Jason Dayton

Jason Dayton and his partners plan to open Minneapolis Cider Company somewhere north of the river, at a location to be revealed later. Photo by Brian Lambert

Coming soon: Minneapolis Cider Company

Location TBA

Do you think you know anything, really, about the cider business?

The guess here is that you don’t. For a lot of people, maybe most, cider is just some fruity variation on “the craft beer thing.”

In the interest of saving time, let’s just say you’re wrong and bring in Jason Dayton, one of the founders of what will be known as The Minneapolis Cider Company when it opens for business, he said recently, “Sometime in the first half of 2019.”

“Cider is licensed as low-alcohol apple wine,” he explained over, well, beer at the Fulton Brewery in the North Loop. “In other words, cider operations like ours are wineries and subject to a different set of rules than breweries, like Fulton here. That means, among other things, that no grains are allowed on the premises. We cannot distill. We are not allowed to use grain in our products. Hops and spices, yes. But no grain. Also, by way of basic differences, breweries have to have at least 51% malt. So for example, the Sociable Cider Werks (in the Northeast Park neighborhood) is actually licensed as a brewery.”

If all that sounds like something heavily lobbied into the liquor business, you’re right. But Dayton, a 30-something Target employee for the time being, and his two co-partners see only upside because of it.

They’re keeping the precise location of their “winery” a secret until the big reveal sometime after the first of the year. But we are allowed to report that it will be north of the river.

Dayton, University of Minnesota entrepreneurship program pal David O’Neil and Rob Fisk are currently well into the logistics of assembling the plant (i.e. pouring considerable sweat equity into transforming the space). Their bet is that demand for an alternative to beer — and there is a lot of beer out there — will only expand in coming years.

A key, Dayton concedes, is educating the public on the differences and advantages of cider.

The advantages for team Minneapolis Cider will be that they can sell six-packs out of their winery as well as distribute wherever they can cut a deal. One model Dayton says they like are storefront satellite locations in places like Milwaukee and Chicago, emphasizing the kind of grassroots vibe of their product as opposed to the corporate nature of the giants like InBev and regional breweries like Summit, which Dayton believes is facing a growing peril, since so much of their business is based on distribution.

“The competition for shelf space for craft beers is nuts right now. Every liquor store is being pitched by literally dozens of craft breweries, and they’re asking every one of them how they’re different than any of the 20 or 30 brands they’re already carrying.”

The problem of public understanding of cider, as something other than the (often way too) sweet beverage available by the barrel all over town every fall, is not insignificant. Like liquor store managers, the public is facing a glut of beverage choices.

Dayton sees a surge in cider interest nationally and said he believes media attention will go a long way toward explaining the differences between beer and his business. As you would expect, he is confident that just as the public pretty quickly grasped the wide range of tastes craft brewing brought to the marketplace, so too will it grasp that “winery” cider is a significantly different creature — a collection of creatures — than the sweet brown stuff of autumn tradition.

“Not to get too technical,” he said, “but with cider you’re playing with the balance in variations of tannin, sweetness and acidity.”

He added that, ironically, the worst-looking apples, the ugly runts of the litter that would ordinarily get tossed for being too homely for sale, “are the ones that taste best for cider.”

When up and running, Minneapolis Cider Company will be the largest cider operation in Minnesota, Dayton said. The industry today is dominated by Washington and Oregon — the source of 80 percent of U.S. production — and internationally by the British.

“Our hope is to produce between 1,000 and 2,000 (30-gallon) barrels of cider our first year,” he said. “But when fully operational, we’ll have capacity for 20,000 barrels annually.”

He added, “Up until now production and distribution has all been about proximity between the rural and the urban, which is one reason why the UK is 50 percent of the cider market today. Over there it is not a niche product like it is here in the States.”

Dayton’s British father-in-law was “into home-brewing in Dorset for 40 years” and a visit to that green and pleasant land had a lot to do with convincing him there was a business opportunity for him back in the colonies.

Dayton’s enthusiasm and control of data is infectious and has obviously worked on investors and bankers underwriting the project.

“People like the idea of being in on the early end of the growth curve,” he said.