Airing between regular episodes of the “VinePair Podcast,” “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at [email protected].
In this episode, host Zach Geballe speaks with Caitlin Braam, the founder of Yonder Cider. Braam begins by explaining that she grew up homebrewing beer with her father, and eventually gained an interest in cider after moving from Minnesota to Washington. There, she worked with local cideries to learn about the different types of apples used in cider and how to make a product that defied the usual expectations for cider.
While many consumers may shy away from cider because of its supposed sweetness, Braam explains that her cider is tannic, dry, aromatic, and full of beautiful, balanced acid. She discusses the difficulties of competing with craft beer, but points out that, at the end of the day, cider is technically wine.
Armed with a previous career in PR and marketing, Braam launched her brand last year alongside another company, The Source. Here, she discusses how the pandemic forced her team to reevaluate its campaigns, and why she’s grateful for the things she learned along the way.
Or check out the conversation here
Zach: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes in order to focus on a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. And today, I’m speaking with Caitlin Braam. She’s the founder of Yonder Cider here in the state of Washington. Caitlin, thanks so much for your time.
Caitlin: Thanks for having me today.
Z: Yeah, my pleasure. So let’s start out with maybe a little bit about you and about Yonder. So how long have you been in the cider industry, and how did you come to it?
C: So I’ve been in beverage for about 10 years now and cider for a little over six years. I got into craft beverages because I used to actually homebrew with my dad as a kid, and I’m from Minnesota. And so when I moved to Seattle, I was just blown away. And it was a nanobrewery season then and just really got into the craft beer scene.
Z: Cool, and then kind of what made you transition, or I mean, not that you don’t have interest in beer, I’m sure you do in some sense. But, beer and brewing is obviously a big industry. Cider is, even in a state like Washington with lots and lots of apples, still a relatively small industry. Kind of what drew you to cider?
C: Yeah, so I was doing a ton of freelancing for different breweries around town. And then I actually started working with a brewery where the founder actually couldn’t drink beer anymore because it wasn’t agreeing with his system. So he started looking into starting a cidery and that was Seattle Cider Company. And so I didn’t know much about cider at the time, but we just threw ourselves into it and started learning more and more and seeing what was out there. And I was just enthralled by how much more knowledge there was and how much education there was to give, because not a lot of people knew a lot about cider. And so it was harder for us to find the information. And we had to do a lot of “the drinking research” on our own — I know, kind of a rough part of the job. But I just really fell in love with it. There are so many breweries, like you mentioned, and there weren’t a lot of cideries at the time. And I just loved cider. It was what I preferred to drink at that moment. And I just threw myself into it and asked every question I could ever think of.
Z: Gotcha. And so I’m curious, I want to talk about what’s going on in the here and now and in the future. But I do want to look back a tiny bit beyond just your own trajectory and talk a little bit about the positioning, because I think Seattle Cider Company, which in Seattle in this part of the country is a pretty big deal. One of the larger producers of cider locally. The question I’m asking is: You came to cider, and I think a lot of people came to cider from beer, right? It was an alternative to beer in the sense of it being for people who maybe wanted something that was gluten-free or something that agreed with their system more than beer did. But cider, and we can talk more about this in a minute, is sort of this interesting beverage where, depending on maybe how you make it and your approach to it and philosophy, even is maybe more like wine than like cider. And so I’m wondering, did you see that either your relationship — or more broadly, either the production or just consumer side of it — has the relationship to cider changed in your time in the industry?
C: It has, yeah. I’ve learned so much more and I’ve tasted so much more. And so when I first got into cider, I was very into modern cider. So I was drinking products that were mainly culinary apples and maybe had fruit in them or something along those lines. And that’s what I knew. But then I started traveling more and exploring more and starting in Washington, drinking things like Snowdrift and Dragon’s Head and then traveling across the country and then traveling across the world to England and Spain and trying cider from there. And so my knowledge base of cider and my palate has changed so much over the years. But also from a business standpoint, knowing what people can afford and what’s going to get people into the category, it’s been really interesting to watch and see how my perceptions have changed. And that’s kind of why Yonder was born. I love a beautiful cider that’s made only with cider fruit and is tannic and dry and has a beautiful acid balance and a lot of aroma. But those cider apples are really expensive and that makes the cider when it gets to the consumer really expensive, too. And so when we’re trying to pull more people into the cider category, if the only thing they can find is a beautiful bottle, a 750 of cider, but it’s $20, that’s not necessarily going to get them into the category. At the same time, there’s a lot of beautiful culinary-only ciders out there. But what you sometimes miss is some of the aroma and the complexity that can come with those “cider” apple ciders. And so what we’ve done at Yonder, and the reason I started Yonder, was to find a balance between the two, have a product that was still aromatic and had beautiful complexity to it and had a lot of those characteristics I loved, but was still in a format and at a price point that made it approachable and consumable on a pretty regular basis.
Z: So that makes total sense to me as being kind of the genesis of the idea behind the brand. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, I have this idea. I want to make a cider that is somewhere between these,” as you said, really beautiful but relatively expensive cider-apple based ciders, and something that’s maybe more everyday priced but also culinary-apple-based and maybe a little less complex. You have the idea, but then how do you go from that to a product in a can? I mean, you don’t have to take me through every step. But kind of what were the major hurdles or milestones along the way?
C: One of the benefits of my career is that I started in PR and marketing. That’s my knowledge base. And I grew up in craft beer and cider by asking a million and one questions and talking with a million and one people. And so what Yonder has been is the combination of those two elements. I judge cider now, and I taste cider, and I know cider apples, and those are all things six years ago I knew nothing about. And so what Yonder is, is me taking that marketing and PR brain of mine and combining it with those years of talking with experts and drinking a lot of great cider and learning more about cider as a beverage. And so when we started Yonder, I wanted the outside to be as beautiful as the inside. We wanted people to see yonder and grab it for the way it looked and it felt and the can. And they just spoke to the brand. But then they opened it up and they drank it and it was just as beautiful and it made them purchase it again. And so I think a lot of times, you can get one or the other, and you have people that are maybe more skilled in one side or the other. It’s the benefit of my team. My other two co-founders are our creative director, Maddy Porter, and my head cider maker Tim Larsen. And I’ve known them both for about 10 years as well. And they’re both experts and fantastic at what they do. And so by building Yonder on those two pillars, we were able to bridge both sides of the industry and both sides of that coin.
Z: And so let’s talk a little bit about that design aesthetic, because I think actually that’s a really interesting point and something that, I mean, you can speak as freely or you can be as diplomatic as you want. But I think a thing that has been interesting with the cider industry, in particular, is craft beer has a wealth of really creative, interesting, sometimes also very poorly executed can art. But can art is a big part of craft beer in a lot of ways. And cider to me has kind of, I mean, you see much more of it than I do, but it’s definitely not seized upon that approach to standing out on a shelf, giving someone something to grab on to besides just the products in the can. So, when you were setting up the aesthetic and the design for Yonder, what were you thinking about? And does my rough generalization about the cider industry seem like it’s true?
C: It does. And I think what happens is you can’t be good at everything. Right? And so you have orchardists who are growing fruit and making beautiful cider, but then it comes to the marketing, and maybe that’s an afterthought, because they’ve already made this beautiful cider. Why would people not enjoy it? And so it can be a big challenge and there’s a reason that Yonder, when you look at it, doesn’t scream “cider.” It’s also because people have a preconceived notion a lot of times of what cider is or what it tastes like to them, right? A lot of people think it’s going to be sweet. And if they see cider, they just don’t even take the time to pick it up. And so when we designed Yonder, you can look at it and you could tell it’s cider if you look close. But we wanted craft beer drinkers, wine drinkers, hard kombucha, seltzer drinkers to stop and take a look at the brand in its own right and pick it up and then be like, “Oh, this is cider,” and give it a try. And I think by doing that, we are able to overcome some of those preconceived notions that people have about cider and at least have them give it a shot. If they don’t like it after that. Fine, that’s great. They’ve got lots of other beverages to choose from, but cider has this first hurdle a lot of times of what people already have in their mind from what they’ve had before. And so when we built Yonder, we wanted to build a brand that people could stand behind A) even if they hadn’t tried the cider yet. Like I’m a big merch person so we were selling sweatshirts and hats and everything about our brand before we even had the cider out there. But we wanted people to just get over those fears of cider. And I think a branding opportunity is big and it is what we kind of took a chance on. And I think what we’ve succeeded with and had a lot of fun with, honestly.
Z: Do you think then that the 750-millimeter bottle is — this is kind of maybe a hard question to answer — but it seems to me like, unless you are making a very specific kind of cider, it’s maybe a mistake for people to go. Because the 750 is, not only is it a lot of liquid and that always can be a problem for someone, especially if they’re not sharing potentially given just their circumstances. But also, yeah, it has a certain set of baggage, I suppose, in our culture. Is that something — did you never for a moment think about large-format bottles or were you always like, we’re going in can?
C: I’m sure we will do a 750 at some point. I definitely think we will. And I think one of the challenges with 750s is what we’ve talked about already is that price point. But think about it this way: If you buy a bottle of wine and that’s 750 milliliters and sometimes it’s 12, 14, 15 percent, Cider is actually less than that. You’re usually getting 7 to 9 percent in there. And so it’s just a way people think about cider a lot of times. Cider doesn’t fall in any category well. We’re technically wine, a lot of people drink us in pint glasses like beer, and it just kind of gets muddled. And so it’s all of these hurdles that cider has to get over. I also think, when we’re looking at it, there is a place for the 750s, there’s a place for the cans, there’s a place for everything in between. Because the cans are what get people into the category, right? And a lot of times that’s true, or draft. But when you start getting into cider and you start loving the cider, you’re gonna start seeking more stuff out. I mean, beer drinkers are the same way, right? Once you’ve had the can of something from some local little local brewery and they come out with a release of something crazy and barrel aged in a big bottle, you’re going to buy it, because you believe in that brand and you trust it. And so I think there’s a lot of opportunity. Some laws have passed recently to allow cideries to put ciders over — I think it’s over 7 percent ABV — in 12-ounce cans now. Which is going to make some of those big, beautiful, cider-apple-only ciders available in smaller formats. And hopefully, then, people will start to branch out more. So I do think 750s have their place. I also think marketing goes a really long way. And it’s why when I talk to folks inside cideries, I tell them, don’t hire your brother’s friend to do your designs. Please, please make sure that you are investing in your company, both from a cider standpoint and a marketing branding standpoint. We just released a special cider in cans called Stokes, and it’s Stoke Red apple with 70 percent, and then 30 percent red-fleshed apples. And those are apples that most people don’t know. But people were pumped about it and it’s more expensive, but nobody blinks an eye. And so it had a great label. We actually designed the character on the label after our production manager, who has quite the “skiing look” to him. So we mimicked him on the can, but it just showed how far America can go, just moving product and moving cider — no matter what format.
Z: So I want to talk a little bit more about where the current state of the cider industry is. So I’m going to say this, and you can tell me if I’m completely wrong. It’s totally fine. But my sense is that, about the time you were getting into cider was really kind of when cider was picking up steam, you know, 10, 15, 20 years ago. My sense is that there was almost no domestic — I mean, there was this domestic cider industry but it was very small. And the idea of cider being a major, or at least noteworthy category in beverage alcohol, was, yeah, some people drank European ciders, but that was about it. And that has changed for a number of reasons. But it’s also my sense now, and this is the part that I definitely would love your feedback on, that the perception from the outside — and just my perception — is that things have plateaued, maybe? Or the growth isn’t quite as explosive as it was. And I mean, that’s the natural thing for almost any new product. I’m sure that eventually we will reach that point with hard seltzer, too — it won’t grow forever. But where is your feeling? I mean, obviously you think there’s growth for your brand because you started one. But I guess what I wonder is A) does that ring true? Or B) if it doesn’t, where do you see continued opportunities to grow either for Yonder, or for cider more generally?
C: I think it rings true, to a degree. And I think why it is is because kind of what we talked about before of cider having a little bit of an identity crisis and where it fits. So you go to a grocery store and you look at the shelves, and craft beer’s got its section. But then you’ve got this section and all of a sudden you had cider mixed in with kombucha mixed in with sparkling hard seltzers and they all kind of mish-mash together. And so as sparkling seltzers became more popular, the space on the shelf for cider became smaller and you started to see less and less. And they don’t really shrink the craft beer section, because there are so many suppliers and so many brewers. I think that has proven to be a little bit of a challenge for cider because it’s not as overly accessible, and you can’t find it as easily, to be honest. I do believe that it still has a chance. I wouldn’t have started Yonder if I didn’t think so. But I think where it has the biggest impact right now is what we’re seeing on a local neighborhood-tasting-room level. I think that obviously has gotten hit hard because of Covid and everyone having to shut down and find new ways to sell and to keep alive and open. But my hope is that once everything opens back up, it’s that opportunity of just getting people to taste cider for the first time and prove to them that it isn’t sweet. There are so many different varieties of it, just like there is beer. And we have a to-go-only tasting room here in Seattle that we call Yonder Bar, and it serves mostly our neighborhood, and we do 4-packs and growlers to go. And this isn’t an exaggeration. More than 50 percent of the people that come up to buy cider from the Yonder Bar have either told us they don’t like cider, they haven’t had cider before, but they’re excited to see something new and different. And so I think that’s where the opportunity lies, is continuing to push the balance, continuing to increase the quality, and provide the opportunities to try cider. Because once we get them over that hump, they’re there and we can show them what cider can do.
Z: Gotcha. Very cool. I have one last question that you hit on a little bit, but I want to get a little bit more sense of it, which is starting a new brand, starting a new venture is always challenging, always risky, always has lots of peril to it. But Yonder launched essentially during a pandemic. How did that scramble your plans, what have you had to adapt, and what have you been able to keep the same from your initial concept?
C: Nothing. Nothing, except the cans — the cans are beautiful, they were always going to be beautiful, that’s the same. But anybody that knows me, knows I’m a huge planner and I’ve been thinking about Yonder for two years. And so there was going to be a big 500-person party and the media dinner in the orchard and we were launching on my birthday. It was a whole thing. None of that happened. None of it. The tasting room, nothing. And so it has taught me a very serious lesson of letting go, and not that it will work itself out, but that you will always find a different way. And that’s what we’ve done. And Yonder is growing, and I feel very, very fortunate for it. And I know that’s not the case for everyone. And we feel very lucky and we’ve worked hard for it and we’ve changed everything we had planned on. But at the same time, I hope that it only gets easier from here, because it can’t get harder. Take every timeline that I had planned — whether it’s cans or production or moving the facility or getting out with the distributor. Everything took twice to three times as long, and it was twice as expensive. And so that hasn’t been easy. But Yonder Bar, it’s in my garage. I have a tasting room in my garage. That was not the plan. And I can tell you my husband is not happy about it. But it just has become a neighborhood thing, and people come to it every day of the week. And I worked Christmas Eve and got to talk to all my neighbors and see how excited they were. And they were bringing their family to try Yonder. And we wouldn’t have that. I don’t wish Covid and the pandemic to ever happen. I wish it hadn’t. But we’ve shifted and changed during it, and some really good things have come, and our brand will be stronger for it is I guess what I’m trying to say.
C: I wouldn’t recommend it. I actually opened two businesses during it. I’ve got another one called The Source, but again, it can only get easier from here. So we feel fortunate, and we’re just lucky that people have taken to our brand and do really love our cider and are excited to continue sharing it.
Z: Absolutely. Well, Caitlin, thanks so much for your time. Thanks for talking about an exciting and scary year, frankly. I look forward to seeing what you and your team at Yonder have in the works down the road.
C: Thanks. I really appreciate it.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair podcast. If you love this show as much as we love making it, please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit.
Also, I would love to give a special shout out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to keep Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity