Fox Barrel Group

Joe Heron, president and chief executive officer of Crispin Hard Cider Co., says the Minneapolis-based company is not your traditional cider company. Whether it’s the company’s use of unpasteurized fresh-pressed juice or its historic and pop culture references in the names of its products, Crispin is seeking a point of differentiation in the hard cider market.

Although this is Heron’s first experience with running an alcohol cider company, he is not new to the beverage market. Heron and his wife owned the nutrient-enhanced soft drink Nutrisoda before selling the brand to PepsiAmericas in 2006. However, Heron’s inspiration to enter the cider market came from his interest in market space in terms of innovation and imagery, he says. Heron explains the intrigue started when a friend told him that in Europe more and more people were beginning to enjoy cider while drinking it over ice.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty interesting,’ and I started looking at the cider category, which had been quite static for a while,” he says. “… There seemed to be space to do a more premium offering, a more sophisticated proposition image-wise, and an opportunity to take the intrinsic differentiation higher in terms of using fermented fresh-pressed juice as opposed to fermenting apple juice concentrate.” 

The brand launched in October 2008 under the name Crispin, which is in reference to the fundamental quality of apples: crispness, Heron says.

Now the brand is available in 42 states and is in the process of going national. Crispin reported a 307 percent increase in dollar sales for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 30, 2011, in supermarkets, drug stores, gas and convenience stores and mass market retailers excluding Walmart, according to data from Chicago-based SymphonyIRI Group. The overall cider category has increased 25 percent in that same time period, the market research firm states.


Juicy notes

What Heron says differentiates Crispin in the cider market is its use of unpasteurized fresh-pressed apple juice.

“Think about this: would you drink red wine made from red grape juice concentrate? You wouldn’t,” he says. “You wouldn’t drink beer made from fermented malt extract, and we felt that quality and the relationship between yeast and unpasteurized fresh-pressed juice, so we don’t even buy juice that’s been pasteurized; we buy unpasteurized fresh-pressed juice.”

According to Heron, unpasteurized fresh-pressed juice allows for a cleaner, more natural finish. “It lends itself to a very different taste proposition, in our opinion,” he says.

Crispin Hard Cider Co. purchases its juice from a company in Oregon that sources all of its fruit in the Pacific Northwest, Heron says. The Crispin brand also includes pure apple essences from a company in Louisville. Heron says the essences smooth out the profile through the seasons, so that there is a consistent flavor in the brand’s Blue line, which includes Crispin Original, Light and Brut. Light contains only 110 calories, while Brut is a European-style, extra dry variety.

The company administered the same approach when it purchased the Fox Barrel brand from its founders in January 2010. Crispin Hard Cider Co. was impressed with the brand’s pear cider variety and moved forward with plans based on the pear variety.

“We felt that was the lead vehicle for the brand, and so we took lessons that we learned with Crispin and injected them into Fox Barrel,” Heron says. “The first thing that we did was gave it its own unpasteurized pressed-juice form, so it became a pear juice cider as opposed to an apple cider.”

In the United States, pear ciders typically are apple ciders that are flavored with pear, Heron says. He adds that pear ciders can be considered a little easier drinking because they are slightly sweeter, so the company took that opportunity to add more flavor profiles to Fox Barrel, such as Apricot Pear and Blackberry Pear.

The distribution of Fox Barrel has been integrated with the Crispin brand family, which is available through beer wholesalers. Fox Barrel has seen sales increase 170 percent for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 30, 2011, in supermarkets, drug stores, gas and convenience stores and mass market retailers excluding Walmart, according to SymphonyIRI data.


Expanding lineups

Whether it is using apple juice or pear juice, the company thinks that using unpasteurized fresh-pressed juice makes for a superior product, but also feels strongly about its use of natural sugar sources.

“We think that they add a different complexity [than] just adding sugar,” Heron says. “Honey adds its own characteristics, or organic maple syrup and things like that.”

Crispin uses organic honey for Crispin Honey Crisp, the brand’s first unfiltered artisanal reserve. It’s also the company’s No. 2 seller trailing only Crispin Original.

In addition to its juice and sweetener profiles, the company’s fermentation process has played a crucial role for the brands. Heron says the fermentation for Crispin’s Blue line is a classic process, aside from the unpasteurized fresh-pressed juice, but the company’s use of novel beer yeasts and barrel aging has allowed to them to expand its lineup as well as release limited-edition varieties.

For some of Crispin’s artisanal reserves, it has varied the yeast varieties to match the profile. For example, the company used Belgian Trappist beer yeasts for The Saint, Irish stout ale yeast for Lansdowne, and Sake yeast for Cho-tokkyu. The brand also has dedicated lineups to barrel aging.

“I think we’ve taken barrel aging to another level in terms of aging in different red wine barrels, white wine barrels and whiskey barrels,” Heron says. “We spend a lot of time and we invest a lot of money in our barrel aging program.”

Crispin’s latest limited release, Stagger Lee, is aged in rye whiskey barrels. The full-bodied varietal features subtly spicy rye whiskey, butterscotch and ripe apple flavors with mild apple-skin tannins, the company says.

Developing different varietals of cider is not the only creative process for the company. Heron says the company is made up of some very well-read individuals as well as rock-and-roll music fans, and they use those reference points when naming new products. For instance, Stagger Lee is named after the song of the same name, which has been a well-known cover song since a release by Lloyd Price in 1959.

“I think we kind of give a sense of adventure to the category, a sense of spiritedness that says, ‘Hey, this is fun, this is cool,’” Heron says. “And frankly we’re having a lot of fun. This is the cool part of it — it really is fun — but from a business perspective it’s really about getting people to see cider in a different way, to respect cider as an authentic, high quality, high creativity beverage.”

Heron says that the cider market around the world is exploding, but it remains a little less developed in the United States. However, he sees great opportunity for cider penetration in America that is inspired by the beer category.

“Part of our challenges in cider have been, just how do we raise the credentials of cider to the same level as, say, American craft beer?” Heron says. “Where there’s appreciation for craftsmanship, there’s appreciation for innovation and there’s appreciation for pioneering, adventurous spirit. That’s one of the reasons we do it.” BI