Woodchuck Cidery: An Oakmont graduate owns and operates a Vermont cidery, which also happens to be the largest hard cidery in the US

Bottles-heading-into-the-dishwasher

Bottles heading into the dishwasher

Note: This article is reprinted from Community Vine. The original article was read over 9,500 times.

In November 2009 at the Ashburnham-Westminster Education Foundation’s launch event held at the Fitchburg Art Museum, we won an overnight package to stay at an historic inn and dinner at a local restaurant in Middlebury, Vermont. The package, called a “Woodchuck Cidery Experience”, was donated by Bret Williams, a graduate of Oakmont, who is President and CEO of the Green Mountain Beverage Company in Middlebury.

Since Community Vine supports local business, and covers local news, personalities and events, we thought Westminster readers and former classmates would be interested in reading about Bret Williams’ adventures since leaving Westminster.
 
Although we were happy to get a night away, we had little idea what to expect from a cidery tour. Since Green Mountain Beverage is also known more popularly as Woodchuck Draft Cider, which is their main product, our expectation for the facility was pretty much along the lines of an old barn with bottles of apple cider sitting around fermenting. When I was a teenager and my best friend’s father owned The Red Apple Farm in Phillipston, hard cider was thick and syrupy, and a result of someone forgetting to refrigerate the gallon jug. That isn’t what we found in Middlebury, Vermont.
 
Bret, a graduate of Oakmont's class of 1988, who grew up on Lovell Street in Westminster, started working for GMB in 1996 as their first salesman, was an employee for seven years, and in 2003, he put together the deal to buy the company.

Jay-and-Bret-Holding-Tank-Area



Jay and Bret in the Holding Tank Area

Thinking we would get a standard tour along with a group of others and gather semi-interesting information, viewing processes from a distance, I was very happy when Bret met us at the door, threw some safety goggles on me, and began our 2-hour private tour and adventure through the processes and production line at Green Mountain Beverage. You see, Green Mountain Beverage doesn’t give organized tours and rarely has anyone in there to write anything about them. When I heard this, about half-way through our experience, I felt a little bad about having taken so many pictures, but since it’s the Westminster Vine policy to show the story to the subject ahead of going to press (pressing ‘send’, that is), if there was anything in this story that Bret didn’t want written or any pictures that gave away some big cider secret, they’re not in the story. So I kept taking pictures.

GMB is not a small or unsophisticated operation—they produce 11,000 cases (that’s 264,000 bottles!) of hard cider *daily*, shipping 9 or more truckloads each day to distributors in all 50 states. The production line is highly automated (and very loud). All bottling and labeling equipment was purchased within the last two years from either Germany or Italy, and the interrelated systems bottle about 600 bottles of hard cider a minute. The filtration system is state-of-the-art, from Germany. The microns are so tight in the filtration system they can actually pull the color out of a liquid. There are no cores, seeds or pulp at GMB. They buy apple juice from high-quality producers, choosing juice from the best apples possible. It is interesting to note that every step of the process at Green Mountain Beverage is cold. Nothing is heated, and when the products are packaged, the bottles and kegs need no refrigeration.
 
The first stop in our ‘cidery experience’ was a visit to a huge room with approximately twenty 12,000 gallon holding tanks of which Bret said, they go through three or four a day. In addition to the 600 bottles per minute that their state-of-the-art Italian and German equipment can produce, their kegging equipment produces one keg per minute. The process of turning apple juice into Woodchuck cider and the other labels they produce, takes about a month.
 
Being that the Cidery goes through a couple million gallons of apple juice per year, they would apple-bankrupt the state of Vermont if all juices were obtained locally. They buy their local apple juice from Champlain Orchards, but in order to get the highest quality Granny Smith apples, they purchase that juice from Washington State. Granny Smith apples are not grown in Vermont due to cold winters. Some of the red apple juice comes from Europe. Producing hard cider is more like producing a sparkling wine and not so much like producing beer.
 
It’s amazing to watch as the bottles zip around the room to eventually (and very quickly) end up boxed and skidded, with very little human intervention. There are, for instance, more employees involved in moving materials and cider around than there are in actually making or bottling it. At one point I commented that I felt like Laverne and Shirley in their Milwaukee bottling plant, except the bottles were moving way too fast for Laverne or Shirley, or even the two combined, to keep up.
 
Every step of the operation was spotless, and when I commented on that (and that it smelled so fresh and ‘appley’), Bret said that every night a crew comes in and cleans the production area to hospital standards.
 
It hasn't always been this high tech--the Woodchuck brand of draft cider has its roots in Vermont, about 30 miles south of Middlebury in the town of Proctorsville, just south of Ludlow. There, 20 years ago in a small, red house still occupied by Cidermaster Greg Failing, the recipe for Woodchuck Amber Cider was first crafted and the cider produced under the rather descriptive name “Vermont Old-Fashioned Hard Cider”. The original owner had a farm with a fruit stand and store and used excess fruit from his orchard to make the cider. Greg Failing created the recipe for the cider. A few times during our conversation, Bret said that Greg should be credited with creating a whole category that didn't exist in the U.S. market.

The process then was far from the smoothly running system used today (although the recipe is the same)—for instance, they got a deal on a 1940's soda bottle filling machine that filled each bottle with 10 oz. of cider, which automated the process except for one detail—the bottles were 12 oz., so every single bottle had to be topped off with 2 ounces of cider, either by use of a Gatorade bottle or a turkey baster, depending on who tells the story.
 
As told in the official company history, the Woodchuck cider at that time wasn’t just ‘handcrafted’….it was ‘hand-everythinged’…..meaning everything was done by hand, from filling the bottles to affixing labels to packaging. As part of the upgrade in production equipment, there is now a system where every bottle and every case is labeled with a unique number. This unique identifier is used to track which employees worked on that batch, which holding tanks the juice went through, which supplier the juice came from, where the apples came from, and other variables that might affect the quality of that particular batch. It truly is a marriage of art and science.
 
As Woodchuck Amber continued to grow, the line expanded. Next up was “Woodchuck Dark and Dry 802”. It was named Dark and Dry because it was made with brown instead of white sugar, and the 802 was tacked on the end not to sound like a BMW (the 325i for instance), but because that’s the area code in Vermont. At the Albany Beer Festival the Dark and Dry 802 actually won the “Peoples Choice Award” for best beverage, beating now famous brands like Sam Adams and Pete’s Wicked Ale. To date they have won the IMPACT Hot Brand Award NINE times.
 
Bret and Greg both smiled as they told an anecdote from this time, when the Cidery was still operated out of ‘the little red house across a small bridge’. In addition to the bottled cider, GMB also sells kegs of cider. Since shipping kegs cross country with no hope of getting them back proved to be an expensive proposition, even back then when daily production was much less, they needed to be creative. On a whim, someone stuck UPS Call Tags on several of the kegs.  Next thing they knew, empty kegs were coming back from all over the country. Every day more and more kegs would come back, until one day a UPS 18-wheeler with empty kegs pulled up and traversed the ‘small bridge to the little red house’. Then UPS said they couldn’t do that anymore (empty kegs don’t pay their bills, I guess).
 
In 2000 Green Mountain Beverage moved to its present location, originally just 8,000 square feet of space in a converted gourmet baby food production facility. Today GMB has grown to fill the 60,000 square foot facility and needs more space. As the production area was growing, the types of cider produced continued to expanded as well. Besides the classic Woodchuck Draft Ciders—Amber and Dark and Dry 802, the line has now grown to include a cider made exclusively with Granny Smith Apples, which gives it a flavor much like a Chardonnay. They also produce seasonal ciders as well as pear and raspberry flavored ciders, some private label brands for specialty stores, and GMB distributes Strongbow, the top selling imported cider in the US. Their fastest growing seller right now is the Woodchuck Variety 12-pack of ciders which includes seasonal as well as a mix of their most popular ciders.
 
The recent history of Green Mountain Beverage began in 2003, when Bret purchased the company from a large European company. It was not prospering at that time. In fact, it was on the verge of collapse. Bret, who has been with GMB since 1996, took a leap of faith that the company could be turned around, at an unusual time in his life for such a gamble. While his wife Lisa was expecting their first of three children, he pulled together everything he could, betting the farm so to speak, to come up with the money, a process that included mortgaging his house, cashing in his 401K, and as he jokes now, raiding his car’s ashtray for change (no matter how supportive Lisa was, having children myself I know this was a huge leap of faith). It was a gamble that paid off for everyone, including the employees of GMB, as since 2003 sales have doubled and the company has returned to profitability, while costs have been kept down as quality improved through the automation seen throughout the company. Today, for instance, the headcount is approximately what it was five years ago, while output has doubled. There are 62 employees, 20 of whom make up the dedicated nationwide sales force while the remainder work in the Middlebury facility.
 
Two years ago, operations were shut down for 45 days to upgrade lots of equipment. After spending an hour with Bret, I cannot imagine him sitting idly by for those 45 days. This shutdown included the replacement of everything from filler and labeler to the feeder that sends the bottles into the washing and drying systems and all related equipment. This equipment upgrade enabled production to go from 250 bottles per minute to 600 bottles per minute. SInce the bottling system consists of muliple interrelated systems, any one of which can break down, an Accumulation Table was inserted in the production line to ensure productivity during times when any one piece of equipment is down. This table can hold 40 cases worth of bottles (which at 600 bottles per minute, fills quickly), allowing production to continue while employees rush to fix the problem. GMB is considering expanding this Accumulation Table.
 
When I asked Bret who drinks these cider products, he said the demographic of drinkers is heavily skewed to the 21 to 35 crowd but is divided evenly male-female. Interestingly, he said a growing group of Cider drinkers has been turned on to Woodchuck products because they are naturally gluten-free. With Celiac and other food intolerances on the rise, these ciders allow former beer drinkers to have a bottle in hand when out with friends, rather than drinking wine.
 
Their number one seller is the Woodchuck Amber and number two is Granny Smith. After our tour and sitting in Bret’s office with him and Cidermaster Greg Failing, I commented on their packaging. He let me in on a little secret. When brainstorming for their seasonal styles, they decided that rather than spending a lot of money on the design of packaging for the seasonal ciders, they’d take a few pictures to see if they could do it in-house. As seen in the attached photos, the packaging is quite attractive, but in fact the photo used for the packaging of the Winter Cider was taken out the back door of the current facility  and the fall seasonal packaging was created after Bridget Blacklock in Marketing took a picture of a pile of leaves.
 
Woodchuck Cider has an alcohol content of 5%, slightly higher than light beers, and is packaged like a beer and typically sold in the beer aisle, but in reality it’s something of a cross between a beer and a sparkling wine. Apple cider made by Green Mountain beverage has lower alcohol content than wine, which has between 7% and 12%. Hard cider is very popular in Europe, particularly in the Brittany and Normandy regions of France and in the United Kingdom, where H. P. Bulmer, the world’s largest producer of cider, is based. Some of the ciders produced by GMB can be compared to wines. For instance, the Granny Smith is most like Chardonnay based on its sugar level and acidity.
 
{igallery 58} I personally had never tried Woodchuck, or any other hard cider before, but after having toured the facility, which smells great and very much like apples, I gave it a try and really liked it. Jay also found out it goes great with oysters on the half shell, something he usually has with Chardonnay. It’s very refreshing and, since it tastes like apples, he said it made him feel healthy. I don't know about that, but I did make the recipe for Ginger Chicken and Cider -- even the kids liked it.
 
Bret and his crew pride themselves on a personalized customer service experience. Since Vermont law forbids direct shipping of alcohol to individuals out of state, the Woodchuck website allows customers to create custom labels for weddings or other occasions. The labels are shipped to the customers and can be affixed to the bottles.
 
The company itself, Green Mountain Beverage, is a unique blend of characteristics we wish we saw more often. It is a state-of-the-art brewing operation and the largest producer of hard apple cider in the US, but it’s also an unmistakably Vermont-based company, with long term employees who care about producing the highest quality product with the finest ingredients, and management that knows the value of all the employees.
 
It's this combination of high tech and old New England values  that makes GMB successful, and it’s hard to tell which Bret Williams is more proud of. When we asked him, he said it’s how the company treats their employees. According to Bret, every position is benefited and bonused, and employees receive their bonuses not just on company results, but on their own personal contributions on everything from teamwork to safety.
 
Now that they’ve outgrown their present facility, Bret needs to decide whether they move to a different location or stay put and add on, and again he didn’t hesitate when asked—if they move, it will be in Vermont, and it will be within easy driving distance so they can keep their employees. Bret noted that these employees believed in him from the beginning and he feels he owes it to them to stay local--it's the least he can do. In these days of offshore outsourcing, it’s refreshing to see this philosophy succeed.
 
You can see it in their customer service—when you contact them, you don’t have to worry about waiting on hold for twenty minutes before getting “Ken” from India following a ‘decision tree’ on a computer screen to not answer your question. Rather, you get an earnest answer from someone who knows the company well, and you might even get some Woodchuck related ‘swag’ to show how much you are appreciated as a customer.
 
Being from Massachusetts, a trip to Vermont is an experience—there is a lot of green up there, or this time of year, a lot of white, but there aren’t a lot of people—only Wyoming has fewer residents in total. It’s also a study in contrasts—there are beautiful old homes, and some very affluent areas, but in the rural areas in particular it’s apparent the recession is taking a toll. In these times, it’s notable that although Green Mountain Beverage has grown quite large over the past few years, it has also kept its small company feel, and is very much embedded in the fabric of Vermont. GMB buys fresh juice in Vermont, hires people with a Vermont work ethic, and intends to stay in Vermont. It's who they are.
 
I asked Bret how he felt growing up in Westminster affected his life, and if the small town values we saw at GMB were related to growing up in a small town, and it apparently hit a chord with him, particularly since his last trip back to Westminster was for Coach Wyman’s funeral. Sports meant a great deal to him, as he said his parents, Jim and Marlene, attended every single sporting event he ever participated in, and that his coaches, specifically Coach Wyman and Coach Anderson, were a huge influence. To quote Bret, “Although our teams never were able to hang a banner in the gym, I learned a great deal about hustle, trying to do the right thing and the power of getting a team to work together.  The same principles still apply every day.” That’s why when he talks about his co-workers at Green Mountain Beverage, he doesn’t refer to them as employees, but as teammates, or in the case of board member Walt Scott, as a friend and mentor, on Team GMB….it’s a good way to approach life.
 
As Woodchuck Cider continues to grow in popularity, it’s nice to know that the benefits of that growth will include the longtime employees in Vermont as well as the new customers throughout the United States discovering the taste of Woodchuck for the first time.

Update from Bret Williams (July 2011): We continue to be extremely busy at the cidery and are struggling to keep up with the ever growing demand for Woodchuck.  As of August 1, 2011 will be Vermont Hard Cider Company, instead of Green Mountain Beverage.  The new name better reflects who we are and what we do.  Woodchuck and the great state of Vermont have always been a terrific fit and we wanted to choose a name that tied the two together even more.  We knew it was time for a change when the New England Patriots sent a packet to the cidery asking us to sell our products in the stadium.  We were incredibly excited….unfortunately, it turns out that they thought we were Green Mountain Coffee!  The name change was long overdue.  Our team is now up to 100 employees, a milestone I didn’t think we would achieve.  We have to make a decision in the next 90 days if we are moving to an existing building or if we are going to build a brand new facility.  Either way, we are going to stay local and keep all of our employees.  Woodchuck is celebrating a birthday this year, Cheers to 20 years!!

If you are ever in the neighborhood please look me up, I would love to show you the cidery!

IMPACT HOT BRAND AWARD WINNER!

Woodchuck received the IMPACT Hot Brand Award again! Green Mountain Beverage has received this prestigious award 9 times--5 for Woodchuck and 4 for Strongbow!

IMPACT Hot Brand Criteria:

-Established brand with at least 15% growth in the last year.

-Established brand with double-digit growth for previous 4 years.

-Minimum volume requirement of 250,000 cases.

-Significant new product.

Green Mountain Beverage and Woodchuck were recently recognized in IMPACT's 2009 U.S. Beer Databank Review and Forecast:

"Green Mountain Beverage of Vermont continues to be the overall top cider marketer."

"Woodchuck, the #1 selling cider brand, increased 11 percent to 1.17 million cases. The nation's most popular cider brand is available in Amber, Dark & Dry, Granny Smith, Pear and Raspberry. Woodchuck...is up almost 60% since 2003."


AWARDS

2009

Great International Beer Competition, Providence, RI, 2nd Place

San Diego County Fair Craft Brewers Festival & Competition, 2nd Place

World Expo of Beer, Frankenmuth, MI, 2nd & 3rd Place

2008

IMPACT Hot Brand Award

San Diego County Fair Craft Brewers Festival & Competition, 1st Place Cider & Perry

West Coast Brewer’s Festival, Sacramento, CA, 1st & 2nd Place Ciders

World Expo of Beer, Frankenmuth, MI, 1st & 2nd Place Ciders

2007

IMPACT Hot Brand Award

Microfestivus, Roanoke, VA, Best of Show – People’s Choice

World Expo of Beer, Frankenmuth, MI, 2nd Place Cider

World Beer Championships, Chicago, IL, 2 Gold Medals & 2 Silver Medals

Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Brewers Festival, Bridgton, ME, People’s Choice Award -1st Place

2006

World Beer Championships, Chicago, IL, 1 Gold Medal & 1 Silver Medal

Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Brewers Festival, Bridgton, ME, People’s Choice Award

Great Lakes Olde World Syder Competition, Grand Rapids, MI, Gold, Silver & Bronze Medals

World Expo of Beer, Frankenmuth, MI, Best of Show & Swept the Cider Category with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd medals

2005

World Beer Championships, Chicago, IL, Gold Medal

Orlando Annual Beer Festival, Orlando, FL, Best of the Fest

2004

Orlando Annual Beer Festival, Orlando, FL, Taster’s Choice

World Beer Championships, Chicago, IL, Gold & Silver Medal

Interesting Woodchuck Links:

Woodchuck Food Recipes including: Ginger Chicken, Roast Pork, Woodchuck Wild Rice, Cider Stew and more.

Woodchuck Drink Mixables -- So many ways to enjoy a Woodchuck cider... Straight Up, On The Rocks, or Mixed with your favorite beer or liquor.

Recipes include: Cinnful Cider, Dould Woody, Fuzzy Woody, Woodchuck Cider Punch, and more!

Find Woodchuck Cider on Facebook!

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