Our Story

Justin Heilenbach, Bryan Holmes and Kris Nelson founded Citizen Cider in 2010 on a hunch and some good old-fashioned hard work. Kris was working as a wine salesmen, Bryan as a chemist and Justin as a small farmer. All discontent for one reason or another, they started pressing sweet cider in Kris’s barn and fermenting test batches of hard cider in Bryan’s basement. As it happens, they discovered that their ideas about hard cider translated into some pretty unique and interesting finished products.

George checking out the aging cider.

Upon developing their Flagship brand, Unified Press, these guys decided to give it a go and leased a production space at Fort Ethan Allen in Essex, Vermont. They formulated a plan with Stan and Mary Pratt of Happy Valley Orchard in Middlebury, Vermont to handle all the cider pressing. In the late fall of 2011 Stan pressed out 5000 gallons of his best apples and handed it over (literally, because the boys had no money) to Citizen Cider. The bulk of this work took place in less than ideal conditions; out of doors, in the cold and wet November nights of Vermont. They were building character.

Citizen Cider fermented the majority of this cider to produce Unified Press. They sold the first keg on February 3rd, 2012 to the Farmhouse Tap and Grill in Burlington, VT. In these early days Justin, Kris and Bryan lacked time, equipment and money. All three had full-time day jobs and made cider in the evening and on weekends. Needless to say, they weren’t exactly prepared for the release party and as the story goes they delivered the keg in the back of Kris’ car at the last minute. Because the keg had been agitated on the drive over it poured poorly on the tap all night. Lesson learned. They were building character.

Stan and Mary Pratt, owners of Happy Valley Orchard in Middlebury.

The remainder of 2012 was short lived for Citizen Cider. They sold through the cider they produced in less than 6 months, and began the process of scaling up to meet the demand. Citizen Cider formed a more formal partnership with Happy Valley Orchard and developed a plan to make a larger volume of cider. In the end of 2012 Justin finally quit his day job to focus on the business of making and selling hard cider. Kris was quick to follow in early 2013, and Bryan jumped ship a couple of months later. They were finally full steam ahead and focused on one goal: bringing the cider to the people. At this point, they would be left to their own devices to succeed or fail. They were building character.

The year of 2013 proved similar to 2012. Citizen Cider sold through roughly five times the volume of the previous year in about 6 months. Again, the boys went back to the drawing board in the summer of 2013 to concoct a plan for 2014 to meet demand. At this point it became quite clear they had outgrown their small production space in Fort Ethan Allen. They began searching for an alternative. They began plotting with their supporters to develop a plan to take a larger step as a company, as cider makers, as individuals. They were building character.

By the end of 2013, a location had been selected and they broke ground early in 2014 on the new location at 316 Pine St in Burlington, VT. At the same time, Citizen Cider was quadrupling production to meet demand. The company had roughly 5 full-time employees by this point to help out with production, brand building, bartending in the tasting room and bookkeeping. The company was operating both in Essex and Middlebury (50 miles apart) due to space constraints. The team had many late nights in Middlebury to keep up with demand. They were building character.

As an aside, Justin frequently referred to this chapter of the Company like Shackleton’s great expeditions into the Antarctic. “We are almost to the finish line” was commonly spoken in reference to the eventual move to the new facility on Pine Street. Nobody thought it was funny. There is no finish line. They were building character.

Canning day at Pine Street.

Citizen Cider again planned to scale up production for 2014 by a factor of three. They finally opened the new, 9000 square foot facility in April of 2014. The new building included a large tasting bar with a full service kitchen, offices and a 6000 square foot production space with all the necessities for fermenting and packaging hard cider. Three highlights included: concrete floors and floor drains (the Essex facility was wood floors that everyone despised), high water pressure and unlimited hot water (the crew spent half of their lives waiting for the trickle of water in Essex), and loading docks (everything in Essex had to be hand loaded and unloaded because the building was the height of a railroad car, and the wood floors made it impossible to move anything heavy with a pallet jack). It took about one week in the Pine Street facility for the guys to realize that they still didn’t have enough space for the amount of cider they were making in 2014. They were building character.

By early summer of 2014 the company had grown to more than 20 full time employees. They broke ground on Phase II of the Pine Street facility in an adjacent warehouse they had planned on leasing in a couple of years if they needed more space. In the midst of the 2014 scale up in production, Citizen Cider was underway building out an additional 9000 square foot production space complete with a full mechanical system and 13, 3200 gallon tanks to ferment and age hard cider. They ordered a new bottling line, a canning line, a new filtration system and all sorts of miscellaneous equipment. By the time Phase II was completed in the early fall of 2014, the boys readily accepted that they still didn’t have enough tank space to meet demand, so they devised a Phase III plan for Pine Street to install a second row of 13 more bulk tanks scheduled to arrive in February of 2015. What happens next remains to be seen, but there are a few things about which they are certain.

Our faithful staff, after winning the Seven Daysies award for Best Hard Cidery in Vermont. Photo by Matthew Thorsen for Seven Days.

They have built enough character at this point to realize that so long as they continue to work hard and make great fermented ciders, the character will continue to be built. They will continue to be pushed as cider makers, businessmen and as individuals. The alternatives are undesirable. Citizen Cider, even in the early days, has always had a forward momentum bigger than the guys. They have guided the boat but the river guides them both. A big idea yes, but at the end of the day they remain present with a simple goal. Bring the cider to the people.

Written by Justin Heilenbach in December of 2014