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Two Rivers rides wave of cider popularity – seeking a spot on the grid

For the first decade of its nearly 17-year history, Two Rivers Cider was close to a one-man show, with founder and owner Vincent Sterne at center stage. While building his hard cider business, Stern worked behind the bar at Rubicon Brewery, rubbed elbows with those in the homebrewing community and sought advice from wine and beer makers. Back in the mid-’90s, there really wasn’t much ado about cider.

The bubbly, alcoholic apple drink was in its infancy when Stern broke into the industry, and mostly big brewing companies made fermented fruit suds. "It was mainly large companies I was in competition with, and they weren’t giving away their secrets," Sterne said. "When I started there wasn’t really anybody for me to go to for cider advice."

With so many craft beer and wine makers, Sterne wanted to differentiate himself, and cider seemed like the perfect fit.

"I thought it would be a good niche," he said. "I was a little premature – the newfound popularity of hand-crafted cider has emerged in the last two years."

It’s true. The volume of cider consumed in the United States grew 65 percent last year alone, according to an NPR story on Americans rediscovering “the kick of hard cider.” 

That boom hasn’t gone unnoticed locally, says Sterne, who said his company experienced a 50 percent bump in sales from 2010 to 2011. Since opening Two Rivers Cider, the company has averaged a 25 percent growth in sales per year, he said.

“We have a huge demand for cider that we have a hard time filling to be honest – we kind of got caught off guard,” said Sterne, who admits the cider isn’t aggressively marketed, saying it “kind of markets itself.”

Sterne and his team often “get weird” when experimenting with new flavors, fruits and batches, and have developed several mainstays over the years. In addition to the classic hard apple cider, Two Rivers brews a blood orange cider, pear cider, raspberry cider, huckleberry cider, pomegranate cider, dry oak cider and seasonals.

Nick Vellanoweth, Two Rivers Cider’s production manager and Stern’s right-hand man, said Sterne will oftentimes have an idea for a new mix in his head, discuss it with the team to see if it’s feasible, and if the fruits are available, then start experimenting.

“As I grow the business I’m constantly trying to come up with something innovative and creative that will captivate our customers,” Sterne said.

While Sterne prides himself in maintaining what he considers a small, locally produced, regionally distributed cider company, the fact is it’s growing every day. Two Rivers now employs about a handful of people, and recently expanded its production facility by 1,000 square feet.

Recently, Sterne was on the phone with the owner of The Local, a bar in Humboldt County, which wanted to add some cider to its array of taps. He already distributes to Portland, and dreams of adding a production facility somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

"I have the dream of someday growing my company large enough so I can retire, grow my apples and have a little roadside cider stand," said Sterne. "But until then I have to grow the business enough until I can afford that dream."

Doing so may mean adding a tasting room to its current production facility, or creating one in Midtown.

While Sterne hasn’t nailed down a site yet, he is currently in "conversations" to attain a building. "We’re definitely aiming for within a 3-mile radius of downtown Sacramento, this side of the river for sure," he said.

Vellanoweth says they’re hoping to find something on J or K street, around the 2000 block. “Midtown is the place to be, that’s where our cider drinkers are,” said Vellanoweth. “Right now we’re tucked away in Hollywood Park – when people try to find us the first question they have is ‘Do you have a tasting room?’”

“If we’re more visible, it wouldn’t be such an adventure to get here.”

But it’s a matter of money and the city’s zoning codes at the moment. If Two Rivers can find a spot in Midtown with an alcohol permit grandfathered in, that’d be ideal, Vellanoweth said. If not, one costs $13,000 and is non-transferrable to another location.

It’s a big chunk of money to say the least, says Sterne, and he’s hoping the city changes its zoning code to exempt businesses in industrial zones from paying that hefty fee.

But this could all change this year, as the city council is slated to update the zoning code as part of the 2030 general plan. A public hearing on this is scheduled for this Tuesday night’s council meeting. 

By nixing this $13,000 fee, the cost of establishing a microbrewery in Sacramento would be drastically reduced, at least in industrial zones, said Dean Peckham, senior project manager for the economic development department.

“They can become real community assets,” he said, citing Track 7 as an example. “We’re just trying to increase the cultural diversity of the city and be business friendly at the same time.”

For Sterne, hard cider is the most fascinating because it’s the newest. “There are thousands of wine and beer makers, but only a handful of cider makers,” he said. “Unfortunately there are a lot of ingredients and the process gets pricey.”

But it seems to be working, and appealing to beer drinking audience and beyond.

“He found a way to make cider that’s more appealing to everyone,” Vellanoweth said. “It’s not on the sweet side, and closer to dry, showing there’s more to cider than what’s out there.”  

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