the federal definition of cider is outdated and needs to change. "They shouldn't be put at a disadvantage," Leahy said of hard cider makers.
Leahy told New England Cable News that under current law, hard cider can only have seven percent alcohol by volume before it's taxed as wine, which comes with a higher tax rate. It can only have a certain amount of carbonation before bottlers are taxed even more, as if the drink were sparkling wine, Leahy added. Being able to increase carbonation levels would help meet what consumers are asking for, Rowell said.
Leahy-backed legislation would change those tax rules. "We want to make sure they can all compete," Leahy said.
Lisa Gosselin, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic Development, said the food and drink sector is a major job creator. More than 100 Vermonters work at Vermont Hard Cider, the company said. Gosselin added that good food and drink are also big draws in this tourism-dependent state.
Woodchuck has a large tasting room and gift shop that are open to the public Thursdays through Mondays. The room boasts a 20-tap draft system to show off Woodchuck Ciders and experimental ciders that are only available on-site, the company said.
"I think increasingly, food and beverage are really becoming ambassadors for Vermont," Gosselin told NECN. "We are actually seeing people travel here to taste our beers, to try our cheeses, and I think, increasingly, we are going to see it for our ciders."
Fruit growers are also toasting hard cider's success, saying expansions create more opportunities for the agriculture sector. In a 2013 press release about Leahy's role in the excise tax reduction effort, Terry Bradshaw of the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association, said, "Vermont apple growers and cidermakers strongly support Senator Leahy's proposed changes to federal hard cider tax law. Apples - grown on nearly 4,000 acres of land in the state - are the second-most valuable specialty crop in Vermont with a farmgate value of over $15 million. Expansion of high-value processed apple products, like hard cider, could significantly increase opportunities for regional and U.S. apple growers. The hard cider market is rapidly expanding, but outdated tax policies will hamper this growth that promises to increase jobs, support farms, and enhance the quality of life throughout rural communities in Vermont."
Leahy could not say when the tax change proposals may see action in Congress, but told NECN he is confident they will eventually become a reality.