First came wineries, dotting the Pennsylvania landscape, their growth fueled by entrepreneurs. Next came breweries and distilleries, and they're still coming. Now it's cider's time — some four dozen cideries launching in Pennsylvania in the last five years, fueling, in turn, a solid return for the state's apple orchards. (In Philadelphia alone, Hale & True opened last month in Bella Vista, and June should bring the debut of Kurant in Fishtown.)
Brian and Olga Dressler of Downingtown — he's 31 and a mechanical engineer by training; she's 30 and a designer and web developer — started making cider and wine in 2012, a year before their marriage.
Hard cider, which at its core is simply fermented fruit juice, intrigued them more. They took courses from the National Association of Cidermakers at Cornell University and the Penn State Extension.
Dressler Estate — which they run out of a converted garage next to their modest Downingtown home — was founded in 2015 but launched in 2016 with a $7,500 crowdsourcing fund. Their first production was a year later.
How did you get into cider?
Brian: My mom taught me how to make apple pies as a kid. There was always this nostalgic Americana for me about just apples and being just this wholesome thing that's been intertwined in American history forever. Just a very pure thing. I was interested in trying some home-brew experiments, but gravitated toward using fruit instead of making beer.
I also grew up working on cars with my dad. Really hands-on kind of guy. I had an engineering job. I was a couple years into my engineering career out of college, and didn't really get as much of the hands-on as I wanted to. I always like to say that I started it as a hobby to keep me from going insane.
Olga: He was kind of like, 'I want to try something.' Then we had this fun idea, kind of pie in the sky. We thought, 'We can make the beverages for our wedding.' We made wine. We started doing that alongside the cider-making. As you talk to us more, you'll find out that we very firmly believe that cider has a lot more in common with wine than beer, so we take a winemaker's approach to making cider.
Then, unfortunately, our caterer told us that that was not approved, but it sparked an idea. We got really excited about it. I particularly got very excited about trying ciders that weren't from here in the States and realizing that there are so many different types of cider that weren't on the market in the States, or at least things that didn't hit the Pennsylvania market. It's going to get here. We're going to have to do it. That pushed us in that direction.
When did you decide to go pro with cider?
Brian: I think we realized that there was a market opportunity. On the American market at the time, cider was still very much in its infancy. We could get some mass-produced ciders, but they were generally of lower quality — mostly just one-dimensional sugar. We wanted something a little bit more elegant. You can certainly get very nice wines in America, but at the time, getting something like that in a cider was much more difficult.
Olga: We basically wanted to make what we couldn't find. That's the time that we were getting more interested with the industry. The Penn State Extension started trying to develop the industry itself as well. They started offering workshops that talked about the production process, what the legal landscape looked like for actually going through and getting licenses and applications submitted. We went from one class to the next and just really tried to build as much information as we could, starting with Penn State Extension and really trying to get an idea from start to finish what could be achieved in the short term. What did we want it to look like in the long term? We really have been very passionate about educating people on cider. We've been passionate about keeping our business the family business. That's been the things that have driven us from where we started up until this point.
We started out small: seven-gallon food-grade buckets. You start in those and then as the fermentation slows down, you move it to glass vessels. Most of our equipment we repurposed from other businesses. We got a lot of our equipment from a winery that was closing down in an estate sale in October 2016. We started out with a tank capacity of 1,100 liters and probably in, I think, January of this year, we bought some more tanks from a brewery in North Carolina. Our tank capacity now is 4,100 liters.
I love the idea of using “estate” in your name. What’s that all about?
Brian: From the start, we wanted full ownership. We didn't want any investors because we wanted to really steer our vision. We always wanted to be a family business. Someday we'll give it to our kids when we have them. We don't have them yet. We were forming this whole thing ourselves and we realized with the budget that we had available without taking from any investors that it was very, very difficult to launch the business in a commercial space. Olga got the very wise idea to take after some of the European models and even some of the West Coast American models, where it's more like an estate, where you live on the property, where you make it.
It's just a whole complete lifestyle. We got the idea: What if we were to purchase a home that had buildings that would allow us to do this basically? Started a very long search and eventually ended up here and bought our home really just so we could start this business.
Who are your customers?
Brian: Our customers are more of a higher-end crowd. We also try and target the crossover customer. We don't exclusively target beer drinkers. We don't exclusively target wine drinkers. We try to craft both the packaging and the product themselves to target drinkers of higher-end craft beverages that would appreciate something different in cider. They want to try something new that tastes different.
Olga: Then, of course, in addition to that, a lot of our customers are actually entire restaurants. Not just the individual. From that perspective, we like to focus on establishments that have a passion for local ingredients.
What have you learned? Any takeaways here?
Brian: There isn't necessarily one thing that strikes me as our biggest takeaway, but I would say that starting a business altogether was a learning experience. It taught me more about how I wanted to apply the things that I learned in school and the things that I was taught about into something tangible. I'm starting to really understand what people talk about. The things that are different and starting a career vs. doing something that's your passion. Really knowing that I'm excited about this. We meet so many people. We work with orchards that grow fruit because we don't grow our own. That's really about the partnership and learning about their vision and their methodologies. There's definitely a lot of education as a part of it.