Citizen Cider out of Burlington, Vermont has humble beginnings much like others in the brewing and cider industry have told. Three friends, Kris Nelson, Bryan Holmes and Justin Heilenbach began pressing apples in Kris’ barn on nights and weekends, which would then ferment in his basement. After toiling away at their hobby for some time, they believed the flavors they had developed could translate well in the hard world of hard cider. While their story is similar in the craft industry, the eye-opening growth that follow and eventually led them to Chicago is noteworthy.
That growth began once they perfected their flagship cider Unified Press and sought a formal relationship with Stan and Mary Pratt of Happy Valley Orchard in Middleburry, Vermont to take it to the next level. Citizen would soon receive 5,000 gallons of pressed Happy Valley apples which would become the first batch of Cider that Kris, Bryan and Justin would sell.
The first keg of Unified Press was sold to the Farmhouse Tap and Grill in Burlington in February 2012. That initial keg sale would be the beginning of the end of the 5,000 gallons of cider they produced in the early months of 2012. It sold out in less than six months, making it quite necessary to come up with a plan to scale their operation to meet demand. By the end of 2012, Justin quit his job as a farmer, followed by Kris leaving his career as a wine salesman in early 2013 and Bryan ending his work as a chemist shortly after. They were now cider makers.
Since then, Citizen’s growth has been immense.They broke ground on a 9,000 square foot production facility on Pine Street in Burlington in early 2014 while quadrupling their production capacity. By late 2014, they began construction on phase II of their Pine Street location that would increased their space by an additional 9,000 square feet, allowing for 13 3,200 gallon fermenters total and it still wasn’t enough to meet the demands of the cider drinking citizens. By late 2014, phase III at Pine Street was underway, adding 13 new tanks to the facility, which brings us to present day.
2015 brought Citizen to Chicago. I got a message from Oopey, the regional sales manager in the city, and was able to pick up a small sampler that contained four different types of cider. Oopey told me about Citizen’s background and how they ended up in the Midwest during our short, impromptu Roscoe Village meet up.
Citizen showed up in Chicago just a few months ago in early summer after expanding its market from Vermont, to Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina. It’s a big jump for a small, but growing operation that’s looking to make a Westward expansion and to test their viability in a market that boasts some heavy hitters in the cider circuit. Based on uniqueness alone, it’s one they’re fully capable of making successfully.
The four pack I received contained their flagship cider, Unified Press in addition to The Dirty Mayor, Wit’s Up and The Full Nelson. A good first impression was quickly forged as I managed to drop all four of them on the road in a balancing act while riding my bike and not a single can was damaged. This cider was determined to have its story told.
I’ll start with my favorite of the bunch, The Full Nelson. As made apparent by the name, it’s dry-hopped with Nelson hops and is made for the craft beer drinker. It’s dry, effervescent, bitter and was the perfect Sunday evening night-cap after spending the weekend drinking Bud Light at a street festival. Naturally sweet without being saccharine and easily drinkable any time of the year. Part I of the dynamic duo.
My second favorite is Wit’s up, and aside from making me think of the Four Non Blondes song “What’s Up” ( which is awesome), is fermented with a Belgian Wit yeast giving it some rather tasty ale-like qualities. With a dry front and faint spices, the similarities to a wheat ale are immediately noticeable and well appreciated. The clean, crisp, sour apple really comes through in the finish, making it Part II of Citizen’s dynamic duo.
The Dirty Mayor took me completely by surprise. I’ve had plenty of ginger ciders in my day, but holy ginger was this gingery and not for the faint of heart. If you don’t like ginger, this cider is definitely not for you. If you like ginger, this cider may not be for you. You must LOVE ginger for this cider to be for you. It’s a ginger extravaganza and one you won’t soon forget. While I didn’t love it, there is certainly no lack of flavor. Perhaps just a bit overwhelming for my tastes. Did I mention ginger?
Unified Press proved to be more than sufficient as a flagship offering. It’s definitely the sweetest of the four and one I would consider “standard” in comparison to other straight up, no frills craft cider. While it’s quite a bit better than the likes of “big cider” that’s available, it really took a backseat to the more unique and complex flavors in the previous three. This one has potential to become a favorite to the more casual craft and hard cider drinker who don’t want your fancy schmancy beers, OK?
With as much as there is going on in Chicago and the variety that’s available, Citizen should find a nice home here. Hard cider has begun a movement parallel to craft beer, sometimes toeing the line between the two, that Citizen Cider has walked artfully. The dynamic duo of The Full Nelson and Wit’s Up should grow to be a favorite of many craft lovers to come and stands up to any of the ciders made more locally. If anything, it might give pumpkin beer whiners something more positive to focus on as the summer winds down.