Vermont company, Woodchuck Hard Cider, faced financial troubles and near bankruptcy back in 2003. But with savvy marketing, the Middlebury-based business has grown to become a major player in the hard cider beverage industry. And They're celebrating 20 years with a new product that's Made in Vermont.
The orchard is almost picked clean and now the rush is on to ship the apples out. At Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, only the best looking fruit makes it to store shelves. "Vermont agriculture has been well known for quality and Vermont products the same," said orchard owner Bill Suhr.
But in every batch, there's always a few bad apples. They are bruised or too small, so they become cider. And now this fall fruit is getting a new life -- with a little kick. Twenty minutes away, the pressed apples end up at Woodchuck Hard Cider in Middlebury. "His fruit is some of the best in the world, let alone Vermont," said Woodchuck Founder, Bret Williams.
The company just started crafting an alcoholic drink made completely out of apples from Addison County called Farmhouse Select. "Vermont is very important to us -- it's the heart and sole of the brand and always has been," Williams said. He calls it a throwback to the company's beginnings two decades ago. "I remember when we were only being sold in a few country stores and now we're distributing in all 50 states."
Woodchuck Hard Cider is now the largest hard cider producer in the U.S., using apples from all over the country to meet demand. The company has tripled the amount of cider it's sold in the past three years.
The 20th Anniversary Farmhouse Select is a dry cider with a higher alcohol content than most of Woodchuck's other drinks -- 6.9 percent. "It's the most proud we've been of any of our products. It's really an amazing liquid," Williams said.
But Farmhouse also came with challenges. The bottles are tall, with a cork and required a new bottling line. The company built another assembly line in a warehouse because they were out of room.
Reporter Gina Bullard: "Do you ever think you're growing too fast?"
Bret Williams: "All I can tell you is this -- we're barely keeping up with demand"
Williams thought the company might sell 300 cases of Farmhouse Select, but orders are already 15 times that amount. So it's all hands on deck. Even the human resources manager is helping pasteurize bottles -- there's no time to wait for the new machine to arrive. "This is ready to be consumed. It's almost like it's coming out of your refrigerator," Williams said.
Woodchuck continues to grow, planning to open a new 20-million dollar facility next spring in the Middlebury area. The goal is to make it a tourist draw, with office space and manufacturing. The company hired 30 people this year and plans to hire at least 20 people next year.
Williams says he remains amazed at the rapid growth of the company, fueled by customers that are helping local farmers like Bill Suhr, who are thirsty for new markets and guaranteeing no apples go to waste.
"This is twice the amount of juice we've pressed in a year for them -- it's a doubling of their order," Suhr said.
A growing company, keeping a Vermont fruit at its core.