“In the heat of July, two of our distributors sold more than they had for the first six months of the year,’’ says Stonewell Cider managing director Daniel Emerson, who is having a busy August after the announcement of the Great Taste awards at the start of the month. Among the many calls he received was one from a high-end store in the UK which plans to stock Stonewell cider come September.
One of Ireland’s first craft cider producers, Stonewell, is a small but growing operation which is looking to develop export markets in the UK and North America. Started in 2009 in the depths of recession, when banks weren’t lending, it has build up nationwide sales and is making plans to expand production.
Mr Emerson says two factors have worked in the company’s favour. “One is the Magners effect which has happened in the last 10 to 15 years — advertising by Bulmers/Magners has transformed the image of cider making it fashionable and trendy again.
“The other factor is the growing popularity of craft beer, which is being used by publicans to offer a point of difference to attract customers during the recession. This has helped create an interest in other craft drinks.”
The downside of not being a craft beer is that craft cider producers don’t get the same cut in duty that craft brewers do. “We pay 50% more duty which makes craft cider more expensive,” says Mr Emerson. But despite this difficulty, he has managed to grow the business and is optimistic about the future.
Originally a media consultant in the UK and France, Mr Emerson returned to Cork in 2007, just before the recession hit. Married to Geraldine, daughter of a French wine-maker, Mr Emerson decided to turn his cider-making hobby into a business.
“I discovered that more cider is drunk per capita in Ireland than anywhere else in the world,” he says. “It’s 16 litres per head per annum, which is amazing when you think how many people here don’t drink cider.”
He attended a course at a cider academy in Gloucester and started small in a converted barn at his home in Nohoval. Market research proved difficult because there wasn’t too much information about sales in Ireland. “I canvassed to find out if there was an appetite for an alternative cider and got a positive response,” says Mr Emerson.
Funding the venture by working as a media consultant, he bough apples in Tipperary in the autumn of 2009 and, taking on one employee, made 10,000 litres of cider.
Blending the right cider took trial and error. “I had to figure out what type of cider would suit the market and I decided to go for a craft cider that was approachable accessible and a little more funky than traditional cider,” he says. “I felt that medium dry cider was the best option.”
Once the product was bottled and ready for market in early 2010, Mr Emerson didn’t find it difficult to sell. After promoting it on Twitter and Facebook, the phone began to ring and he built sales in Cork City, mainly to restaurants and speciality pubs.
The following year, he tripled production, added a dry cider, and expanded his customer base around Munster and, on request, began supplying restaurants around the country.
By early 2012, he realised that he needed to expand to cope with growing demand.
“When I started the banks wouldn’t lend in the recession to a brand new start-up in a new market,” he says. “There was no confidence that this would last.” But in 2012 he was able to get investment of €80,000 to rent a 3,000 sq ft near Crosshaven.
Maintaining part of the business in Nohoval, he used the funding to purchase new specialist equipment and rent a cider press.
Increasing production, he signed up with three distributors and now has sales to pubs and restaurants nationwide. Employing three full-time staff and two seasonal staff, Stonewell sells to pubs and restaurants in cities and tourist areas.
“Last year, sales trebled and we expect a threefold increase again this year,” says Mr Emerson who is looking to increase production to 350,000 litres.
“We are now in advanced discussion with a distributor supplying high-end supermarkets and delis in the UK,” he says. “We will start with the and move on to supplying pubs.’’ He adds that he is also in talks with a distributor in Canada.
With plans to start exports early next year, two three-star gold awards in the Great Taste awards have been a huge bonus. It’s brought both recognition and business to Stonewell.
As the company waits for this year’s crop to ripen, Mr Emerson is making plans for expansion with some assistance from Secad, the enterprise support company. He is also on the lookout for a new premises in the Cork area which will allow Stonewell to increase its production capacity.