The Fruits of Their Labor

This trio is reaping rewards from their growing craft cidery

by Will Lindner

citizen_cider0218Bryan Holmes (left), Justin Heilenbach, and Kris Nelson followed diverse geographical paths of connection to Burlington, where they founded their craft cidery, Citizen Cider.

The “motivational power of discontent” is a phenomenon that Justin Heilenbach, Kris Nelson, and Bryan Holmes have reflected upon over the years. Their experience reveals that overcoming inertia to redirect one’s own life can have an impact far beyond the personal.

They confronted their discontent when they were in their mid-30s: Heilenbach’s restlessness after 10 years working with troubled youths in Utah and Oregon; Nelson’s concern that he had already tapped out the available market as a wine salesman in northern Vermont; and Holmes’s impatience and isolation as he toiled, often in solitude, in a chemistry laboratory in Burlington. And because they did, a historic beverage cast into the shadows by the temperance movement and Prohibition began regaining its place in Vermont’s culture. They created Citizen Cider (“Cider For The People, Made By The People,” their containers declare), and one-by-one they jumped ship from their previous endeavors to embrace their new one.

As Citizen Cider grew from a 300-gallon experiment in 2010 to an estimated 750,000 gallons produced last year, the benefits rippled from its 18,000-square-foot production facility, pub, and headquarters on Pine Street in Burlington across Chittenden County, then throughout Vermont and beyond. The company now sells in 11 states.

By the end of 2017 it was employing 56 men and women in cider production, packaging, and shipping; in marketing, accounting, and graphic arts; administration; and waitstaff at its pub. That number will grow past 60 in April, when Citizen Cider opens a second facility on Flynn Avenue for processing its own fruit.

“It’s our biggest project to date,” says Heilenbach, now the company’s president. “It’s focused entirely on receiving, storing, and batching the apples and the juice to bring here [to Pine Street].”

This early stage of cider development was handled elsewhere, chiefly at Happy Valley Orchard in Middlebury, where owners Stan and Mary Pratt contributed apples, juice, and know-how in 2010 to help “the boys” (a common reference to Citizen Cider’s founding trio) get started. The Pratts agreed to stay involved temporarily, in exchange for an equity share in the developing company.

“But this transition has been the plan for seven years,” Heilenbach explains. “It’s strategically a big deal because it gives us the ability to continue to expand.”

Such safe storage and preliminary processing is critical, because every apple that goes into Citizen Cider’s products is harvested at an orchard in Vermont or New York. The company’s website shows the names and locations of more than 40 orchards that supply its apples and/or the berries, hops, and herbs it uses in several of its innovative recipes.

“One reason we’re unique as a business and a brand,” Heilenbach emphasizes, “is that we deal directly with farmers. When you put brokers in between, two things happen: Growers don’t get paid as much because there’s a broker taking a fee; and you don’t have a shared understanding of each other’s business. That connection and those relationships are important. In the seven-year time period of our story we have been a catalyst behind pushing the price of cider apples to almost triple what it was when we started.”

Such are the fruits when discontent is heeded and overcome.

Cider (the trio uses the term “hard cider” only begrudgingly) had not completely disappeared from New England. Indeed, their lender — Justin Bourgeois of Community National Bank — fondly recalls his family’s making such cider at their orchard in Swanton. But prohibition created a gaping hole in the story of this beverage, which historians associate with the first colonists in the New World (fermented beverages were deemed safer than water for consumption). There’s been a cultural hole, too: Rural people enjoyed their rough-hewn, homemade beverage, while at the other end of the spectrum were what Heilenbach describes as “high-end, wine/champagne-style ciders.” Some were imported from Britain and continental Europe, and some were made domestically. Nelson encountered (and enjoyed) them in his travels for Vermont Wine Merchants.

Citizen Cider was founded upon an alternative vision.

“We wanted an everyday cider,” says Holmes. “We wanted to bring people in, not be part of a “nichey” cider club that makes specialty cider with specialty fruit for a specialty audience. We just wanted to embrace everybody.”

Equally important, they planned to distinguish their product from ciders that were available and affordable but were made from concentrate and imbued with artificial colors and flavoring. Theirs would be a craft cider, made entirely from locally sourced ingredients.

But this was in 2011.

“If you wanted to start a cider company today,” Nelson points out, “you could go talk to any of the various companies around Vermont.” There are now 15, according to the Vermont Cider Makers Association. “There was nobody back then making cider in this way.”

Nelson, 42, from Westchester County, New York, met Holmes, 43, from Newport News, Virginia, when they were students at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the mid-1990s. After some travel, Holmes moved to Vermont in 2000 to earn a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at UVM. Nelson studied cultural anthropology at JMU, and later found himself in Utah, where he worked for a wilderness program for at-risk youths. There he made friends with another staff member, Justin Heilenbach (now 41), a Chicago-area native who had studied sociology at the University of Dayton.

Nelson eventually moved back east for personal and family reasons, and ended up in Vermont. Following a stint as a caseworker at what is now the Howard Center, he joined the sales team at Vermont Wine Merchants. He also looked up his old college friend, Holmes. Heilenbach, meanwhile, earned a master’s degree in social work and worked at programs in Utah (again), and then Oregon. However, his emerging passion was for gardening and small-scale agriculture; after much soul-searching, with the support of his partner (now wife, Terra), he quit his job.

It was through long, daydreamy phone conversations with Nelson, and visits to Vermont, where he met Holmes, that the idea of a cidery was hatched. They purchased an old-fashioned cider press in 2010, Heilenbach and Terra visited at Thanksgiving, and with help from the Pratts at Happy Valley, made 300 gallons of cider. Holmes shepherded it through fermentation (which is not just a waiting game; it requires timely interventions to achieve the desired outcome) in his basement.

The following April, the Heilenbachs transplanted themselves to Vermont, and “the boys” commenced an incremental evolution toward what has become an institution: Citizen Cider. Bourgeois, vice president of commercial lending at Community National, credits their teamwork.

“You’ve got Justin, a leader with an agricultural background, who loves helping small apple farmers put their product on the market and receive a fair profit; Kris, the personality guy who worked as a wine distributor and is perfect for his role on the marketing side. Then enter the mad scientist, Bryan, who’s just going crazy trying out innovative stuff and introducing new flavors. I couldn’t be happier. They’re creating jobs and putting all this money into the community.”

Jed Davis, the owner of the Farmhouse Tap & Grill in Burlington, was Citizen Cider’s first customer, and serves it to this day.

“Citizen Cider is proof that there’s a large demand for cider made in a proper way,” he says. “Vermont is a trendsetter in the beverage world, and my market has responded very well. It’s dry, crisp, and refreshing, not some Jolly Rancher, overly sweet drink. They’ve built a great culture around their business.”

Speaking of culture, the cider boys have adapted well to Vermont’s. Nelson and his wife, Amy Tewksbury, a special education teacher at Vergennes Elementary, live in North Ferrisburgh with their 10-year-old daughter, Nora.

“We love music and food,” Nelson says, “and Nora’s got a lot going on with sports and music. Amy’s work is consuming, too, so when you add in family life and all this” — he spreads his arms to indicate the bustling cidery around him — “we’re busy people.”

Upon moving to Vermont in 2011, the Heilenbachs settled in Jericho, where Justin immediately borrowed a tractor and found some land to till for growing food. Over the years Terra has worked in bookkeeping for Citizen Cider, but they have three sons — Finch, age 6; Illo, 3; and Ellis, 1 — which has limited her availability outside the home. They now live in Burlington, where they’ve crammed in a small garden plot, but the Pratts have provided some land at Happy Valley.

“We grow a lot of food,” says Heilenbach. “That’s our family activity, and we hope to go back to that more substantially in the future.”

Of the three founders, Holmes and his partner, Julie Leaf, have the longest-standing relationship. They live in Burlington, where Leaf is in private practice as a mental health counselor.

“I came here for grad school,” Holmes says, “and was lucky enough to find work and stay here. I’m particularly connected to this state and its outdoor culture, the food-and-beverage community. I find it all very alive, and I feel a little empty when I leave this state.”

It must be gratifying — for Holmes, and for Nelson and Heilenbach, too — to have added to that culture by helping to reintroduce and revitalize a uniquely refreshing part of its history. •