Award-winning Irish artisan product shows plenty of bottle
We Irish drink more cider per capita than anywhere else in the world – and former media consultant Daniel Emerson has carved out a niche over the past four years to become the biggest craft cider maker here with Stonewell Cider.
Having returned to his native Cork in 2007 to raise a young family with his wife Geraldine, Emerson initially began making cider on a small scale as a hobby while commuting to the UK, France and farther afield for his media consultancy work.
These first cider blends were made using apples from an orchard on a farm at Nohoval, near Kinsale, where they're based, and the use of apples grown nearby and in the nearby counties of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Waterford continues to be at the heart of the business.
The equipment they started out with included an old French cider press and an apple mill that came as gifts from Geraldine's father, whose family has been making wine in the Loire region of northern France for centuries.
With his work covering the startup costs, Emerson took on an employee in 2009 and began researching what kind of taste the cider should have before producing 6,000 litres of it.
"I was methodical in my approach and looked at both commercial and craft ciders in France, the UK and northern Spain. In particular we examined how regional producers in Britain stand out from Strongbow, the market leader there," says Emerson.
"I bought a cross-section of them and analysed them, deciding what qualities our cider needed to have, and built up a taste profile before developing a few variations around a main theme."
He also trained at a cider academy in Gloucester in southern England and, together with the support of a number of tasting panels in restaurants in Kinsale over several months, his new-found knowledge led to the finding that a medium dry cider proved to be the most popular.
"We also had the support and goodwill of other businesspeople who gave us advice. To some extent people like artisan food producers and wine merchants helped to set the pitch for us before we hit the market and they were as keen as we were to see this succeed and grow into a full-time business," he continues.
Stonewell Cider is now the largest artisan drinks maker in the country: over the past four years it's gone from producing 6,000 litres of cider to 35,000, then 125,000 a year to 300,000 litres last year. The range also now includes a low alcohol 'Tobairin' version and a dry one.
Now employing several people in production and marketing, the company's turnover last year was €500,000 and is set to reach €750,000 and break even this year. To date €400,000 has been invested in the company by Emerson, friends and family, "and friends of friends and family".
Over the last two years, the company received a small amount of support for marketing from Bord Bia. Through social media and word of mouth in the first two years of the business, customers gradually heard about Stonewell – and the company now works with two distributors, having taken the time to figure out which were the most compatible.
A number of awards have also significantly boosted the firm's profile and supported its marketing. These were from the National Irish Food Awards, the Food Writers' Guild here, as well as Britain's Guild of Fine Food's Great Taste Awards, which led to the cider being stocked in famous upmarket London retailer Fortnum and Mason.
The awards also prompted enquiries from a number of upmarket food stores and premium delicatessens in Asia, which are currently sampling the drink.
Other export markets Emerson is looking at include the US, where he's aiming to find a compatible distributor. Stonewell Cider is already being sold in Estonia, Nova Scotia in Canada, France and Italy, and he also hoping to win new orders from Denmark and Switzerland in the near future. The UK – the world's biggest market for cider – is also a target, again if he can find the right distributor.
Stonewell Cider is also gradually becoming available on draught in a number of pubs in Dublin, Galway and the Midlands, he adds, and "a number of other product enhancements" may also be in the pipeline.
The Corkman believes there is room to further expand production to a multiple of its current level and increase export sales to represent 50 per cent of the business, which would also help to balance out the business's annual production cycle.
He is also aiming to find or build a new premises for production "which will be the home of Stonewell Cider for the next 50 years" incorporating a visitor centre.
"I'd see it as being a profitable revenue stream employing at least one extra person, and an educational experience for visitors. We get half a dozen calls each week during the summer season, mainly from Americans asking if they can visit," he affirms.
"Tourists and our customers will be able to see us washing, sorting, milling and pressing the apples to create the juice, to which we add natural champagne yeast and produce a final blend, at which point it is then sent to a bottler."
Sunday Indo Business