Vander Mill owner Paul Vander Heide has helped put Michigan cider on the map. The growing Grand Rapids-based hard cider producer makes more than 250,000 gallons a year and sells its portfolio of brands in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. With his election as president of the United States Association of Cider Makers during CiderCon this month, Vander Heide wants to help professionalize and grow the overall opportunity for the diverse cider industry. Over a couple rounds of ciders at Vander Mill’s Grand Rapids taproom, he spoke with MiBiz about the next steps he would like to see for his company, the USACM and the industry as a whole.
The craft cider industry seems like it’s trying to professionalize itself with style guidelines and a new industry certification. What’s behind that effort?
The cider industry has got a lot of education to do for the consumer, as well as for other service professionals. The Certified Cider Professional program is modeled similarly to what the sommelier and cicerone programs look like. We’re first and foremost trying to educate those frontline service professionals, buyers at beer bars, bartenders, retail staff to try to help use the guidelines that we’ve developed to have everyone speak the same language and do so correctly. We still hear a lot of people in the market use terms like ‘cider beer.’
Given the limited resources of many producers, how do you ramp up that educational effort?
The larger producers that are part of our association do a really great job of helping us out where we need it. They have the resources that the rest of us often don’t have. Seeing them double down on their investment in cider education and in cider in general gives me a lot of hope that they’re driving forward.
Unlike with the craft beer industry in recent years, cider has managed to keep the peace between well-capitalized companies and smaller producers. Why is that?
We need to stick together. Collectively, we’re such a small part of the beverage market. … What we really want to do is get more people drinking cider and build the whole market. … We need to have this big tent approach and have everybody work at it.
What are some key business challenges that cider has to deal with?
We have so many small companies and there were so few represented in the national (retail) data that it started telling a story that wasn’t accurate. At the end of last year, we as an association hired Nielsen to dive into cider data more than anyone has done before. Before this year … data collection companies in large part (tracked sales only) from big retailers.
How did that lack of data affect the industry?
In 2012 into 2015, everybody picked up on cider because it’s this rocket ship of a category. … A lot of that was represented by these national brands. That kind of trajectory is never going to last forever. As that started to soften, it affected everybody in the cider industry because now distributors start wondering whether or not cider is going to continue to grow. Retailers start pulling the reins back and getting nervous.
What did you learn from Nielsen?
Regional cideries grew by 30 percent, while the whole category was flat or negative. … That was a big win for us to be able to provide that kind of information to our membership because it helps them sell product. It helps them re-energize the confidence in the category.
Also, cider and food are meant to go together. Cider drinkers, on average, eat out more often every week than beer drinkers. They also spend more money every week eating and drinking out than beer drinkers. For me, and for every other cider company, when you go into a bar, and you see one cider tap handle and you see 25 beers, you say … what do you have to lose by adding more cider options. That’s an example of where that data has very real-life implications for us to help tell a better story.
How do you move that needle in the long term to gain wider acceptance for cider?
Education is a huge part of it. What we’ve identified internally here at Vander Mill is that getting cider in people’s mouths is the number one way that we’re going to convert drinkers and get them to add cider to what they drink. … I think especially small producers like ourselves and others where you’re telling the story of the direct tie that cider has to agriculture, the local food movement — all of those things play right into what we’re selling and promoting, and that resonates with people. … The more we can organize the information and the cohesiveness of the message and then just repeat, repeat, repeat, the better we’re going to be.
What’s allowed Vander Mill to become a regional producer in the Great Lakes?
For us, the building (in Grand Rapids) and this facility was just a huge move. Anyone that knew of where we came from in Spring Lake can recognize it. I think the facility here makes us look to be far bigger than what we really are. This was a real investment in the future. It came with its own share of struggle, to be quite frank about it. It’s been a struggle the last couple years operating two facilities and dramatically bigger staff. The general challenges of business have been a little bit distracting for our focus on what we are at the core, which is a cider producer.
How do you tackle those business challenges?
This past year I hired a director of sales, Troy Lewis, who has been in the cider industry for five years now representing a bigger brand throughout the Midwest. He’s been great at better organizing our sales effort and our communication with our distributors. We’ve got an exciting new product coming out in about a month. We’re going to be making some adjustments in our packaging. We continue to reinvest and try to find where that next level of growth is going to come from. We’re excited about this year because it’s going to, I think, be a real pivotal year for Vander Mill.