Cidermaker rides wave of growth

MIDDLEBURY — Green Mountain Beverage’s (GMB) dramatic expansion plans started coming to fruition last week with the delivery of three enormous apple juice holding tanks, the first phase of a major growth blueprint for the nation’s largest hard cider producer that is to include a 7,400-square-foot addition at its Pond Lane plant next year.
The growth spurt comes in wake of the Middlebury selectboard’s decision this past winter to waive sewer and water tap-on fees for GMB’s planned building addition, which will primarily feature new offices, a conference room and visitors’ center.
It wasn’t too long ago that GMB President and CEO Bret Williams had considered moving the fast-growing company to vacant manufacturing space in Brandon. But the town’s offer of tax stabilization through the one-time water/sewer tap-on waivers convinced Williams to keep and grow his firm in Middlebury, and he’s happy he did.
Now he can focus on business growth, which has been occurring at a double-digit annual clip.
“There are three problems that we face here,” Williams said during an interview at the bustling plant he has owned since 2003. “We don’t have enough space for our juice; we are completely out of space for office staff; and we are out of warehouse space. Trying to address those all at once can be challenging.”
The company will immediately solve its juice storage problem with the three, 25,000-gallon, stainless-steel tanks placed last week on a massive cement pad poured this past July. The three tanks are being added to forty, 12,000-gallon tanks that hold everything from fresh juice, to product that is fermenting, to finished cider.
The new tanks are expected to give GMB a 50-percent increase in juice storage capacity, so the company can better keep up with surging orders for its increasingly popular brand of Woodchuck Hard Ciders.
Much of the juice comes through Champlain Orchards and five other area fruit producers. Still, with orders constantly escalating, GMB finds itself having to get juice from Washington State and other sources, Williams explained.
“Quite honestly, there are not enough apples in Vermont to buy them all locally, so we do have to go outside of the state,” Williams said over the whir of high-tech processing equipment filling scores of cider bottles at break-neck speed.
Running that equipment — and the business in general — is a team of workers that continues to grow. Green Mountain beverage had 58 employees as of last December. That number has now grown to 70, with the potential addition of 10 more workers in 2011.
“We are completely out of office space,” Williams said, while sitting at the desk of one of the small work stations on the main production floor. “We have people sharing offices; I am working in a hallway.”
That space crunch and anticipated future growth has prompted GMB to file plans for a three-floor, 7,200-square-foot addition to the Pond Lane headquarters. It is an addition that will allow the company to, among other things, meet its office needs, create some much-needed conference rooms and better serve visitors who often spontaneously stop by for a tour.
Once completed, the addition will have a rustic look with a very energy-efficient and utilitarian function, according to Williams.
“We want to have a structure that represents what we do here,” Williams said. “We are going to have a state-of-the-art process in the shell of what will look like a Vermont barn.”
Plans call for a spring, 2011 groundbreaking on the addition.
In the meantime, company officials are also trying to address yet another need — warehouse space. GMB could use another 30,000 square feet of warehouse capacity, and officials are exploring ways of achieving that goal next year.
It is exciting news for GMB, which controls 62 percent of the nation’s hard cider market. The operation began in Proctorsville back in 1991. Early on, the small workforce used a 1940s-era soda bottle filling machine to get 10 ounces of cider in each bottle. But since the bottles were 12 ounces, each one had to be painstakingly topped off with an additional 2 ounces of cider, Williams recalled. Williams assembled some investors and purchased the company, which he has taken to the next level with better equipment and an aggressive marketing strategy. GMB now produces more than 2 million cases of cider annually, and recently purchased Wyder’s Cidery on the West Coast, a brand that was being contract-produced in British Columbia.
GMB — which has been branching into pears and even pumpkins for its beverages — also bottles the British Strongbow brand of ciders on behalf of Heineken for U.S. distribution.
Hard cider is becoming increasingly popular among the 21-to-35-year-old demographic, with a fairly equal split among men and woman, according to Williams.
“There is huge growth potential,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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