Podcast #6 - Shacksbury Cider - Innovation and Tradition

Podcast #6 - Shacksbury Cider - Innovation and Tradition

Groennfell Meadery
29 minute read

On this week’s show I talk to David Dolgninow, one of the co-founders of Shacksbury Cider in Vergennes, VT.

David is an absolute wealth of knowledge.We chat about the history of the cider industry and how things have changed in the last decade.

We also take a deep dive into what it’s been like to start a cidery with a partner and what it’s been like to include contract canning in their business plan.

From the Episode

Become a Patron!

Learn More about Shacksbury here

The article we mention about the etymology of "Brew." 

The article about carbonation tax.

Shacksbury Cider Logo

About the Podcast

Welcome to the Professional Brewers Podcast where we interview brewers, brewery owners, and other folks in the industry to take a deep dive into what it takes to have a successful brewing operation.

This show is for brewers of all kinds: folks considering going pro, professional brewers, people who want to look behind the scenes of their favorite breweries, or merely the brewcurious.

Whether you’re hanging over a fifty-barrel mash tun while you listen to this or you’re just starting your professional brewing journey, we hope this show helps you become a better, more profitable, happier brewer.

New episodes every Wednesday!


Welcome to the Professional Brewers Podcast, sponsored by Groennfell Meadery and hosted by me, Ricky the Meadmaker.

This show is for brewers of all kinds, anyone looking to get into brewing professionally, folks who want to peek behind the scenes at their favorite brewery, or merely the brew curious.

Whether you're an old hand in the industry, or you're just starting your professional brewing journey, we hope this show helps you become a better, more profitable, happier brewer.

If you find this show helpful or just enjoy listening to my dulcet tones, please consider supporting us at patreon.com/professionalbrewerspodcast. There's also exclusive content over there as well as the opportunity to ask questions of upcoming guests.

On this week's show, I talk to David Dolginow, one of the co-founders of Shacksbury Cider in Vergennes, Vermont. David is an absolute wealth of knowledge. We chat about the history of the cider industry and how things have changed in the last decade. We also take a deep dive into what it's been like to start a cidery with a partner, and what it's been like to include contract canning in their business plan. We also have a quick etymology aside about the root of the word brewing, but I promise that part doesn't last long.

And now without further ado, David from Shacksbury cider.

David Dolginow, welcome to the show.

Thanks. Happy to be here.

So let's start where we always start. Can you give me a little background about the company, how long you've been in business, where you're located, those sorts of things?

Yeah, yeah. So Shacksbury just turned 10 years old a month ago. And we were started in the Middlebury, Vermont area, myself and Alan Davis. We got going back when hard cider was all the rage in the alcohol industry overall. So it was on the heels of Woodchuck selling to the CNC group for north of $300 million. And the new wave of cideries were really starting to get going, whether it was Downy cider, Citizen cider up here, and a whole bunch of others.

And I'd been working for a few years for Sunrise Orchards, a large wholesale orchard in Cornwall, Vermont. And that's really what piqued my interest in first in apples, and then from there, the idea of starting a cider company. And Colin had been working at an e-recycling firm, was interested in the food and bev and agricultural industries in Vermont. So off we went.

And so give me a little picture you're distributing. And what does the picture look like now?

So we are based in Vergennes, Vermont. So right at the start of the pandemic, we moved to a new facility. This formerly a space where Country Home Products was based, so DR Power. You might have an electric mower from them or something that was made in the place where we're making cider now. And we sell to just over 32 distributors, I think 32, 33 distributors representing 28 states. We really concentrate ourselves here in the Northeast and then with a few other pockets like Texas is a really big market for us and California does well for us, Chicago, but mostly up here in the Northeast.

And on the topic of distributors, a lot of the people I've been talking to can't get the time of day from a distributor these days. It's really crowded marketplace and cider has always been in the US right on that edge. When I was working out in Iowa for years in the beer world, people called it cider beer still. So here in New England, it's got a presence. Parts of California, it was well known because of their wine industry.

But what was that process like? Are you still getting new distributors?

Yeah. So that was for us a stroke of luck and good timing when we first started again, the cider industry as a whole was growing 70, 80% a year. And naturally, all of the distributors, the wholesalers were trying to build up their cider portfolios so that they had brands to sell in their territories. And so it was relatively easy for us in the early days to find distributors. And now it's not the case.

For instance, we lost or amicably part of ways, but mostly lost our distributor in the DC area, DC and Maryland. They're a wine distributor. We were selling a very small amount to them and they were being kind of transitioned into a larger distributor and just didn't make sense for either of us. You know, and since then, it's just like, well, I already know there's really no one looking to add much cider to their portfolios at this point.

You know, they've got their cider players, maybe they have two, three, four, five different cideries. And until something kind of changes within the category as a whole, I don't think there's going to be many wholesalers adding new brands, unless of course a particular brand just finds a way to kind of break out in the category and takes a market share, which always can happen.

For instance, you know, Original Sin, one of the longest standing cider companies around, wonderful outfit, run by one of the most wonderful people in the biz. And he came out with a Blackberry cider called Black Widow, which is just, you know, just let's name a cider after one of the most deadly creatures on earth. And turns out, mash hit. And so, you know, I'm sure if, you know, when we're looking for a new wholesaler and he was like, look, I mean, look at our IRA data for here, you know, look at how well the cider is done for the past two years. And you know, maybe that opens up doors.

But broadly speaking, we feel it, you know, there's just not a lot of movement on the wholesaler side right now. So if someone wanted to get into the cider world, because a lot of the people listening to this are either brewers already or thinking about doing it, what would your advice be? What would my advice be?

Well, we spent many years trying to sell still cider with like a ton of complexity to it, more like a table wine. And I think that that that you can find like niches for that type of cider, the cider that's charting the more wine path. And I think certainly if you're kind of presenting that into maybe the natural wine world or finding pockets like that, you know, you can really you can build a name there.

But by and large, we found we had a lot more success or just grew a lot when we were, you know, making cider that was in smaller formats with lots of bubbles or as many bubbles as the TTP will allow us. And then, you know, flavored ciders have certainly been are certainly a really big part of the overall breakdown.

You know, for us, the most exciting release we've come out with in the past three or four years is a cider that has yuzu and ginger in it.

And it's you know, when we first started, it's something that we could have never imagined making.

We thought cider just made from apples.

But as we evolved and grew as a company, we just decided that we wanted to be able to offer a cider to each cider drinker.

And there's a lot of drinkers out there that want flavor.

So I would encourage looking at flavor, looking at bubbles and and maybe like a fast little secret if you're on the brewer side is breweries are some of the best selling cider customers out there.

So if you have a brew pub and you know, or brewers that you're friends with, all breweries need to have a few things that are not beer for the people who are tagging along with their brewer buds and don't want to drink beer.

And being that not beer is, you know, is it can be a wonderful thing.

So some of our biggest customers are our brew pubs.

So that's just a little little thing to tuck away.


And I have an article about the bubble thing that David referenced and I'll throw that in the show notes.

Yeah, we were just so keen on you know, we talked at length about putting our first two ciders into bags, you know, like the bag and bag and box like cool box.

And that's actually pretty common in England where they do sell a fair amount of still cider.

And, you know, people just look at us sideways.

Yeah, or or too many bubbles.

Yeah, yep.



TTP tells you exactly how many bubbles you can have.

Yeah, it's yeah, it's one of those things where, you know, the regulation really does sort of drive the innovation because everyone would probably add more bubbles if if it didn't kick you up into the champagne tax bracket.

So I have two things I particularly wanted to talk with you about one.

You started Shacksbury with a business partner from day one and you're 10 years in and you're still going.

Yeah, it's you surprisingly rare.

I'm married to my business partner.

So that's a different different circumstance.

But yeah, what was that process like?

And talk about the ins and outs, ups and downs of what that was.

But that's been like for 10 years.

Yeah, yeah.

Working with Colin has been one of the great, great pleasures of the best of the past decade for me.

We've, you know, we've had our ups.

We've had our downs and just having the consistency and just the foundation that a great partnership provides has just made it more manageable and more fun overall.

And so, you know, when we were we were first starting, when we first were talking about cider together, you know, Colin is a year or two older than I have two older brothers who I revere.

And he's he's like two years older than my oldest brother.

And so, you know, and my oldest brother was like a like a demigod in my youth, you know, like we just kind of followed what he said, what he did.

And so, you know, when it came to start a business and to talk, you know, before we were on the same side of the table, you know, in that period of time where you're the founders and you're working out your partnership.

So we're across the table from each other, so to speak.

It was very nerve wracking.

So I felt like I was negotiating with someone who's older than my oldest brother.

And so over a dollar mill or draft night, you'll appreciate this, Ricky, over over a dollar mill or draft night at Fire and Ice at the Bull Moose Pub in Middlebury.

We we shook on a 50-50 arrangement.

So we basically just said, you know, we're going to we're going to put the same amount in.

We're going to get paid the same amount.

And that's still still what exists today.

You know, we're 50-50 partners and and it worked out.

It's worked out beautifully for us.

And having that conversation was one of the most nerve wracking moments of my life.

I can still feel the sweat in my armpits and like smell the B.O. and that, you know, is like just drank that dollar mill or draft way too quickly and sort of said like, I want to do this.

But if I do this, I want it to be 50-50.

Otherwise, I don't want to do it because what I need to do is I need to it needs to be 50-50.

It was it sounded something like that.

Oh, man, I did not know that story.

I love that.

And so it worked.

And I think part of what's made it work is we're interested in different parts of the business like I, you know, I have a tool set here at my house and I just if I don't use it, I'm like completely OK with that.

You know, on the flip side, Colin has an engineer's mind and a New Englander's ingenuity and he loves making things and he's got a great eye for design.

He's got a great eye for product.

And you know, he knows how to put together machines and make them work.

And so, you know, amongst a whole slew of other things.

But, you know, I'm very happy on the sales side and marketing side.

The business side.

And so we kind of still to this day sort of occupy our our domains and get along happily.

That's one of the things I hear a lot.

And when I consult with people, the biggest piece of advice I give is if you're going to go into a business, you might have 19 awards, Best IPA in New England, Best IPA nationally.

If you want to own and run the brewery, find a brewer.

If you want to be the brewer, find someone to run it.

Having those separate domains is so important.

I think if there's one key to a happy partnership is knowing what your domain is and feeling free to reach across and ask for help when you're stymied.

But yeah, yeah, totally.

Yeah, it's it's worked well for us.

My dad was a classic owner operator, like I wouldn't have had a partner like I forget about it.

I mean, he sat me down.

I went to visit my folks in Kansas City as the partnership with Colin was taking form.

I mean, he sat me down at this bar at the steakhouse in Kansas City is one of our favorites and tried to talk me out of it.

He's like, look, don't have a business partner.

It's just going to be a headache and just, you know, I was like, yeah, yeah, I hear you.

I hear you.

We're we're different.

You and me were that we're similar.

A lot of similarities.

You created me.

But at the same time, we're different.

And I know there's so many parts of this business that I don't want to do.

I don't want to touch.

I want to deal with.

And so that yeah, that's been a big part of what some made it made it go.

So yeah, my last boss before my boss was Kelly. I used to say there's only one type of ship that can't sail and it's a partnership. He sounds very much like your dad. Yeah, yeah. He wouldn't have done well with a partner. Yeah, yeah, yeah. He was, you know, he was the third child, spoiled child. And, you know, just a classic got everything, you know, whatever. He just he just was in every sense of the word, very happily running his own business and owned it, you know, and it wouldn't have wouldn't have worked well for him to have a partner. But we are different that way. I'll make sure to share this directly with your dad.

So the other thing I really wanted to talk about is you guys do a lot of copacking. That right. Yeah, yeah. New relatively new part of our overall business. But, you know, turns out take the least favorite part of the beverage supply chain and express a willingness to deal with it. And there's a lot of people who will come your way. So it's now a very quickly growing part of our business and definitely something that's a very important strategic part of what we're doing now.

So if you'd be willing to, you're the first major copacker I've talked to on the podcast. And one define it has a couple. We do a little bit of it, but it has a few different definitions. Are you guys soups to nuts? If you're comfortable, what percentage of your business, what your your income doesn't represent and. What are the biggest headaches associated with it? Mm hmm.

So we are our primary offering is we, you know, we have a canning line and a pasteurizer. We do have fermentation tanks, blending tanks. We do have a set up for brewing, but primarily our offering is we have any line with pasteurizer. And so that's that's our main service. We don't do at this point, we don't handle recipe development. And most of our clients are sending in their, you know, sending in their their liquid and we're putting it in cans and they take the cans away. We do some picking and packing, you know, storage and picking and packing for customers. So you know, there's a variety of services. But again, the anchor of it is is canning with pasteurization.

And so we really started it in earnest, you know, Q2 of 22. So it's still pretty new. This year, I think it'll end up being about a third of our total revenue. So it's a non insignificant portion. And some of the reasons why we love it, you know, it really helps with cash flow because we're. For instance, we're packing for a bunch of non-alcoholic products and products that are geared toward, you know, their in a cocktails or or that kind of thing. So our canning line was slammed in December, January, February, you know, in Q1 when cider is at its slowest. And so we can really, you know, round out our our seasonal cyclical cycle. That was I think I just said that same word three different times. And so we can. So yeah.

So from a cash flow perspective, it's great. We I like working with other beverage producers. It's just fun to be kind of in the trenches with with other companies and seeing what they're making and kind of being a part of their success or people kind of in the know will be like, hey, I had a hell of a year and I saw it's made by you. And they're like high five. And it's just kind of neat because if you know, how your it's winning, then we're winning and we're happy. And so it kind of gives you more more things to cheer for. And then at the same time, you know, our sort of sales and marketing for it, it just grows organically. We don't have to do anything. We just kind of sit there and just like the business comes to us, which is has never been the case for selling hard cider. You know, like when you're on the marketing side with your own brand, you're like, you got to go get the business. So that part's pretty cool, too. And it just feels like there's an unending number of businesses that want the service of putting their liquid into cans. And so, again, like whereas cider side, the category is not really growing and hasn't for a while. So it's you know, it's it's it's it's a tough sell in its own way. There was just a nice compliment. And yeah, really rounds out our business and gives it a nice kind of foundation to work from. Some of the challenges, I mean, like anything, you know, I know from our the perspective of our seller, like our seller staff, the the two folks that, you know, are basically handling the product. So it gets in the canning line. They're dealing with a ton of different products, different, you know, ingredients, different formulas. And, you know, I don't know exactly what the total number of like actual things we're going to put into cans this year. But it's a lot and it's a lot more than we ever did when we were just making, you know, six different ciders or whatever. So you know, with that, it's like, OK, oh, frozen ingredient, you know, this shows up, you know, on the dock, the day is supposed to be can. And it's like all frozen into major chunks. And then it's like, OK, well, what are we doing? You know, are we just delaying canning or, you know, what? And so just just kind of the handling of the raw ingredients is just always a challenge and something that we're learning and getting better at and creating better systems for. And then, you know, by and large, all of our customers have been great. You know, we've we've been able to work with really awesome companies. And you know, more or less, you know, getting along there. So yeah. 

Yeah, I had to I had six thousand gallons of cider at my facility. And I don't make cider, as you may recall, that all got set outside. It came in loading dock, then it got set outside. Then it went to minus 12 degrees. And then he wanted it in cans five days later. And we don't we don't have warming jackets for 2000 gallons. So I appreciate that challenge. 

So it's what form is this showing? Is it a lot of IBC totes? What's the product coming in tanker trucks? All of the above.

Yeah, you you name it. You know, if it holds liquid and moves, we're dealing with it. I. Yeah, IBCs we get we get the the bladders, you know, with the plywood, with the bladder inside, we get the tanker trucks, we get a lot there. We have anyone needs any five gallon buckets. I mean, we got five gallon buckets for just days and days and days because when we are blending in house, you know, a lot of the ingredients come in. That is, you know, our niche in the co-packing world is like our minimum order quantity is relatively small. So, you know, we're working with companies that often have, you know, are working with us, like really whole ingredients or this or that. And, you know, it's just so there's just so yeah, if it can hold its food grade and holds holds like when we're probably handling, you know, we probably have a bunch of them in our facility. 

Yeah, Jerry cans. Those are those are the one I can't stand. It's Jerry cans. They're they're food grade. They're about 15 gallons, though I'm strong enough to pick them up. But other people on my team are not. That's the one thing that I'm refusing now. Five gallon buckets. Yes, IBC totes drums. But you have to pour them by hand and they're like 150 pounds apiece. It's a nightmare. Yeah, it's too much. Too much. They're great for maple sap, though. Just word to the wise.

So yeah, I hope you've had a good experience with the edits I've made to the transcript! If you need any further assistance or have more questions, feel free to ask.

Yeah, someone who wants to they want to brew something for a living.

What resources what resources are you still looking for?

Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, all the there's no matter which segment of alcohol you're in, there's there's going to be a body of literature and being familiar with that, I think is just, you know, table stakes, like know what the books are and read them.

You know, in cider, there's like probably at least a half dozen or a dozen, like just great books that go give you the background on cider, you know, in the world cider domestically and apples and just kind of how it all works.

I you know, I came into cider from the agricultural side from the orchards side, which I found to be very useful because it is an agricultural product and having a really intuitive understanding of how the fruit works and where the fruit comes from and how it's grown and all of that like has really made the processing side just in some ways easier or just to just like make sense in a way.

I'm not sure.

You know, on the beer side, it's it's a little bit more removed, I think, from the agricultural process.

I mean, maybe with the exception of hops, but but the you know, but the but the malt side is you know, it's it's it's a little more of a commodity, I would say.

So maybe that's not as important there.

And then the other thing I would really encourage is just talking to as many people as possible who are on we're at the end of the chain.

So you're whether they're a retailer, a bartender, a bar, you know, a restaurant owner, whatever.

But the people who like are selling it to the customer that's then consuming it, you rely heavily on our wholesale steam who's, you know, kind of working very closely with those people.

And thus has they have like a really, you know, great understanding of where the market is and where the market's going.

And then like what's working and why.

And I think you can just never think too much about that.

I think maybe something that was a bit of a trap for us for the first four or five years is we made cider that we loved.

And and we we still make cider that we love.

And also, we make cider that really meets the cider drinker where the cider drinker is.

And again, depending on the scale of business you want to be.

And, you know, and all of that, you need to really think about what your consumers doing.

And we didn't do enough of that, I don't think, in the early days.

We were trying to kind of, you know, move to the space where we were hoping the industry was going to go.

But the reality is American cider never mimicked what European cider has done in the in the higher volume parts of the cider industry.

So it was just kind of a miss in a certain sense.

So I think, you know, really familiarizing yourself with the latest and greatest of all of the data, whether it's just talking to people or also looking at the actual data from Nielsen or IRI to really kind of know what's working and why and kind of mix that with what you want to make and what you enjoy.

I think that you just can't spend enough time thinking about the end customer.

That's fantastic.

Are you ready for the lightning round?


What are you drinking if you're not drinking your own product?

What's your go to right now?

Ice coffee.

That's fine.

I'm a dad of three here, so a lot of caffeine keeps the engine running.

I'm also making a lot of a lot of Frankie on the alcohol side.

I just bought a 12 pack of Frankie.

It's been you know, I love seeing that new product from Zero Gravity hit shelves and I just you know, it's just summer summer in a box.

What's the biggest disaster you've had in the last 10 years?

The biggest disaster in the last 10 years?

Gosh, well, one of the biggest challenges was we signed the lease for our new facility in the end, you know, fall of 19 based on our numbers and our growth from 17, 18 and 19 and the anticipated growth for 2021 and 22.

And you know, so we had two leases and you know, all of the loans to bring our production in-house where we were co-packing our core products with Woodchuck, with Vermont.

I forget the name of the co-packing site of Woodchuck, but you know, we made our specialty stuff and they made our core stuff and that would have been an amazing business model to navigate COVID and instead we were carrying you know, a million dollars of debt to finance our new facility that you know, took a lot longer to kind of get to where it is now, which is that you know, we're cranking and we're you know, we need to do more build out and grow more to keep up with the amount of volume we can put through the facility.

But you know, that two year delay was not a part of the original business cycle and I think safe to say without support from government loans and other things, you know, PPP and all of that, like I don't think we'd be here today.

So yeah.

What would you be doing if you weren't making cider?

That's a good question.

Well, before I stumbled upon a life in Vermont, I was doing basically political consulting in New York City, you know, wearing a suit to work every day and so I'd probably be living somewhere in New York and wearing a suit and you know, doing something either related to consulting or political consulting, business consulting or political consulting.

No one has actually picked my personal hell yet.

Good work, David.

What's your favorite thing you've ever brewed?

Well, first of all, Ricky, we don't do a lot of brewing at Jack's Brewery Cider.

You know, we do a lot of fermenting.

Brew means to cause something to bubble.


I thought brewing needs to heat up.

Brewing means to come to a bubble, which originally probably meant fermentation and is later applied to adding heat to things.

It's a pretty European thing.

I'll link to the article discussing it below.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Okay, okay, okay.

I see you working.

I see you working.

Favorite thing ever.

Oh, boy.

Gosh, I think probably Arlo.

My favorite thing you've ever made.

That's our longest standing cider.

And I think with reason, it's just a really random thing in a certain sense.

Like, why would you put a bath cider with a malt cider in the same can?

That logistically just makes zero sense.

And yet it's such a delicious beverage and it's bone dry, it's wild fermented, it's unfiltered.

But it's not too precious.

It's just I love the branding, the name story, everything about it.

So yeah, I mean, Arlo, it's stood the test of time.

It's still probably the number one Shacksbury I've ever drank.

And that still, if I went down to my fridge right now, it's probably most of what's in it.

What keeps you going on the really tough days?

On the really tough days, I think it's a mix of two things.

We have an amazing team.

So I think that's where Colin comes in as my long standing business partner and just someone to lean on when it's really tough.

But also just our crew overall right now, it's better than it's ever been, I think.

And just like a great team and really dynamic.

So there's that part of it.

And then also there's the part of that's kind of special to the food and bev industry where we get to go somewhere fun and eat and drink and know the people behind the bar and all that.

So I think those experiences and whether it's just swinging by Two Brothers Tavern in Middlebury where we're on draft and saying hi to Beale or American Flatbread in Middlebury or it's a grander event like going to an outstanding in the field next week and outside of Cleveland.

And it's going to be this incredible 300 person dinner, seven course dinner in the middle of a garlic farm.

It's like pulling on those memories that are just really special.

Kind of remind you why we're down here in the trenches looking at whatever that problem is that day, a bunch of cider that's going down the drain or whatever.

And last question, what's one piece of advice you would have given yourself 10 years ago?

Every time you think you've raised enough money, multiply it by two.

Or maybe three, at least two.

David, thank you so much for joining me today.

It's been an absolute pleasure.

Thank you, Ricky.

See you soon.


My guest today was David from Shacksbury Cider.

If you enjoyed this episode, please head over to professionalbrewers.com for more amazing content to help you on your professional brewing journey.

And for exclusive content, as well as the opportunity to ask questions of upcoming guests, please consider supporting us at patreon.com forward slash professional brewers podcast.

Your support makes this show possible.

Thanks for listening.


« Back to Blog