In much larger space, Austin Eastciders fuels thirst for local cider

12:00 a.m. Thursday, July 14, 2016 Austin360

Austin Eastciders has a simple, ambitious goal: to turn everyone into cider fans.

The local cider makers are hoping we’ll have a hankering for their four ciders — Original, Texas Honey, Hopped and Pineapple. They come in 16-ounce tallboy cans, the vessel of choice during a hot Texas summer, and have been omnipresent of late at local bars and stores. Just try and resist one.

Given the ciders’ availability, Eastciders’ vision doesn’t seem so out of reach, especially once you’ve sat down and talked with the key people at the cidery and seen the mountain-sized tanks that ferment and carbonate the cider in a brand-new Southeast Austin facility. It’s about seven times bigger than the old railroad station on Springdale Road where Eastciders’ co-founder Ed Gibson first housed his dream business.

“Maybe five years from now, everyone will have a case of our cider in their fridge,” Johnny Heiselberg, Eastciders’ relatively new CEO, says in his earnest way.

But the cidery has to make all that alcoholic apple juice first. That’s why the 33,000-square-foot space 10 minutes from Eastciders’ original, still-operating facility on Springdale has become necessary — Austin Eastciders sells pretty much everything it makes.

“We just opened the new cidery to fill out capacity tremendously in hopes of meeting demand from all of our customers,” Heiselberg says. “That was a significant undertaking; I don’t think I’ve ever been with a company that has put such a bet in their future. We’ve had a few sleepless nights making sure that the scaling up has gone correctly. But we’re using the exact same ingredients, and we want people to know that when they open a can of Eastciders, they’ll always enjoy it.”

Originally the cidery’s chief operating officer, he’s got a lot of experience leading companies to success. Heiselberg was previously a director in charge of global markets at Wrigley, the massive maker of candy and chewing gum, but left because “I wanted to go somewhere where I felt like I could make a difference.”

Gibson and co-founder Mark King brought him on as they prepared to launch new ciders and expand into a bigger space. And Heiselberg, so far, has made a difference, helping to grow the company from a mere nine employees in early 2015 to, now, nearly 50.

Together, they’ll be able to quadruple the production of cider, some of which then goes to a canning line that can spit out 90 cans per minute. The cans stack up in towers even higher than the tanks in the large open space.

Despite the speed and size of Austin Eastciders’ growth, however, the cidery is determined to remain faithful to the apples Gibson has always viewed as the best for making cider. In the U.S., Prohibition largely wiped out these bittersweet varieties because they didn’t taste palatable for anything but cider — so Eastciders imports them from Europe and Turkey, making sure they’re pressed overseas and shipped in airtight containers.

Once they arrive at the cidery, these apples are blended with the American dessert apples we’re more familiar with and fermented to form the Austin Eastciders Original Dry Cider, the flagship of the brand. The Original serves as the base of all the other ciders, which get their additional ingredients (honey, hops or pineapple) after fermentation.

Part of Eastciders’ mission has been to prove to U.S. drinkers that cider doesn’t have to be sweet. In fact, in Europe, where Gibson and Heiselberg are both originally from, cider tends to be drier and lower in sugar.

“We feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface of the market for cider,” Heiselberg says. “We’re still showing people that cider doesn’t need to be a sugar overload, that it can be a great alternative to beer and wine. I don’t think the market for it is going to slow down.”

That’s where head cider maker Preston Nickens and R&D coordinator Aaron Anderson come in. They’re in charge of introducing new ciders to fuel the thirst of Eastciders fans — ciders like the Hopped and Pineapple, both of which Anderson largely developed. The Hopped is a delicate floral treat, while the Pineapple, the newest of the bunch and hardest to find in stores, is tropical and fruity.

“Our Original is the base for everything we do,” Anderson says. “We purposely keep it simple and then add one other thing to show what the cider can do. I think that’s why our stuff does so well: because it’s so different from everything else out there.”

He’s made a lot of other unusual ciders — like a glühwein-inspired cider over the holidays last year — earning him a playful alternate job title from Heiselberg as the company’s chief fermentation geek.

“You can give him anything in your backyard, and he’ll make something with it,” Heiselberg says. “Leave him alone unsupervised and he comes up with something you didn’t think was possible but is usually very good. We still like to foster experimentation, which I think is really important.”

Experimentation, after all, is how the Pineapple Cider came about, and it’s proved so popular that its launch party at Easy Tiger a couple of months ago sold out of the cider at a nearly record-setting rate.

“I stopped in about an hour after the party got started thinking I’d get some Pineapple,” Heiselberg says. “Yeah, right.”

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