Alan Shapiro – Cider Summit Festivals

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ERIC WEST (Intro): Joining me for Episode 7 is Alan Shapiro of SBS Imports. Alan organizes the highly successful Cider Summit festivals in Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Much of our conversation focuses on the past, present, and future of the Cider Summit festivals. But Alan also has much to say about how he sees the cider industry evolving, informed by his decades of experience in the alcoholic beverage industry. For example, Alan was influential in the early days of Pete’s Wicked Ale, one of America’s first craft beer brands, and was also one of the first to import English cider to the United States, when in 2003 he began bringing Aspall Cyders from Suffolk, England across the Atlantic. This interview is fairly short, but it’s packed with interesting tidbits of cider information.

Here’s my conversation with Alan Shapiro.

Alan Shapiro - Cider Summit Organizer

ERIC WEST: With me today, I have Alan Shapiro of SBS Imports. Alan is best known in the world of cider as the impresario behind the wildly successful Cider Summit festivals. Alan, thanks for joining me today.

ALAN SHAPIRO: Eric, thanks very much for asking me to be on, I appreciate it.

WEST: Alan, I know that you have a really deep background in the beverage world. Particularly with craft beer and with high-end imported beer. But let’s talk about the Cider Summits first, because that’s where people know you from.

SHAPIRO: Sure.

WEST: So you launched the first Cider Summit in Seattle in 2010? Is that right?

SHAPIRO: Correct.

WEST: And what led you to believe at the time—because now you look like a genius now that the cider category is exploding—but what led you to believe at the time that a cider-only tasting festival would ever be successful?

SHAPIRO: Well, a couple years prior to that—2007 or 2008—I was having lunch down in the Bay Area with the co-founder of Pete’s Brewing Company—Pete’s Wicked Ale—which I worked at in ’89 and ’90. The gentleman’s name is Mark Bronder. And Mark was quizzing me about the world of cider. He certainly knew a little bit about craft beer. But he didn’t know what was out there in terms of the cider world.

Mark’s the kind of guy who’s very inciteful and inquisitive. And if he met you, he would find out what you did, and he’d ask you 10 or 12 great questions, and he’d understand it, and he’d have great recommendations for you. As I described what was happening in the world of cider—and this was 2007, 2008—he said, you know, it sounds an awful lot like the late ’80s when we were trying to get Pete’s Wicked Ale going.

People just didn’t understand what was in the bottle. Why a beer would be brown. What dry-hopped meant. And any of those kind of basic things—let alone the outrageous price of $5.99 a six-pack at the time!

WEST: Right.

SHAPIRO: So he said that one of the biggest things that he felt helped was, a couple weekends a month they were at some community festival or fair, pouring samples and converting people consumer by consumer. Explaining why the beer was brown, and what hops were in the beer. And he said, you know, I think maybe that’s what you need to do with cider. Get people past the mystery of this burgeoning category, and give them an opportunity to try these things without having to spend a bunch of money on each bottle. And he said if I was you, I’d create a cider festival, and I bet you’re going to help build the category if you do.

WEST: You must’ve had pretty modest expectations then, at first. If you were looking at it as an educational-type thing, surely you didn’t think it was going to grow the way that it’s grown?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, absolutely. We didn’t know if anyone would show up! So we had, maybe, not even 500 people at our first event in Seattle in 2010. Our fifth event, which just took place a couple of months ago, that number grew to the area of 4,000.

WEST: That’s impressive growth.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. We felt after the first one, if we could maybe grow it to a thousand people, we could maybe figure out how to not lose a bunch of money. It would just be a nice, enjoyable event. So it turns out my friend Mark was right on target with his advice. From there, we added Portland in 2011, Chicago in 2013, and earlier this year, we had our first Bay Area event.

WEST: That’s excellent. With the first events in Seattle and Portland—I guess the first events for all four—how were you able to reach out to the cidermakers? How were you able to contacts? It seems like the cider producers are spread out all over the country, they have fairly small distribution, if any. How did you bring the producers together to encourage them to enjoy this festival.

SHAPIRO: We try to have a regional focus on each event. I had been living in Seattle, had been pretty active in trying to build the category locally, as I was the importer of Aspall Cyders from Suffolk, England, dating back to 2003. The limited number of cidermakers that were in the Northwest region, all kind of knew each other at this point, and the Northwest Cider Association was reforming. They’ve been a really good partner for us to work with in our two events out here.

But the truth is, we struggled to put together enough selection in that first year. I think maybe we had at best a dozen different cider companies, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 45 ciders. And with our events now, for example, in Chicago we’ll probably have 42 vendors and in the neighborhood of about 150 to 160 different ciders—and that’s limited the number that each company can bring.

WEST: That’s exciting. As we’ve talked about before, I’ve never actually been to a Cider Summit. As excited as I am about the cider category and as much as I’ve researched it, I’ve never actually been to one. I suspect that many of my listeners haven’t either.

Could you talk a little bit about the format? I think people who are listening, they’ve probably been to beer festivals or wine festivals. But what roughly do these cost to get in? How to people sample? If someone was to go to a Cider Summit—let’s say they’re going to go to Cider Summit Chicago—what could they expect from that event.

SHAPIRO: People can, we’ve got online ticketing [only] for Chicago. We do walk-ups and a combination of advance online [ticket sales] in other cities. People will pay $30. They will get a souvenir 4-ounce tasting glass—we’re doing something that’s like a mini Belgian goblet this year for Chicago. And they’ll get eight tasting tickets. Of the roughly 150 ciders that’ll be there, probably 90% of those will be one tasting ticket for the 4-ounce sample. There’s a few things like ice ciders and some other exotic things that are just more expensive or higher alcohol, so we pour those in smaller sample sizes.

The event in format is not dissimilar from a beer festival or a wine tasting. I consider it a hybrid of those. So you will have primarily around the perimeter of the room, 42 cider vendor tables. Each typically pouring two to four different styles. And the actual cidermakers are at the tables in almost all the cases—or importers, in some cases. So you’ll be able to meet the cidermakers and hopefully have the chance to get the real inside info, and ask some questions, and get educated, and try a vast range of styles and types of cider.

We have some food accompaniments. Typically a chocolate sampler, a cheese sampler, maybe a charcuterie plate, some great regional vendors. And then there’ll be an opportunity to interact with a couple of the local or regional cider associations, as well as the national US cidermakers association, and talk to those people about legislation and what they do and what’s on the horizon for cider in each of those areas.

WEST: Excellent. So we also talked a little bit before we started recording about the indoor versus outdoor nature of the events. Chicago, obviously, being during the winter, you would want to have it indoors. But what about the events that you do in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland and Seattle? Can people bring their dogs? Can people…I’m thinking summer-y, you know? What sort of features besides the things you just mentioned would attract someone to want to come out for the day?

SHAPIRO: Sure. A couple big differences, obviously, we put the Chicago event in February to coincide with the annual Cider Conference. So that gives us an opportunity to really have a wider array of cidermakers, geographically, as nearly the whole industry is there. We’re able to have more East Coast and West Coast producers as well as the Central region. A nice mix of cidermakers from France and Spain and Germany this year, Scotland, England of course. In Chicago, we do that in 4-hour sessions, two in the same day. So one is 11 to 3, we have a one-hour break, and session two is 4 to 8.

Our West Coast events are outdoor events. They’re usually in nice parks with grass and trees. And they follow generally the same format. But one of the most popular features that we have at our outdoor events is that we’ve always allowed people to bring their behaved dogs. And in fact, we have an area we call the Dog Lounge, which is usually run by a local pet shelter or other pet charity. And dogs can get some water and refresh and recharge and mingle with other dogs that are there, have a nice social break with other pet owners.

WEST: That sounds like a lot of fun. Have I also read that at some of the events, that attendees can purchase bottles to go? Is that correct?

SHAPIRO: Yes. And that’s a state by state situation. Both in Oregon and Washington that’s possible. It just has to do with the local rules, by the governing liquor commission. We have an event store on-site where, at those two events, we can do bottles to go. We also have T-shirts. We added growler sales to-go. And if people want, some extra tasting tickets—they can buy them there. And also, we typically will have some shopping bags or some of the cider books as well. The bottles to-go store has been very popular, because people come to the event, they get to taste this huge variety of products, and a number of them have pretty limited distribution of course. So they can pick them up right then and there.

WEST: That sounds like a really nice bonus there. I would certainly bring some extra cash. Or do you accept credit cards at those events?

SHAPIRO: We do accept credit cards, yes.

WEST: OK. So bring your credit cards, and bring home some cider with you, that sounds like a lot of fun!

Well Alan, let’s switch gears for a little bit. I want to come back to cider, obviously. But you do have a really long, veteran background in the beer world. I don’t know if you’ve read this book, but I recently read the book by Steve Hindy of the Brooklyn Brewery called The Craft Beer Revolution. And I was reading that book in trying to see some parallels with the way that beer has developed in the United States, and thinking about how cider would develop? For example, in the book, he mentions how in the beginning—maybe back in the ’80s, early ’90s—there were a lot of different business models that brewers were trying out. Brewpubs, doing everything yourself, contract brewing.

We’re already seeing some different models with cider as well. For example, you have everything from the orchard-based estate bottled Farnum Hill for example, all the way through the spectrum to contract production—total contract production—like maybe Original Sin, which is based in Manhattan, where there are no orchards. I’m interested in your thoughts on how you see the cider industry involving? And does it even makes sense to use the rise of craft beer and specialty imported beer as a point of reference to think about cider?

SHAPIRO: I think there are a number of parallels. I—fortunately or unfortunately—old enough to also remember when wine hit its stride in the US, about a decade or so before specialty beer. I think some of the similarities are that, we’re at a stage in these last few years where people are first learning to discover there are different types and styles of cider. Much like those early days I’ve described at Pete’s Brewing were no one knew what a brown ale was, or beer could even be that color.

And then, as the consumer is becoming more educated, I think they’re able to distinguish a bit more about the different range of cider producers. And I think that you have certain segments of the cider category right now that are drawing in a lot of specialty beer consumers. And they, at this point, may be drawn more to some of the flavored ciders and spiced ciders and experimental things. I see that quite a bit on the West Coast. I think you have some consumers that we’re drawing from the wine world, and they’re probably going to be more interested in the things like Farnum Hill, or EZ Orchards in Oregon is another great example. Really terrific, orchard-based, artisan production that’s in more of a wine feel—cork-finished 750ml bottles. So there’s starting to be some segmentation developing within the cider universe. And there’s going to be some evolution on the consumer side in terms of some percentage of them getting really interested. And that it’s important that they’re drinking an orchard-based cider. But that’s a relatively small percentage.

Another beer analogy might be the Belgian category. Ten years ago you had very, very few people interested in lambic. Most found it undrinkable. But now we’re at a point where there’s really a shortage of it in the market. And in fact, the geekiest beer consumers feel almost the more undrinkable, the better! And I’m not suggesting our top ten ciders—like a Farnum Hill—are undrinkable. But it takes some palate development to get, to want to consume that on a regular basis.

On the wine analogy you had, when I started my career, there was largely jug wines and wine coolers. Really, the breakthrough product in the wine category in the late ’70s, early ’80s, was actually white zinfandel. And that was a product that got people purchasing a 750ml bottle for the first time. And just brought a huge array of consumers into drinking wine. Which, at the time, was a very elite kind of beverage. So there’s obviously been a huge evolution of that over the last 20, 30 years.

WEST: So it sounds like, with regard to the different cider segments, most people are remaining agnostic—as opposed to preferring the orchard-based over something else—it’s because different people of different ages and different backgrounds can enter the cider category in many different points of entry, is that right?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I think so. I think we’re still in the very early days of people’s understanding of the segmententation of the cider category. And most of them probably don’t care that much about that kind of inside pool. What we do find at the festival is, probably 80% of our attendees are just—I call them “cider curious”. They’ve heard cider is getting more and more popular now, and they just want to go and try some things. Which was a big part of the original vision of the festival. And maybe 15 or 20% are much more educated cider people, and they want to go to the orchard-based brands and they want to talk to the cidermaker and ask very specific questions about the apples and the process. And again, that’s not a whole lot different than beer festivals were in 1990.

WEST: Right. So you mentioned a little earlier that you began importing Aspall Cyders to the US in 2003. What appealed to you about Aspall, and why did you choose to add it to your portfolio?

SHAPIRO: It was, honestly, a fluke. I really was uneducated myself about what cider was. I had, early in my career with Seagrams, had sold wine coolers for a living. And I thought of cider in that same category, at the time. An old colleague from my days at Seagrams was working for an organization called Foods From Britain, and he had heard I was looking at starting a new importing company. And this was in 2002. He suggested I visit Aspall, who was looking to bring their brand to the US. I frankly told him, I’m not interested looking at cider. And he said, no, no, no. This is something different from what you’ve had before.

So I was going to be in the area, and agreed to at least have a courtesy meeting, fully expecting to go and say thank you for a very nice day, but I have no interest in cider. And I visited their 300-acre orchard estate dating back to 1728 on a beautiful summer day. The two brothers—Henry and Barry Chevalier Guild—were of similar age and terrific people. And I saw the beautiful bottle they had. And I tasted their dry cider. People with a better vocabulary would call it their epiphany moment, I just call it my wow moment. It reminded me of when I had my first good glass of wine, after drinking the jug stuff. Or my first really good beer, after drinking the garbage-y stuff. And I felt like the light bulb literally went on over my head. And I said, OK, I get it, I think there’s something here. So I accidentally stumbled upon it. Brought it to the US in the spring of 2003. And I think we’ve been a good partner in helping develop the cider category in those early days.

WEST: I recently met Henry at Cider Week New York City. He is very knowledgeable about the cider traditions of England. And he seems to be an ambassador for cider in general, he seems to be very interested in the US, what’s happening in the US. I think his ciders are being fairly well received here.

SHAPIRO: Yes, I was pleasantly surprised, really, about how well we did, so soon. And they’ve been—Henry and his brother Barry—have been terrific partners to work with. Henry is really right out of Central Casting for someone you want to be a spokesperson for English cider.

WEST: Yeah. I remember, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2003, and I remember purchasing at least one or two bottles of Aspall cider then. For me, it wasn’t quite a lightbulb moment. And I think the reason why is because I had it, and I think I liked it, but there wasn’t really anything else on the shelf to try and compare it to. So I think it’s exciting now that, you go to any good bottle shop and Aspall is not going to be the only cider there. You have a point of reference, and you can sample the different styles, I think that’s pretty exciting.

SHAPIRO: Yes. That’s part of the opportunity that people get at the Cider Summit festivals. It may be whatever large brand they’ve tried in a bar that got them tasting their first cider, but more often than not, they’re at the festival to experiment a bit, and really broaden their palates and their horizons on Saturday in the cider category. So that creates opportunities for many, many brands to just get some hands-on marketing contact with the consumer. Which again, was a big part of the design of Cider Summit festivals.

WEST: Actually, one thing that intrigues me talking about Aspall is that, I’m a really huge supporter of small-scale cidermakers—any cidermakers—in North America. But it seems that many of the European nations—England, France, Spain, Germany, Austria—they have pretty mature cider industries. And they may have limited potential for growth domestically. But I suspect that there’s a lot of potential Aspalls over there in Europe who are looking at the US and Canada as a important export market for them.

What’s your take on that, and how does that process work? How would somebody in Europe make contact in the US, and how would they actually get their brands brought over here? Because some people are not really clear on the whole legal process, and the business side of things. Could you talk a little bit about how that works?

SHAPIRO: Sure, in general. The details of working with the government and importing would get people clicking off our page immediately, I’m sure! But what will typically happen is cidermakers from Europe or other parts of the world will either source information on US importers from the Internet, or they might be attending the Cider Conference, for example, hoping to meet them. Each importer has their own criteria for brands they might be interested in working with, and how they select those. It could be the types of apples used in the taste profile, it could be packaging, it could be willingness for the cidermakers to come to the country to support the brands, it could simply be pricing. Anyways, once those details are worked out, there will be a US importer who’s responsible for bringing the product to this country. And then in turn, we’ll sell it to their distribution network throughout the country. And in turn, they hopefully sell it to lots of stores and bars and restaurants across the country. That’s the quick snapshot of the three-tier system, as it’s known as here.

WEST: Do you see a lot of potential growth for that market?

SHAPIRO: I think there’s going to be more and more. Quite often—from my beer days before and wine days and ciders—many, many brands look at the US as the land of opportunity because of the sheer size of the marketplace here. But I think there’s obviously been a proliferation of cider brands and cideries opening over the last several years. And so I think that, much like what’s happening in the specialty beer business right now, you need to have some authenticity, some unique—the marketing guys call it the USP, the unique selling proposition—what will make your brand stand out on the shelf or on the pub list. And of course, quality is going to have be the baseline for that. But there’s going to have to be something a little bit more to engage the consumer, I think.

WEST: So it all comes back to that education piece that you were trying to do with the first Cider Summits.

SHAPIRO: That’s a big part of it. And I think part of what drew me to Aspall was they had some very elegant packaging. They had a range of taste profiles that weren’t necessarily in this market yet, in 2003. So I thought they had some things that would capture the consumer’s interest.

WEST: Well, Alan, I know that event management and promotion can be pretty stressful and exhausting, but are you considering possibly expanding your Cider Summit empire to other cities? Do you even have time?

SHAPIRO: My crew might kill me if we went to far with it. It’s something that we constantly talk about, and people ask us about in every corner of the country. Because certainly there’s going to be more and more cider festivals happening out there. And there’s more and more interest in cider from really all parts of the country. So we haven’t committed to any new cities yet, but we’re trying to figure out if an how we could it, and we’re just not sure.

WEST: Well, if people want to learn more about the Cider Summits and possibly find out about potential other locations, where should they go online to learn more?

SHAPIRO: The best thing is to go to cidersummit.com. And there’s a little entry where you can click on the cities that are coming up next. The part’s that active right now is Chicago, and advance ticket sales are online and active right now. And as we get through Chicago, we will have info online about our next event which will be in the Bay Area at the end of April. And then we also have a Cider Summit page on Facebook, and a Cider Summit Twitter account where people can get probably even more frequent updates.

WEST: Excellent. So the next Cider Summit is Cider Summit Chicago on February 7th, 2015. I’m very much excited, like I said, it’s going to be my first Cider Summit. And Alan, I look forward to seeing you there.

SHAPIRO: I am looking forward to seeing you there as well, Eric. And thanks very much for allowing us a few minutes to talk about Cider Summit.

WEST (Outro): I really enjoyed learning more about the Cider Summits as well as hearing Alan’s opinions about the future of cider in the US. I hope you enjoyed our conversation, too.