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Stepping up the cider game

It’s a great time to lead in the cider business, and this farm group aims to take their Broken Ladder brand international

Back when my grandparents’ generation of Okanagan farmers first formed a fruit growing co-operative to market their fruit, farmers made a good living growing and selling crops on a commodity basis. Sure, some of that fruit ended up in cans, in fruit leather or in other value-added applications, but that all happened after the fruit was sold. Growers grew, and that was the end of the story.

Fast-forward 80 years and it’s a very different world. Tightening margins and increasing global competition mean growing a great product is as necessary as ever, but it’s now just a first step. To be successful, growers and grower co-operatives need to complement great production with creativity, top-notch marketing savvy, and an eye for in-house value-add.

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Many farmers have creativity and outside-the-box thinking in spades. But it’s darn difficult to come up with a viable, consumer-friendly, lucrative value-add, especially one that hasn’t already saturated its market and one you can handle in-house. Many fruit growers have tried various schemes; very few have been successful.

But Broken Ladder Cider — a 100 per cent fruit, totally natural, no-additive hard cider, produced in-house by the BC Tree Fruits grower co-operative — seems like an idea that has had success written all over it since day one.

Not yet even two years into production, Broken Ladder Cider consistently flies off liquor store shelves. Now, it’s lining up for national and then international distribution. Best of all, the top-notch product is turning C-grade fruit — which would otherwise be sold for pennies on the pound to juice manufacturers — into lucrative returns for BC Tree Fruits’ approximately 800 grower members.

“It’s the ultimate good news story,” says Shannon Forgues, Broken Ladder’s promotions and marketing supervisor. “It’s a great way of adding value for farmers, and it’s a product people get really excited about.

“It’s alcoholic apple juice, clean and pure. People love that all it has in it is apples, nothing more. You might not be able to eat a few apples a day but you can sure drink them. And the brand and product has that farmer mystique to it, which is right in line with the whole farm-to-table trend.”

Once in a while, you talk to someone who is so many mental leaps ahead of everyone else that you’re keenly aware you’re only hearing the highest peaks on the tallest slopes of a great big iceberg of knowledge and vision. Alan Tyabji — ex-CEO of Okanagan Tree Fruits and the visionary behind Broken Ladder Cider — is one of those people.

It started as a search to find a market for apples no one wanted to pay for. Now, Broken Ladder is high status.
photo: Lionel Trudel Photography Ltd.

Ours is a small world and an even smaller town. Tyabji happens to live just down our country lane. I’ve passed him a hundred times as I walk our dogs down the bumpy road towards our shared bank of mailboxes. Usually he’s zooming past in his little black car: a man constantly on a mission.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve passed him far less often. Since taking on the CEO role of BC Tree Fruits an hour and a half away, he’s worked long hours to keep the day-to-day operations of the fruit co-operative rolling and to bring Broken Ladder to market.

Today, as he ushers me into his cozy dining room, however, he’s got time to chat. Exactly one day into retirement, he’s still buzzing with enthusiasm for his product, still fully mentally invested in the Broken Ladder story. And what a story it is.

To understand what makes the Broken Ladder concept so good, we first need to know a bit about cider itself.

Until just the last few years, Canadian-made hard ciders (especially out here on the West Coast) were typically made from grain alcohol, various flavourings and a ton of sugar rather than fruit. The end result is super sweet (and more than occasionally headache inducing) but certainly not trendy, foodie, or “craft.” Demand for grain alcohol-based ciders is extremely limited, which makes that market stagnant and difficult to enter.

European and some American-made hard ciders differ in every way from grain alcohol-based ciders. Made partially or wholly from fermented apples, these ciders are variations on what the Greeks and Romans made 2,000 or more years ago. That said, even within the fruit-based cider segment, there are two distinct streams: mass-produced ciders made from juice concentrate and sweetener, and craft ciders made from fresh-pressed apples.

As craft beer breweries and countless startup wineries gained increasing alcohol market share over the past decade, savvy alcohol marketers started seeing potential for a “clean,” fruit-based, European-style cider market, especially among food and drink-keen millennials (who, as a group, are more willing than other demographics to put their money where their foodie ideals lie). The fresh-pressed fruit cider niche was one Tyabji anticipated years before it started showing its potential, and one he was uniquely poised to help BC Tree Fruits jump upon.

Though Broken Ladder Cider has only been in production for two years, it stems from a concept first crafted a decade or more ago.

Back before multiple smaller fruit growers’ co-operatives amalgamated to form BC Tree Fruits, Tyabji headed the South Okanagan Fruit Growers’ Co-operative. In order to maximize returns to grower members, he looked at every angle, from decreasing costs to pursuing new markets and increasing sales returns. One avenue for value-add stuck out as particularly obvious.

“The co-op identified back then that there was a segment of fruit — the non-attractives — that just didn’t return sufficient dollars to growers. So, we asked the question: How do we do something with the fruit to get better returns to our members?”

The answer, they determined, was a European-style, all-fruit cider. Under Tyabji’s leadership and using a government development grant, the co-op developed an in-house, 100 per cent fruit, no-additive cider recipe. Then, it actively encouraged individual farmers to opt into a franchise-style cider-making business, offering production training and marketing support to any who took up the challenge.

“The concept was that farmers could capitalize on the central knowledge of our parent company and, more importantly, capitalize on the diversified distribution that they themselves brought. We set up protected regions so each farmer who applied would have a protected area,” Tyabji explains.

Only one farmer jumped on the opportunity before the program was disbanded when the local co-ops amalgamated in 2008. However, the legwork that went into creating one of B.C.’s very first 100 per cent fruit ciders would prove surprisingly useful just a few years later.

If it seems strange that a fresh fruit co-op would foray into in-house cider-making, consider Tyabji’s background. Thirty years earlier, he’d helped transform Calona wines (in Kelowna, B.C.) from a low-value, poorly recognized regional brand to the largest winery in Canada. In the 1980s, he was a founding partner of Okanagan Vineyards, which he ultimately and successfully sold to Vincor International. And, he was a key actor in the Schloss Laderheim brand, an inexpensive wine that hit No. 1 in white wine sales in Canada in the 1990s. Having danced a time or two in the alcohol business meant he understood the necessary infrastructure, the regulatory environment and, most importantly, the market itself.

In 2012, Tyabji took over the reins of the entire BC Tree Fruits organization. He brought with him the memory of the cider project they’d developed in the south, but now he had a much bigger cast of potential players and a vastly bigger number of low-return C-grade apples with which to work.

“I was asked to come and change BC Tree Fruits’ direction. The need was much more significant because we were a much more significant organization than a small, stand-alone co-op. So, we looked at a broader, much more aggressive model. That’s how Broken Ladder was born.”

Aggressive is right. Right from the beginning, the vision for Broken Ladder was to go international.

“We planned to go after the provincial market as a first step, then go national in scope. But the long range vision is international,” Tyabji says. “It’s baby steps right now, but the potential for cider is huge. The vision and plan are to utilize 100 per cent of all commercial grade fruit that comes through BC Tree Fruits. That’s an achievable plan.”

Tyabji started by building a heavy-hitting team, headed by Mike Daley, the recently retired director of operations for Growers Cider, Canada’s largest cider company. (Conveniently, Daley also happens to be Tyabji’s son-in-law.)

Together, the team built their product from scratch, focusing on creating a top-quality, no-corners-cut cider. They started with what Tyabji calls the “soul” of the product.

“We knew it had to be pure. That was the key element of everything; that was what would differentiate us from everyone else. There wasn’t another cider on the market that was 100 per cent fruit without any additives of any nature.”

And it had to taste good.

While taste is subjective, it turns out it can also be entirely scientific. For six months, a team of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researchers, together with one of the Okanagan Valley’s best winemakers, analyzed components of the most popular no-additive hard apple ciders available on the market. Then, they fermented each variety of apple grown commercially in the Okanagan to identify their characteristics, before blending them in various combinations.

The final product is a blend of six local apples which together have enough natural sugar, complexity and acid to produce a crisp, refreshing, balanced cider.

“That’s it. Nothing else. No concentrates, no sugar, no water, nothing. Just the apples. And when you try it, you know it: it just tastes clean… pure,” says Forgues.

“We knew we’d have a product that was very, very good right from the start. The challenge was whether or not we could identify the market niche and convince buyers that we were the best in the niche,” says Tyabji.

The Broken Ladder name, like so much of the product, was a group effort. It’s catchy and different yet rustic and “farmy.” The logo was a given. The BC Tree Fruits little green leaf logo, which carries huge impact in the B.C. market, was an obvious choice to underscore the quality, authenticity and “honest farmer” component of the product.

In April 2015, the product launched.

“I remember my first day,” Forgues recalls with a laugh. “I packed up my first shipment, which was eight pallets to Vancouver and six to the Kamloops LCB (Liquor Control Board) warehouse. Fourteen pallets. I thought that was a huge day. Then the orders just kept coming.”

“It just didn’t last long, not long at all, on store shelves. Maybe it was there a month before it sold out. So then we were frantically making more and more to try to meet demand,” she says.

“It was gratifying to see it take off but, because the team that was involved in the startup had 100 years of combined liquor market experience, it didn’t surprise us,” adds Tyabji. “We knew where to go and what to do.”

That confidence is evident in the warehouse selected for the fermentation tanks. While they started with just six fermenters, the room can easily hold eight times that many. A second shipment of tanks was ordered before the first cans hit liquor store shelves. Today, they are up to 19 fermenters and more are currently under construction. They’ve grown from one press to two, and they’ve added their own canning line to the process.

“The success of a product is a combination of opportunity in the market and quality of the product. The cider market was growing; the natural market was growing, we just had to position ourselves correctly into the evolving market to succeed,” he says.

If Tyabji makes it sound deceptively simple — “positioning ourselves correctly” — the reality was anything but.

“We have been very, very aggressive about marketing Broken Ladder,” says Forgues. “Every event we could get it in, we were there. We’ve done piles and piles of in-store tastings, media drops, anything to get people talking. With a product like this, you have to get people to try it. You have to build momentum. You can’t just take an ad out in a magazine. They have to actually hold the can in their hand, taste the product, feel a connection to the brand and farmers who grew the apples inside the can. If you can do that, nine times out of 10, they’re going to love it and want more.”

Last year, BC Tree Fruits added an apples-and-hops and an apple-pear line, then launched into Alberta. This year, they plan to diversify, adding smaller-volume glass bottles that better suit serving in restaurants.

In the three years since it hit the market, the brand has sold more than 1.2 million cans. They aim to sell almost that number again this year alone, with a goal of 40,000 cases. Next year’s goal is 55,000 cases.

“Our hope is to grow by 20 to 30 per cent per year,” says Forgues.

To achieve that growth, Broken Ladder has a target demographic, namely hipsters.

“The first few months after we opened the tasting bar here in town, I was shocked that it was mostly men coming in to fill growlers. Traditionally, I’ve thought of ciders as appealing more to women. Predominantly, it’s 25- to 45-year-old guys who come in with women to start. Virtually everyone likes the product, but it’s the guys who are doing most of the buying and it’s guys who keep coming back.”

While the heavy lifting may seem complete for Broken Ladder Cider’s brand building, much work remains.

The team is currently in discussion with the B.C. liquor board to create a cider-specific origin and quality label similar to the VQA label applied to certain B.C. wines. In B.C., markups vary by product. VQA-labelled wines allow the winery to keep significantly more of the shelf price. A “CQA” (or similar) label could garner similar benefits.

“If we could get preferred treatment for real cider through a VQA-style labelling system, we could crowd out commercial-style ciders and others that aren’t real ciders,” says Forgues.

“I believe the government is supportive of B.C. agriculture. Achieving a CQA label depends on whether the province expands the raw material classification. We have promises made but all of the rules and regulations have yet to be written,” adds Tyabji.

At the end of the day, Broken Ladder Cider’s real story is the dollars and cents back to growers.

“There is excitement. You have to remember that we are only in our second year. It’s when we are fully utilizing all of our commercial grade fruit, that’s when the full impact will benefit growers. That will evolve over time,” says Tyabji.

“We’re constantly looking to add the most value to the fruit that farmers produce. We were already adding some value to C-grade fruit by sending them to SunRype for juice. We moved forward with this venture because, by bringing it in-house and making alcohol instead of juice, we added more value.”

The potential is for better returns and bigger volume ahead.

“We expect that there will be many more competitors coming into the market with similar products, but we expect the market to continue to grow,” says Tyabji. “It’s a very good time to be in the cider-making business right now.”

“No matter who starts making cider, we’re out in front and developing a following with consumers,” adds Forgues. “If you’re in first you have a big advantage. Especially if your product is as fantastic as ours.”

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