Locust Cider’s 16 taprooms across the U.S. have become a unique laboratory for its innovative ciders
Locust Cider is a wonderful modern cidery based in Gig Harbor, Wash., with a nationwide presence and run by brothers Jason and Patrick Spears which traces its humble beginnings to Woodinville circa 2015. At Locust Cider, the Spears are all about creating ciders all across the flavor spectrum. Besides delicious traditional dry ciders, they also love dabbling with funky and arresting combinations by incorporating different apple varieties, botanicals and spices. Think fun, unique flavors like smoked blueberry, dill, dates and brown sugar, or vanilla bean cider. They’re all for experimenting with ingredients and different flavor profiles, so long as there are no artificial flavorings or sweeteners.
The first time Jason Spears dabbled with making cider himself was at home. The result? “It was horrible,” he chuckles. “But for some reason, I knew that I would find the way. It took a lot of courses, meeting experts, talking to smart people, and a lot of cider flushed down the drain. And frankly, we’re always still learning and growing up.” While Jason Spears remains modest and ever ready to learn, the fact is that today he makes some of the most luscious, terroir-forward cider in the Pacific Northwest.
He loved cider, but also wanted a change in his professional life. And Jason wanted control and ownership over that change. “I made Locust Cider happen. My daughter — who was born with Hydrocephalus – a condition that is the build-up of fluid in the brain. My daughter was born one month before we built Locust Cider — was in the hospital for most of the first year of our operation. So I, of course, prioritized that. As a result, I realized the company needed to grow faster than I originally planned so I could afford the staff to run the show when I needed to focus on family.” Children with Hydrocephalus are some of the strongest, bravest warriors out there. Hydrocephalus is the cause for Locust Cider and a big part of who they are.
The next step was working on scaling the business. The multiple taproom concept started a couple of years into the operation — for similar reasons — but also because Jason Spears saw firsthand how much better their customer connections were in the taprooms, as opposed to in grocery stores.
The transitions and scaling came with a fair share of growing pains. Scaling a business is challenging enough in the best of times and the Spears brothers scaled Locust Cider up to multiple locations during the height of the pandemic. Today, Locust Cider boasts 16 taprooms, many of which span across Washington. Four taprooms are further east — in Fort Worth, Texas, and in Boulder, Fort Collins and Lakewood, Colo.
“When you go from one to 16 locations, suddenly the way you communicate has to change,” Jason recalls. “You can’t have a personal relationship and personal impact on every person and every customer. Mostly, it takes longer to build the culture across a widespread network of people than it does if everyone is in one building. So we’ve gone through ups and downs with these things, but we are in an amazing place these days with our team and our culture. We have the best people — top to bottom.”
He notes that the greatest testament to this is Locust’s perseverance during the pandemic. The cidery, after opening several new locations immediately before COVID-19 entered the U.S., was forced to take on debt and find capital as it was not eligible for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. “We’re totally different on this side of COVID, but we’re kicking butt and I couldn’t feel better about where we are today,” Jason adds.
With taprooms spread across the country, the Spears are able to test their wackiest flavors out in tasting rooms and get feelers for the product before bottling it in cans. The numerous taprooms allow room for creativity and for trying off-the-wall things. Even their traditional ciders are unique when it comes to varietals and aging methods. Locust’s beloved Vanilla Bean cider came from a taproom experiment and is now one of their most popular products.
Jason Spears’ favorite cider? “Cold Pressed Apple with Texas-style BBQ.”
Usually company names are eponymous, descriptive or suggestive. Locust Cider stands out because it is none of these, yet remains a compelling name. The story behind the name is both intriguing and profound.
“I was attacked when I was 13 by some guys looking for money. I was beaten up badly and lucky to survive,” Jason recalls. “The attacker’s weapon (my golf club) broke, giving me a chance to escape. While awaiting the ambulance and police, I became very calm, reflected on my life, and determined at that moment to make the most out of everything because life is fragile, and to never accept less than the best, because that’s a waste of time. As I sat and waited, I was listening to and overcome by the sound of the locusts, buzzing incessantly in the heat of the Texas summer. It’s an overcoming sound and it has always been the anchor of that memory for me. And this moment has been a motivating, important part of my life ever since. So Locust Cider is named to remind us to only accept the best and to go after it all now.”
The Spears brothers run the operation together. “It’s fun and rewarding,” says Jason Spears about running a business with family. “Patrick runs Texas, so we don’t actually see each other too often. It’s great to know he will always be focused on the right things. I just have to force myself to not act like a big brother and give him hell in all-company meetings, which I do sometimes.”
It is crystal clear how passionately Jason Spears cares about these very people. At the end of the day, for him, people offer the most gratification and also the biggest challenges of running this business. He explains, “the best parts are when we get great people into the right roles and they thrive.”
With seven fruitful years in the business, Spears has garnered a wealth of experiences and insights into the cider industry in the Northwest.
“I think what we are seeing with cider is that it is enduring,” Jason Spears says. “It endured prohibition, despite a hiatus and its enduring [flavored malt beverage] proliferation. I think a lot of the industry people thought cider would be squeezed out by the seltzers and other weird alternative drinks, but hasn’t been because cider people know that cider is cider; it’s real, it’s made from real things, it’s apples, it has character and depth, and it’s real.”