Ash & Elm Cider Co.

Rooted in Tradition. Crafted for Today.

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Designing A Beautiful Space for Cider-Drinking

Without fail, guests that come into our tasting room mention how beautiful the space is. A lot of that is - of course - based on the awesome brick walls and archways that were already here when we got here. But we did make some (many, actually) design decisions, which we wanted to share with you all.

We have always had a pretty distinct vision for our brand (learn more about those in previous blogs about how we came up with our logo and the sign we had made for the building). We wanted clean, modern lines and decor. We wanted to enter the market with a fully-formed aesthetic instead of kind of fumbling into it after several false starts. That meant spending money at the outset on a graphic designer, marketing materials, and interior designers, but it was well worth it.  

The best decision was working with Heidi Lofton, a good friend and design student, who helped conceptualize and bring into fruition the ideas that we had. We had several meetings to talk through our vision for the space and based off of these conversations, she came up with everything you see in our tasting room today.

We started by picking a floorplan that would allow us to add seating in the future and show off some of Matthew Osborn's great furniture (more on that in a later blog).

Heidi helped us figure out ways to maximize the seating capacity while still making a comfortable space for gatherings.

Heidi helped us figure out ways to maximize the seating capacity while still making a comfortable space for gatherings.

Then we got to work putting together some ideas for finishings. Given how rustic and dark the interior of the building was, Heidi encouraged us to go with light, clean finishes, both for contrast and to help the natural features of the space stand out. That meant light, natural wood tables (made of ash, of course), extra-large white vertical subway tiles on the bar, so as not to conflict with the pattern of the brick, and a super-light concrete counter top. Heidi found some great seating options on Overstock.com and included them in her next sketches of the space.

Already surpassing my wildest dreams for the tasting room space.

Already surpassing my wildest dreams for the tasting room space.

We were all still on board with the vision, so Heidi created a complete rendering of the space, including artwork on the wall (hopefully coming soon!) and a window-bar that we will add sometime in the future. Here's the crazy thing - she had never actually been in the tasting room yet because it was still under major construction and we didn't have a key! If you've been in the tasting room, you'll be able to see how spot-on her renderings are.

Heidi's rendering, having never been into the building.

Heidi's rendering, having never been into the building.

The final product. Incredible!

The final product. Incredible!

Heidi also helped us come up with the idea for the light fixture over the standing bar, saving us literally thousands of dollars by using natural elements and building it ourselves instead of buying a more standard fixture. 

Sparse and natural homemade light fixture. Air plants and large Edison bulbs are an easy way to make something really nice!

Sparse and natural homemade light fixture. Air plants and large Edison bulbs are an easy way to make something really nice!

Lastly, our friends Jason and Lara who built us the awesome sign for outside of our space had a great surprise for us right before we opened. They had made the sign once, realized the weight of the aluminum was a little too light, and re-made it with a thicker piece of aluminum. They gave us the original piece to do with what we desired. It was a no-brainer that we had to put it up in the tasting room. Add a little bit of flexible rope lighting and voila - an incredible statement piece of art in the back of our space. 

Perfect place for pictures.

Perfect place for pictures.

So, there you have it - how we came up with such a beautifully designed space! 

From 'Opening' to 'Open'

Guys, we did it! We opened a cidery and it only took us 2.5 years!

Now that we’re open, our focus has changed from fundraising, seeking legal counsel, location hunting, permitting, and general contracting to managing daily operations. These are the things we’re focusing our energy on these days:

1.       Staffing. Up until May of this year, we were a pretty lean operation of me (Andrea) keeping everything moving and Aaron helping out with production and overall business decisions on nights and weekends. In May we hired our first employee, Joseph, as an Assistant Cider Maker. He put in long hours leading up to our opening to make sure we had cider ready, kegs were cleaned of all the little tiny rust spots that settled in from unloading them in the rain and not wiping them off (my bad), and improving the efficiency of the production process. Then we hired Melissa to run our tasting room and kitchen, who helped create our menu, made sure we had everything we needed to run a retail storefront, and taught me about standard serving practices. Finally, we hired Wes to make sure every customer is treated well in the tasting room and to turn visitors into regulars.

My job has changed from creating job descriptions and making hiring decisions to worrying about whether our employees like their jobs, are getting enough hours, and are as excited about the future of Ash & Elm as we are. For the record, I’m pretty sure we lucked out with each of them, but I still spend a lot of time thinking about how to make sure they are all getting out of Ash & Elm what they hoped to when they signed on to this crazy ride.

The whole team! From left to right: Joseph, Wes, Aaron, Andrea, and Melissa

The whole team! From left to right: Joseph, Wes, Aaron, Andrea, and Melissa

2.       Distribution. A lot of folks have asked when they can get our cider from bars and restaurants. Of course, there’s a short and a long answer. The short: ‘Soon, hopefully!’ The long: The state alcohol permit we need to make and sell cider (a Farm Winery permit, for those interested) doesn’t allow self-distribution. Which means I could have bars and restaurants with checks in hand waiting to put our cider on tap, but legally I can’t sell it to them. Instead, I have to sell the cider to a distributor, who would then sell it to the bar.

Fun fact! Our tasting room is on the ground floor of a three story building, and our Farm Winery permit only covers the first floor. If one of the businesses operating on the top two floors wanted cider, we would have to sell it to a distributor, who would then have to drive 10 miles away to their warehouse, who would then have to load it back up and bring it back to our building to sell to the top floor. Silly laws.

We have had meetings with multiple distributors, and our goal is to have that relationship lined up and going by the end of summer. Hang tight, we’ll get there, and we’ll make sure you all know about it!

3.       Getting the word out. Our tasting room has been open for three weeks now. A lot of my focus is shifting to marketing, sales, and promotions. In the short term, that will happen via events in the tasting room and participation in festivals throughout the city. Longer term, that means pounding the pavement to get bars and restaurants to buy into our product (see #2 on why that hasn’t happened yet). New menu options, seasonal ciders, consistency, and sponsorships/partnerships are always on my mind as avenues to explore as we grow our business.

Our first big event is Ciderside Chats! Head over to the event page by clicking on the photo.

Our first big event is Ciderside Chats! Head over to the event page by clicking on the photo.

4.       Data Crunching. If you know Aaron and me, you know that we both LOOOOOVVVEEE data and Excel. Fun fact #2! Aaron is an electrical engineer, and I have a Master’s in Public Health with a concentration in epidemiology, so using data to predict the future gets us more excited than it really should. Anyway, now that we actually have tasting room sales and numbers, we can start crunching data. How much on average does a person spend in the tasting room? How many ounces of cider does the average customer drink, and how much does that increase if the customer also orders food? Which ciders are selling the best, and given sales in our first month, can we predict what our annual sales might be? When does it make sense to add another employee?

Truly, it is so nice to be open after such a long time. Transitioning from ‘starting’ to ‘managing’ has been invigorating. Thanks for joining us for the start-up phase of the business, and I hope you continue to enjoy the ride!

What's Happening in the World of Craft Cider

Aaron and I have spent almost three years now living, breathing, thinking, and drinking cider. We’ve been to CiderCON twice and both have Google alerts set up for Hard Cider, along with a growing library of books to use as resources for every part of our business.

There's a growing library of information online, too, by way of blogs, newspapers, and online journals. If you’re new to the world of craft cider and want to learn more about what’s happening out there, here are some great articles that have come out over the last few months:

1.       Everything You Need to Know About Cider (And Why You Should Stop Calling it “Hard”) – This is a great overview about the latest trends in the cider world. Use it to learn why people in the industry don’t like the term ‘hard’ cider, how ciders differ from region to region, and why cider should fall more in line with the wine than the beer category. 

2.       Is Chicago Ripe for A Cider Boom? – This article outlines the growth of cider in Chicago since 2012 and likens it to the craft beer boom that we’ve all gotten familiar with. It addresses some of the barriers to entry for cider-makers, such as the all-too-common ‘cider stigma’ and how craft cideries are adapting their methods in order to enter a market dominated by craft beer. Plus, with Chicago just being a hop, skip, and a jump away, this might be helpful if you’re a cider fan that’s headed up north any time soon.

3.       Raising the Bar on the Cider Trend - A little different than the rest, this article focuses on two cideries in the Chicago region: Virtue Cider and Uncle John’s Cider Mill. Both Greg Hall and Mike Beck make really great ciders that you can find at some specialty liquor stores in Indianapolis. We’re particularly fond of Mike Beck and Uncle John’s Cider Mill because he’s one of our orchard partners that provides us with juice. Once we open, you all may be fans of Uncle John's as well if you like what you get!

4.       Critical Drinking – Are Craft Brewers Cutting Craft Cider to its Core? – This is a really thoughtful and challenging article from the folks at Good Beer Hunting (a great podcast to listen to if you’re into craft beer). The premise is that the trend of craft breweries jumping onto the cider bandwagon is doing harm to the craft cider world, since the craft cider movement is still in its infancy. Since both the market and some producers are ignorant about the history and tradition of cider, ‘bad’ ciders are turning people off of the industry before ‘good’ cider can turn them on. Choice quote: “In many cases, brewers are making all of these compromises at once in the pursuit of profit, or in their ignorance of another person’s craft, and hitting the gas peddle on production hoping they can cash in on another exponential growth trend adjacent to craft beer. In other words, craft brewers are co-opting craft cider the way craft brewers claim macro brewers are co-opting craft beer.” Oof!

Hopefully these articles have been enlightening to both current and future cider nerds. If you want to learn more about cider and the growth of the industry, give us a shout and we’ll connect you with some of our favorite resources. Happy drinking!

Starting a Business = Being a Circus Performer

You know the guy at the circus who somehow manages to spin multiple different plates on his fingers, nose, kneecap, and elbow all at the same time? That might be the best metaphor for small business startups that I can imagine. I’ve realized that, though my previous jobs have been in some ways multi-faceted, the scope of those job descriptions are nowhere near as varied as what we’re dealing with now as we get our business off the ground. Luckily, I spent two years in clown college, so everything is going okay. Here are our current spinning plates (cue Radiohead soundtrack):

The Law – Not a plate you want to drop. Federally speaking, we finally received our Federal Alcohol Permit from the TTB at the beginning of December. That was an awesome day, and I think we celebrated by sending a series of emoji-laden texts back and forth for several hours. Our state Alcohol and Tobacco Commission permit is under review at the moment, and once we receive that, we can actually produce and sell cider legally! As soon as that paper comes back, we start our first large(r)-scale test batch on-site.

The Finances – Closing on loans, securing the last bit of private investor money, making sure our budget is on track, trying to anticipate money-pits in advance…fincances are another set of plates that can’t be dropped. The reality is that there are probably about 20 finance plates going at once, and we already know some will drop, but which ones, and when, and can we maybe catch them before they hit the ground? This keeps me up at night.

The Product – The product keeps Aaron up at night. We have our suppliers, we know what equipment we’re going to use, we have great recipes that we’ve made dozens of times on a small scale, but will it all come together when we’re using new equipment in a new environment? We’ve had great reception when we’ve shared our ciders at events over the last year, but everyone loves free alcohol! Will people actually leave their house, drive to our tasting room or to a bar with dozens of beverage options, choose ours, and pay for it?

The Facility – Some pieces of equipment have a six-month lead time. Others you can go buy at Lowes. The rest fall somewhere in the middle. We don’t need all of our equipment to get started, but will need it eventually, so when should we order it, and in what order? Plus, the building is under construction. What if the tanks we ordered in July ship before the new concrete floor has been poured? Where will we put them? Does it really matter if our cinder-block walls are cleaned and painted? Does it $4,000 matter? Should the ADA bathroom go here or there? What grade of insulation do we need, and what grit of epoxy should we put on the floor? Stainless steel floor drains, right? How do we get a sign on the door? Should we get barstools with backs or without? And where will we put the purse hooks (purse hooks matter a lot to women at bars)?! Honestly I could go on forever with the kinds of minute decisions that need to be made Every. Single. Day. I have a whole new respect for anyone who opens a brick and mortar anything.

The Nameless Plate – “I KNOW I’M FORGETTING SOMETHING HUGE BUT WHAT IS IT?!” – me, almost every minute of every day.

So there’s a bit of insight into our lives at the moment. It sounds fear-laden, but it isn’t. It’s invigorating, with a tiny bit of fear and a pretty large dash of manic energy mixed in. And neither of us could be happier.

PS, I didn’t actually go to clown college.

How do you Finance a Craft Cidery?

Finances are a tricky thing. Talking about money is generally considered poor manners, and asking other people to give you money is straight uncomfortable, but if you want to start a business, you’re going to need some cash. There are a few ways to finance your business, including funding it yourself, bringing in investors, or taking out loans, and there are plusses and minuses to each option. Here’s a brief rundown of our thoughts and experiences with each of them.

Self-Funded - If you fund a business yourself, you have to either be wealthy, or you have to start on a small scale. This is especially true in the brewing/fermenting industry. While it’s possible to start on a shoe-string budget, you’d still need upwards of a couple hundred thousand dollars to be on the safe side. The amount of capital equipment you need to get started is expensive, and for the permitting process to even begin, you have to have a signed lease, meaning fronting at least 6 months of rent before you can make your first sale (unless you have a real estate agent who makes some good negotiations on your behalf). If you can manage to fund your business yourself, your growth can only occur by reinvesting your profits into the business. But one of the down sides of starting small is that you can only sell what you can make, and with small equipment, you probably won’t be able to make enough to grow quickly.

Pros: You own 100% of the business, and it’s a much less risky venture than the other options – in some ways! It might not feel less risky to put your life savings into a business, but at least if things go south, no creditors will come looking for you.

Cons: You’ll only be able to start as big as you can afford, and in this industry, that won’t be very big. Growth will be slow and there’s no room for error.

Investor-Funded – If you can’t finance the whole thing yourself, another option is to bring in investors who get a percentage of ownership of your business for the funds they give you. If you’re well-connected to people with both wealth and an entrepreneurial spirit, raising your funds this way can be relatively quick. If you aren’t, it may take a while to reach your target. Luckily, with the rise of successful craft breweries in Indianapolis, investors around here are familiar with the model and in some cases, are itching to get involved.

Pros: You’ll have more funds to get started, and it takes money to make money. You may also benefit from the networks of business contacts, accounting, legal services, etc. your investors bring to the table. In some cases, they can even act as a board of advisors.

Cons: You own less of your company, and someday when you hit it big, you only get a percentage of your earnings. If you don’t maintain majority ownership you could also run into conflict, or in the worst case, be cut out of the management of your company by the other owners.

Debt-Funded – Getting a loan to start your business is a feasible way to raise money, but in today’s climate, small-business loans are fewer and farther between than they have been in the past. Plus, with debt comes interest and repayment terms. One the plus side, the equipment needed for your business has a great re-sale value, which makes a loan a lot less risky from a bank’s perspective. If things go bad and you have to go out of business, you can sell all of your equipment for close to what you paid for it and may be able to walk away cleanly.

Pros: You don’t give away any equity in your business when you take out a loan, so you still own 100%. Banks can also be good partners for the future of your business, so establishing this relationship will help when you want to fund future expansion or get a line of credit opened.

Cons: Making debt repayments early-on, especially as you’re just getting started, can be a tough pill to swallow if you aren’t meeting your sales projections, and defaulting on a loan is scary business.

So what are we doing? Well…all three of course! We put a chunk of our own savings into the business to get things off the ground at the very beginning. We were able to cover the costs of hiring a graphic designer, a legal team, some expanded equipment for testing our recipes, and a fair amount of research and development (traveling to visit cideries and attend conferences). We have some investors on board who believe in our business and also see an opportunity to get a good return on their investment. Finally, we are working with lenders who think we’ll be a good addition to their portfolio.

We’re about 85% of the way funded now, which is happening at just the right time to take this show on the road.

The business side of small business ownership may not be as fascinating to everyone else as it is to us, but we’ve found it to be a constant and rewarding learning experience. If you enjoy learning about business startups, here are a few of the resources we've found valuable:

  •  StartUp Podcast -  This podcast follows the ups and downs of starting a business.
  • SCORE - A branch of the Small Business Association pairs retired former business executives with new business owners. Our SCORE mentor has been a huge help to us.
  • Indy Chamber - The Indianapolis chapter of the Chamber of Commerce provides business support as well as networking opportunities with other business owners in the city. 

Here’s to getting fully-funded in the near future and to entrepreneurship!

What's the Hold Up?

 Things have been a little quiet around here lately. Every time we talk to friends and family who are interested in our business, they ask us what we’re doing all the time. It’s a good question. Here’s what we’re working on, and what we need to get done before we can open.

Priority Number 1 – Location

We’ve been looking for a location pretty much non-stop since November. It’s hard to find a space that’s perfect. We've fallen in love with locations only to find out they won't work over and over again. Often, we feel like we’re on a never-ending episode of HGTV's “House Hunters”.

<Insert narrator’s voice>

“Aaron and Andrea have been looking for a location for their new cidery. Location #1 is on an accessible road with downtown views, plenty of space, and falls well below their budget, but can they handle a building that’s needs so much work? Location #2 offers room to expand in a convenient location in an up-and-coming neighborhood. But the lack of a private entrance and signage opportunities could cost them. Location #3 has everything they’re looking for – rustic character, functional space, and a busy street, but it’s a short-sale. Are they willing to risk their business future by letting the other locations go in their pursuit of this risky venture? Stay tuned to find out!”

<Fade to black>

It would be funnier if it weren’t so accurate.

So anyway, the location is a big issue. We think we’re close to having our location figured out and a lease signed, but until the paperwork has been finalized, we can’t move forward in any of the other areas.

Priority Number 2 – Permitting

Once we have a lease signed, we’ll be allowed to apply for our Federal Tobacco and Trade Bureau (TTB) permit. The application is comprehensive, and once it’s been submitted, it takes roughly 110 days (that’s 3.5 months!) to get our permit granted. Only after we have the TTB permit can we file for our state alcohol permit, and then after we’ve received that, we can apply for our city permit. All in all, the permitting process will take about 6 months if things go smoothly, and remember, we can’t start that process until the lease is signed.

Priority Number 3 – Build Out

Another item dependent on the lease. Once we have a lease and have our permit applications going through the Federal rigmarole, it’ll be time to start building out the space. Some of it will be un-sexy build-out, like getting the HVAC systems up and running, the plumbing and electrical requirements covered, etc. After that, the fun stuff will start and the cidery will really start to take shape. It’s hard to estimate how long this will take because we don’t have access to the building yet to see just what all needs to get done, but it will take at least several months to go from beginning construction to being able to open our doors to customers.

In the Meantime…

So a lot of the above issues are outside of our control. But, we’re still making gobs of cider and would love to share it with anyone who is interested! If you have an event coming up or if you’d like to throw a cider party at your house or business, send us an email and we can talk! So far we’ve provided cider to a nonprofit fundraiser, a wedding, and a medical office grand opening gala.

We also continue to make connections and contacts with people in the industry in Indianapolis so that we’ll be able to hit the ground running when we open.

So if you’re anxiously awaiting updates on our progress, please know that we’re awaiting those updates right along there with you, and probably more anxiously. :) 

Thanks for hanging in there with us and we’ll see you soon!

Deciding to Start a Cidery

A lot of people ask us why we decided to start a business focused on cider. It’s off the beaten path just enough to assume there’s a reason other than, ‘We like it.’ To be honest, it’s true. Here’s how we came to the idea of starting Indianapolis’ first dedicated hard-cider company.

Like a lot of other cider-makers around the States, Aaron found his way to cider via the craft beer world. He went to grad school in the mid-2000s near San Francisco. While the craft beer boom hadn’t really hit in Indianapolis at that time, it was big business on the West Coast, and Aaron jumped in full-force, seeking out different beers and starting to homebrew. He moved back to Indianapolis in 2006 with a couple years of brewing under his belt and a desire to open a brewery. But, like a lot of other people, he had student loans and bills to worry about, so it wasn’t an option. A few years later, when craft beer started to pick up steam in Indy, he again had fantasies of opening a brewery, but wasn’t able to convince himself to take the risk.

Around that time,  Aaron and I got together. Aaron realized that, while he loved craft beer, his interest in exploring other beverages had grown. I was game for an adventure, and we brainstormed what skills we each had, what would be a good business idea, and what we were interested in. A few years before, we'd traveled to Ireland and had a cider unlike anything we'd ever had in the States, opening our eyes to the possibilities of different styles. We’d already been making wine, and added cider to the mix too. As we brainstormed about their business ideas in the spring of 2014, cider quickly rose to the top. The growth in the industry over the last couple years around the US was incredible, the skills from brewing beer and making wine transferred well to making cider, and, important to both of us, apple trees grow well in Indiana, meaning not only could we make a truly local product, we could support farmers in our community through the business. And of course, the fact that cider is delicious and we still had so much more to learn about it got us excited about the challenge ahead.

What followed were months of research: drinking as many ciders from around the world we could get their hands on and making batch after batch to perfect our recipes. We took trip to cider hotspots like Portland, Seattle, and Michigan. We visited local orchards to talk with farmers about their perspectives. We conducted market research. Each step along the way, all signs pointed to this being the right business idea at the right time.

It’s been a whirlwind trip already, and we haven’t even opened yet. We hope you’ll join us on the next phase of our journey!

Why Ash & Elm?

As we meet people and tell them about our business, we always get asked why we chose Ash & Elm Cider as our name. It’s a great question, with a bit of a long answer.

Originally, we formed the LLC for the company with a different name. We registered a website, got our email addresses set up, and had our graphic designer start working on our logo and branding guide. Everything was running smoothly.

One morning, I got a text from a friend. It was a picture of a sign of a new brewery opening near her neighborhood that had the exact. same. name. We thought our name was pretty unique, so we were extremely surprised and disappointed. After going back and forth with our lawyers, we came to the sad conclusion that we’d have to change our name and come up with a new one.

For a few weeks, we were hung up on the idea that our new name had to be similar enough to the old one that we’d at least be able to keep our logo and branding, because it was awesome and we’d grown very fond of it. We shot ideas back and forth around the same theme, sent contenders to the lawyers who were helping us verify the ability of the names, and got shot down over and over again. Womp womp – it was going to be time to say goodbye to our beautiful logo and branding.

We rallied, though, and started thinking about names that weren't related to our first one. We listed things that are important to us and our family, and immediately knew that something relating to trees, nature, and the outdoors would be our answer. Aaron’s dad is a botanist in Indiana and could identify nearly any plant or tree that he stumbles across within the whole state. My parents live near to a state park where they spend hours every week, hiking and bird watching. Because of this, both of us are pretty passionate about the outdoors. Ash and elm trees are both species native to Indiana, but because of recent pests, they’re endangered. We love the idea of having a business that isn’t necessarily centered around conservation efforts, but uses its platform to support the businesses and nonprofits that are engaged in that work.

It works in another way, too: cider is a natural product that wouldn’t be possible to make if the earth isn’t cared for– apples grow on trees, in orchards, and they grow well in Indiana and Michigan. We’d love to see them continue to grow, and for more apple trees to be planted.

The link between these ideas and our name makes a lot of sense to us, and we’re excited to see how our love for the outdoors can translate into our business. Cheers!

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