Thirty years ago, in a two-car garage in Proctorsville, Vermont, the first batch was released of what would become one of the United States’ most recognizable brands of cider, Woodchuck Hard Cider.
One could imagine that, given the sheer hardheaded gumption that is probably a descriptor of nearly every Vermonter, even back then in that two-car cidery, those involved simply knew Woodchuck would still be going strong after 30 years. But that wasn’t a certainty. There have been highs, such as pioneering the concept of bottling and shipping cider in 12-ounce “beer” bottles. There have also been lows, like Stroh Brewing’s ill-fated purchase of Woodchuck and its subsequent sale to an English cidery that, in the end, didn’t know what to do with a crafty up-and-coming cidery in an emerging American market.
Yet through all this, the cidery kept growing — both in size and reputation. Some of the earliest employees were able to bring the cidery back under local ownership and, from then on, there’s been nothing but success. There’s a reason Woodchuck calls itself “the brand that started the American cider revolution.” After all, 30 years is a long time, and a celebration is in order.
Woodchuck scrapped its plan to resurrect a local favorite — their annual “Ciderstock” event — due to COVID-19 concerns this autumn, but announced it will return in 2022. Instead, they’ve launched an interactive social media campaign where fans, artists and content creators across the country can develop pieces of art to celebrate Woodchuck’s anniversary. But perhaps better, Woodchuck is dusting off some old recipes. They are releasing six-packs of some of the most-requested flavors during the cidery’s 30-year history – Blueberry, Dark & Dry, and Barrel Select.
Considering Woodchuck’s influence on the American cider scene during the past 30 years, we posed four questions to Bridget Blacklock, Chief Commercial Officer of the Vermont Cider Company, the parent company of Woodchuck. She’s been with the cidery for 17 years, offering a unique perspective on the cidery’s continued growth.
Woodchuck has had some highs and lows over the past 30 years. Other cideries might’ve vanished. Is there any one thing that you can point to that accounts for Woodchuck’s longevity?
Quality, dependability, innovation and people. Consumers tell us they are drawn to Woodchuck because of the innovation we continually produce that pushes boundaries and broader cider palates. Then, they learn of the quality and realize whether a style is exactly their preference or not. The dependability in the brand producing quality ciders never waivers. We have the best, most passionate people and we operate as a Vermont family cidery in our biggest and smallest years. This doesn’t change. Woodchuck is an iconic brand for all these reasons and our people stand behind “Good people, doing good things, in a good way.” This has always been our unofficial motto.
From the perspective of a cidery that has been around for 30 years, how has the industry changed, either for good or bad?
Cider lives in the “alternative-to-beer” space — this space has changed a lot over the years. There are FMBs [flavored malt beverages], hard sodas, seltzers, hard kombuchas — just to name a few. Whenever a new segment enters this alternative-to-beer space, cider can take a setback as these consumers explore new drinks. However, cider is not new, made up in a lab or a fad. Cider is a historic beverage and has been around a long time and will continue to stay. It is still here, it is a great bridging beverage between beer, wine and spirits, and acceptable in all those occasions.
When I first started working at Woodchuck over 17 years ago, I was just trying to educate people on what hard cider was, not what Woodchuck was, but what hard cider was. Not apple beer or cider beer, which is what you always heard, but cider — hard cider. If you could get them to try it, the work was usually done. Anytime someone drank a Woodchuck at a sampling, a beer festival, a friend’s house, the response was always the same: “Wow this is good,” or “So refreshing after drinking nothing but beer,” or “I don’t like beer but I love this.”
What is Woodchuck’s biggest accomplishment in those 30 years?
Honestly, one item is just being here to celebrate our 30th anniversary. The brand and the fans deserve every ounce of this year. We earned these last 30 years, and are proud of the brand today. And to be back in independent local ownership is everything this brand, employees and fans deserve. We can’t wait for the next 30 years.
Another accomplishment is building the cidery in Middlebury. The cidery is a work of art in itself. 2014 was an exciting year for the brand to purchase property in Vermont and build a state-of-the-art cidery in our home state.
Lastly, I’m proud of the quality ciders we produce. When so many other brands and segments were coming out, we stayed true to who we are and what the brand stands for. We never wavered on producing the best ciders to align with what consumers are looking for.
What can we expect from Woodchuck in the next 30 years?
We will continue to always challenge ourselves to push the boundaries of cidermaking and deliver great quality ciders to our fans. With the new ownership, we will reinvest in the brands with resources in both people and marketing, and will continue to weather the ups and downs of the cider category as we grow our distribution and strengthen our availability. We have had a great last year as consumers returned back to brands they knew and could depend on. That brought a lot of drinkers back to Woodchuck. We are grateful to our fans, who helped coin our 30th anniversary slogan “You never forget your first crush.” We are also happy to welcome all the new drinkers to the brand — we have every intention of hanging with our friends for many years to come.