To understand what Woodchuck Pear tastes like, take a deep breath, close your eyes and imagine yourself floating down a cool crisp mountain stream in the middle of July. Ok, got it? Now put an entire pear in your mouth.
A long time ago, way back in 1990, there was a little winery in the town of Proctorsville, Vermont. Back then, we made our living producing a variety of apple wines, something not many wineries do. We also made a little cider called “Vermont Old-Fashioned Hard Cider” – not the most catchy name, yet pretty darn appropriate.
We set out to create a truly American hard cider – a feat that hadn’t really been accomplished in the last 200+ years. (Sorry, but we just can’t count the stuff your grandpa made in “The Woodshed.”) The crafting process started with the Vermont Old-Fashioned Hard Cider we already had on hand. Countless changes were made, not the least of which was taking the alcohol content down from 12% to 5%. After three months of blood, sweat and tears, a new cider was born. (Don’t worry, we kept all the blood sweat and tears out of the cider.)
The Vermontiest of Vermonters are sometimes called “woodchucks” and this seemed like a pretty good name for our small-batch, Vermont-based cider. As you may know, the new Woodchuck cider tasted pretty darn good, and it quickly found distribution. Soon, our winery-turn-cidery was struggling to meet the demand for the cider. The early bottling line didn’t help either.
Each bottle that came off the excessively humble Woodchuck bottling line had to be topped off by hand with a turkey baster. The line itself consisted of equipment dating back to the 1940’s and had a tendency to send occasional nuts and bolts flying through the air. Every label had to be applied by hand and every keg was hand-filled. As you can see, Woodchuck didn’t just start out as a handcrafted cider – it was a hand-everythinged cider. Still, all the hard work seemed worthwhile as we watched the popularity of our little cider grow.
Two years after Amber, we went to work on something new that beer fans could appreciate even more. What we came up with was a cider similar to Amber, but made with brown sugar instead of white sugar. It was darker and drier than the original Woodchuck so the name “Dark & Dry” just seemed to make good sense to us practical-minded Vermonters. And just to remind everyone how practical-minded and Vermonty we are, we tacked the numbers “802” (our local Vermont area code) on. (If you’re looking to make some crank calls to the politest folks you can imagine, those three numbers are a good place to start.)
We were eager to see what beer fans would think of the new Dark & Dry 802 and the Albany beer festival seemed like as good a place as any to figure that out. Although 802 wasn’t allowed to compete in the main beer judging event because it wasn’t a beer, it took home the People’s Choice Award after being voted the best darn thing at the show. Hurray! Dark & Dry managed to beat out now popular brews like Sam Adams and Pete’s Wicked Ale when judged by honest-to-goodness beer drinkers! We had found our beer-drinker’s cider.
The two successful Woodchuck ciders meant that by 1996, we were now selling over half a million cases. An expansion was long overdue. Our operation was moved to Springfield, Vermont and the new place was dubbed the Green Mountain Cidery after the mountains it resided in. The days of flying screws, hand-glued labels and topping off bottles by hand were long past.
Roughly a year later, we got the handcrafting bug again and decided it was time for a new cider – one intended for a wine drinker’s palate. This one needed to be drier than Dark & Dry and lighter than Amber. An interesting solution was found. Rather than a traditional mix of tart cider apples and regular ones, we created a cider using 100% Granny Smiths. This simple little idea worked out nicely, resulting in the light, crisp wine-like cider we were looking for. And apparently we weren’t the only folks looking for it, as Granny Smith quickly grew to be one of our most popular ciders.
In the years that followed, we added two new ciders: Pear and Raspberry. We originally figured they’d appeal mostly to West Coast folks, but as you’ve gathered by now, everybody appreciates a good cider regardless of longitudes. (If that makes you want to open a surf shop up in Vermont, maybe think about not doing that.) We also relocated the cidery one more time to Middlebury, Vermont.
Once in Middlebury, our new digs allowed us to innovative cider styles that had never before been tried in the United States, or the world for that matter. It began with our Limited Release ciders and each one incorporated new ingredients. Yet there was more ahead! Our Private Reserve line continued to push the envelope. Like a pumpkin cider, crafted from a mash of pumpkins picked from one of our employees own pumpkin patch. All the while, our core cider’s recipes remained intact and their quality unmatched.
It may sound hard to believe, but when you spend 22 years crafting cider it becomes more than just a job. We like to think of ourselves as modern day craftsmen, and we believe in what we do. So while most of our bigger competitors spend a lot of time and money on all of the things that go on outside their bottles (advertisements, promotions, Clydesdales) the hundred or so of us here in Middlebury will just keep focusing on what goes on inside our bottles.