Ross Brockman is cofounder of Downeast Cider House, a Charlestown company that makes a popular hard cider. The drink is selling big on taps and shelves around Boston as craft beer fans increasingly branch out to other artisan liquor; the company recently announced it would open a new production facility in East Boston to keep up with demand. Brockman recently spoke about Downeast’s rapid growth and competing in the crowded craft market.
1. Downeast got its start in 2011, when Brockman and two college buddies tried their hand at making hard cider in the basement of their dorm at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. The resulting brew, made with apples from an orchard owned by a friend’s family, was delicious — though campus police officers were not amused by the makeshift brewery. The three started to explore starting a company that would make a farm-style hard cider, but at first only pursued it part time because they were planning to go to business school and preparing for the Graduate Management Admission Test.
“One morning, my cofounder and I were having breakfast, and I said, ‘Hey, have you been studying for the GMAT? He said, ‘Nope,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, me neither.’ ” That’s when we realized we were really doing this.”
2. Brockman’s blog is a surprisingly honest diary of the company’s triumphs and follies. Among other things, it recounts a failed attempt by Downeast to expand into Philadelphia, Brockman’s frustration with a competitor who rolled out similar-looking cans, and how Brockman discovered that one job applicant was a registered sex offender.
“The typical picture on social media of, like, a can of cider on the beach — that’s boring. It’s not us. I’d rather hear an inside story about the company or see something real. I hate lying to people. It feels disgusting to be corny. Sometimes it gets us into trouble, because I’m too honest and I say too much, but that’s just my personality.”
3. Brockman credits Boston Beer Co., the maker of Sam Adams, with dramatically expanding the cider market by introducing its Angry Orchard hard cider.
“They’ve been doing a great job at bringing about awareness for cider, and the rising tide floats all boats. They’re standing there with megaphones, saying, ‘Hey, try cider!’ And as people gather around, we’re standing next to them without a megaphone saying, ‘Hey if you like cider, try ours.’ ”
4. Brockman envisions Downeast as an “in between” company, neither a profit-hungry machine intent on massive growth nor a pure passion project.
“On one side of the spectrum, you’ve got the big money brands with huge distribution and marketing capabilities. On the other, you’ve got the nonbusiness hobbyists who can make really good drinks but don’t know anything about distribution and don’t like looking at numbers. The problem with that is, you can never find their product anywhere. In between is where we want to be.”
5. The most difficult part of Downeast’s rapid growth, Brockman said, has been learning to relinquish control and trust his employees.
“It’s weird the first time you have an employee. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I trust someone else to sweep the floor. I do it certain way.’ I also used to answer every single customer service e-mail, and I thought that would never change. Now we’re getting 100 a day — does it still make sense for me to spend time that way? Things shift and our roles keep changing, and now all these people depend on you for a living. That’s the cost of success.”
Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanielAdams86.