In the 1920s, the Rev. Wilbur Manter planted 500 apple trees on a plot of land in Vassalboro, and for generations the Manter family picked crisp, sweet McIntosh, Cortland and many other varieties from their family orchard. Nearly 100 years later, that orchard is owned and operated by others — but the good Reverend’s great grandson, Ben Manter, is keeping apples in the family in his own way.
Manter, 24, and fellow 2011 Bates College graduates Ross Brockman, 23, and Tyler Mosher, 23, debuted their signature beverage, Downeast Cider, the first week of January. And it’s a drink that’s totally different from the mass-produced ciders available in most pubs and stores. It’s made from all Maine apples in the cider house the three business partners have set up in a repurposed textile mill on Water Street in Waterville. It’s a silky-textured, dry-but-not-tart concoction, and it’s what Manter hopes will help educate the drinking public on the virtues of hard cider.
“Cider is very, very popular in the rest of the world, but in the United States, there’s really only a handful of brands that dominate the market,” said Manter, whose family orchard was bought by Richard and Debbie Lemieux in 2007. “And there’s so much more to cider than just what you’ve always seen in the bar. It can be so much more versatile than anyone realizes.”
Downeast Cider started as Manter’s senior thesis project at Bates. As a biology major, learning about the fermentation process and what the multitude of variables present does to the mix — and in turn, makes it tasty and marketable — was highly relevant. He spent a semester making batch after batch of cider. He tried multiple combinations using different kinds of apples before setting on the right varieties. He opted for an unfiltered cider, to leave in all the apple flavor he possibly could. He tried champagne yeast, which typically is what cidermakers use to spur fermentation, but found it too sweet, and instead used ale yeast — which gives Downeast Cider a heft and smoothness not found in other ciders.
By the time graduation rolled around in May 2011, Manter was on his way to creating the perfect cider, and Brockman and Mosher came on board to turn a college project into a viable business entity.
“The idea was, we like to drink beer, and the craft beer movement is in full gear at the moment, but nobody’s making cider in the same way they’re making craft beer,” said Brockman. “It’s like in the days before Sam Adams hit the market, when your only beer options were Bud or Heineken. Cider is a totally untapped market.”
The three set up shop in the nondescript space just on the outskirts of downtown Waterville, buying two 1,100 gallon tanks with which to ferment the cider. They secured a relationship with Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner to supply the business with the thousands of bushels of Gala, MacIntosh, Cortland and Red Delicious apples needed to make the cider. And in the first week of January, the first Downeast Cider — the 65th and final incarnation of Manter’s tireless experimentation — began flowing from taps at bars and pubs statewide.
Currently, it’s available in 27 locations, including Nocturnem Drafthaus, The Charles Inn and Miguel’s in Bangor, Novares Res and Brian Boru in Portland, The Bag and Kettle at Sugarloaf, Cappy’s Chowder House in Camden, the Park Street Grille in Rockland, and Mainely Brews in Waterville, to name just a few. Unlike beer, cider has a much faster turnaround process — there’s no brewing, just fermenting — and a batch of it can be ready in 16 days.
“We’re going full tilt,” said Brockman. “So far, the reaction has been extremely positive. It’s going to take some time to really educate people on what good cider is. And we think — we know, actually — that we have really good cider.”
Downeast Cider is one of the new kids in Maine’s exploding craft brewing and fermenting world, and it has more than a little in common with another Maine alcohol maker: Baxter Brewing, the company founded by 27-year-old Luke Livingston, which makes three varieties of craft beer. Baxter also is based in a repurposed mill (Lewiston, in this case), and is committed to forgoing glass bottles in favor of cans — and like Baxter, when Downeast Cider is available in stores, it’ll be offered in cans.
“There’s nothing inferior about cans whatsoever,” said Brockman. “They don’t let any UV light in, so it keeps longer. They don’t have that tinny taste anymore, because it’s lined. And you can bring it camping or to the beach or wherever. It’s just better on every level.”
By the end of the year, the three hope to have their product ready to be canned. Until then, it’s available on tap at an ever-increasing number of bars and restaurants. What started as a kid picking apples on the family farm has turned into a full-fledged business — and Manter, who describes himself as a farm boy at heart, is happy to be doing it in Maine.
“I guess it’s something I was meant to do,” he said. “And we’re really glad that we can support local farmers. We called up just about every orchard in the state, and when we told them what we were doing, they were thrilled. That’s a nice feeling.”