Woodchuck has big plans for new Middlebury facility

MIDDLEBURY — U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy told stories to a group of 50 invited media and friends gathered outside the new 100,000-square-foot Woodchuck cidery and bottling facility in Middlebury on Wednesday of how Woodchuck Hard Cider was part of the “holy water” he keeps in stock at his prestigious office in the halls of Congress.
Further, the Vermont Democrat said, he likes to boast to folks in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere that the best hard cider in the country — and the first to herald its comeback as a national drink in the mid-1990s — is from his home state, which is known for its high quality craft beverages.
“The story of Woodchuck is representative of Vermont’s ethos, of a place known for craft and quality,” Leahy said, adding that from its humble start in Proctorsville to its “remarkable growth in Middlebury, it’s clear that a commitment to putting out a quality beverage has been at the center of Woodchuck’s vision.”
Vermont Commissioner of Economic Development Lisa Gosselin congratulated the 23-year-old Vermont company for not just pulling itself back from the edge of bankruptcy back in 2003, but for creating a thriving business in Middlebury with 100 local employees and “leading the nation in developing a new niche market nationwide and showing that it can be done right here in Vermont.”
And Vermont Hard Cider President and CEO Dan Rowell shared stories of die-hard Woodchuck fans driving 500 miles out of their way to see the cidery, or even incorporating a factory tour into their honeymoon.
After the three spoke briefly, Rowell cut the obligatory ribbon, officially opening the $34 million facility on Exchange Street built over the past 15 months with more than 45 Vermont companies involved.
Within that facility is a stunning and expansive tasting room built with Vermont lumber in post-and-beam style, complete with a bar with a 20-tap draft system featuring core Woodchuck ciders as well as experimental ciders only available at the cidery.
 A self-guided tour of apple cider making in Vermont and of the history of the Vermont Hard Cider Company is located upstairs in the new facility, overlooking the bottling and production systems, which can crank out 600 bottles of cider per minute.
The early part of Woodchuck’s story is as colorful as its home-grown image and Vermont heritage. Started in a two-car garage in Proctorsville in 1991, those first few years saw employees filling bottles of the brew by hand and applying labels on the bottles with 1940s-era equipment. After tough times, a new sales and operations team came on board in 1996 and sales improved, but costs were still outstripping revenue. By 2003, the business was on the edge of bankruptcy and losing $300,000 a month.
But Rowell, former president Bret Williams and a handful of others put their own money and reputations on the line and not long afterward turned the business into a national leader in the hard cider industry with more than $100 million in annual revenue, 167 employees and a new, state-of-the-art facility that is unrivaled in the country.
In 2012, the company was acquired by C&C Group out of Ireland, but the day-to-day operation of the business has remained in local hands, as has the longer-term decision making.
“Their culture matched well with our culture,” Rowell said of C&C Group, adding that while they add tremendous value to the Irish company, C&C’s operation style is to let each division of the beverage group operate independently. In fact, Vermont Hard Cider took on sales employees from C&C Group who were already in the U.S. market selling hard cider from their European divisions.
“It was kind of a reverse buyout, in which while we were bought, we gained employees from the parent company, rather than losing employees to them,” Rowell said.
And the future looks promising.
Rowell noted that the hard cider market remains at about 1 percent of the national beer market, with a realistic potential for that market to grow to 3.5 to 5 percent of the domestic beer market within the next few years — more than tripling the size of national hard cider sales. Woodchuck and its sister brands dominate the craft cider sector.
“We’re anticipating double-digit growth in product and employees over the next five years,” Rowell said with confidence this week. He added that has been the company’s “recent history and everything I can see suggests we’ll keep growing at that pace.”
Rowell, who took over as CEO from Williams ths past spring, believes he is justified in his high hopes.
“I’m extremely proud of this company,” he said. “We have a great team in place, a state-of-the-art facility and this is our home. The town of Middlebury has been great to work with and Vermont is a great state to do business in. Everything is coming together … We’re all really excited about the future. The opportunity is out there. It’s up to us to see if we can seize it.”
Editor’s note: For the purpose of full disclosure, Addison Independent editor Angelo Lynn is married to Commissioner Lisa Gosselin.
VERMONT HARD CIDER opened its new headquarters on Exchange Street in Middlebury Wednesday morning. The company employs around 100 people at the new 100,000-square-foot facility and its old facility on Pond Lane, which will remain in operation.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Woodchuck Cidery by the numbers
•  23 cider tanks total
•  6 external tanks can ferment up to 24,000 gallons of juice each
•  17 inside tanks used for blending and crafting Woodchuck Cider styles
•  More than a mile of stainless steel piping connects tanks to bottling line
•  100,000 square feet with the potential to grow to a 400,000-square-foot facility on another 27 acres
•  Facility open to the public with tours, gift shop and cider samples on Saturdays & Sundays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Mondays, Thursdays & Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
•  In 2013, Woodchuck sold 2.8 million cases of cider.
VERMONT HARD CIDER’S new Exchange Street facility in Middlebury, which officially opened Wednesday, can fill 600 bottles with hard cider every minute.
Independent photo/Trent CampbellI

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