Follow up: Nine Pin Cider Works

Nine Pin founder Alejandro del Peral

Alejandro del Peral

AOA is on summer break this week. So we'll have new follow-ups with people we've covered during the last few years.

Next up: Nine Pin Cider Works in Albany.

The first time we met Alejandro de Peral, the startup cidery's founder, it was in the summer of 2013 as they were just getting set up in a space in the Warehouse District. He told us then how meeting a group of cider makers at a tasting in a Burlington, Vermont liquor store set him on the path to starting the business:

"I'm having these conversations with these guys and lightbulbs are just going off in my head. Oh my god, I have all these apples down by where I grew up. This incredible product. These guys are cool, their whole philosophy on cider making and apple growing and the relationship between the two" -- sourcing locally from small orchards -- "is exactly what I believe and feel."

Over the course of the past three years, Nine Pin has grown a lot -- its ciders are available on tap at bars and restaurants around the Capital Region, and its bottles and cans are sold in retail outlets -- all while continuing to source its apples from the greater Capital Region.

And the company recently made a significant expansion to its production facility on Broadway, with more plans for the future.

nine pin expansion fermentation tanks

So obviously a lot has changed since we first wrote about you. It seems like the biggest new thing is the expanded production facility and the new tasting room. So what's going on with that?

We recently bought seven 6,000-gallon fermentation/aging tanks. And we've gotten the chance in the last eight weeks to make a bunch of cider in them -- and our cider-making process is a long one so we won't actually be drinking that cider probably until the end of November/December. But we can already tell that the cider we're producing with this new equipment is such high quality. And the ability to age it in such a controlled environment is going to be a game changer for us in terms of maintaining super high quality and just everything about it is so much better and so much more efficient and so much more controlled. So that's been incredible. That was a major investment for the back of the house.

When we first started the whole retail space was in some ways an afterthought ... But luckily the whole farm cidery [license] came into play and all of sudden we were gifted with this whole piece of the business that we never set out to do. And what we realized over the last two and a half years is that the tasting room part of of our operation is almost as equally important as the wholesale production side. I mean, they both support each other. But it's really something that we haven't given a lot of focus to. If anybody's been to our tasting room, you can see it's a little shabby, a little homemade and put together.

So we've been thinking and talking and trying to plan a means of giving people's experience of when they visit the cidery a more all-inclusive view, at least of a section of the production floor which we think is important, and making it more comfortable and a better place to hang out.So our goal is to have it -- knock on wood -- ready to launch sometime in the early fall.

nine pin tasting room small batch tap handles

And another incentive for us to invest in that was a change to the farm cidery law -- and it hasn't been signed by the governor yet, but the second it is it will go into effect -- that will allow us to sell New York State farm brewery-made beer, and wine, and cocktails. So we can not only turn our tasting space into a showcase of our products and our production space, but turn it into this great taste-New York sort of experience right here in the capital, in the city. We just think it's such a cool concept and something we've wanted to do but haven't been allowed. Right now the farm cidery law allows us to sell cider by the glass and sell beer and wine and spirits in packages, but you have to take [the beer and wine] away, you can't drink it on site. So we have all these cool ideas for weekly cider cocktails made with local spirits and having breweries come in and doing events with them. I'm personally super excited about that. And I think it should happen by the fall.

In the three years that you've been in business, what do you think is the big lesson you've learned?

So many lessons... no idea. Every day is like just a series of serious, intense problem solving. For example we just got this cool labeler that can label the cans that come off our canning line -- it can do like a hundred cans a minute. And we had this cider that we've been wanting to put in a can -- it's dry-hopped cider made with all local hops -- and the distributor is all ready for pre-order, my cousin's out there selling it, he's like, everyone wants it. And we turn on the machine for the first time and it's like a thousand problems.

nine pin labeled cans dry-hopped cider

One of the biggest things I've learned is, it's fun to to get everyone excited about something, but also you gotta make sure to hold back on the expectation of when it's going to come to give you time to troubleshoot with new equipment and that sort of stuff. Because no matter what it is, you have to learn how to use it and it always involves tweaking and stuff breaks all the time.

So I think that might be, in terms of being a business owner, one of the biggest lessons I've learned is to have a little bit of patience with introducing new things until you know you can do it perfectly. Because there's no way to assume you get the crate in the mail with the new machinery and you're going to be able by the end of the week to be running it and have it working perfectly.

What's something that's surprised you?

I would say the biggest surprise has been how our local community has embraced what we're doing, especially in the beginning. Now the cider market is super different even from when we got involved in 2013. It's changed so fast. There's so many new brands that are just popping up all over the place. But in the beginning when we started, people didn't really know what it was or anything like that. There were a few people who had had a couple of the more mass produced ones, but for the most part we were bracing ourselves for months -- years and years -- of having to educate people on what it was and our whole concept of telling people about the apple supply that we have here and why this is the best place in the country to make cider.

I think for me it was surprising, as well as humbling, how supportive the community around here has been. They've really allowed us to boom the way that we have been. It's awesome -- surprising in a good way.

What's something that's been frustrating?

What hasn't been frustrating is easier to answer. (laughing) There's a problem at every... you know, I call it the daily disaster, basically. You know, you go away for vacation and come back and there's a slew of catastrophic things that have happened. [Emily Harris, Nine Pin's event manager, laughing from across the office: "We did a good job hiding them from you."] Yeah, everyone hid them from me, which was awesome because I didn't have to know about them until I got back. But I think sometimes I get a little bugged out with just, why can't this just run smoothly for five minutes?

nine pin canning machine

Sometimes you're trying to focus on one problem and these guys come in and they're like this is broken, this cider is bad, and just... that is the most incredibly frustrating part about it. And what I think is unique about this business in general -- this is a factory that is production based, and especially at the scale that we're at, it requires way more capital investment. And we've sort of compensated for the lack of equipment by breaking backs, basically. And so from a production standpoint, we make way more cider than we probably should. We don't really have the equipment to do it, so we compensate by working the equipment that we do have incredibly hard to the point where after a couple of years the machinery is running so much that stuff just constantly is breaking on it.

And then also just ourselves... my lower back will never be the same. You know... (laughing) It's permanently damaged from trying to lift kegs.

Is there something that springs to mind that's been a notable win. You know, it happened, and you're just like... yes.

Like an epic win? Yes. We had like a boom when we first started out. And what happened was, you know, in the alcohol world it's very competitive. And we had a number of different companies come in with different distributors to what I consider our home here and really pull some pretty aggressive/almost like unkosher business maneuvers to try to essentially take market share from us and also, you know, stomp us out as far as competition goes. We're talking people that had way bigger operations, way more money behind it, salesforce, all that kind of stuff. And we've had moments of like, damn, this is going to show up here and, you know, it's cheaper and it's decent quality. And we just watched companies come in like that, invest tons of money to try to take the Capital Region cider market and epically fail because people want the neighborhood cider makers.

We had that happen a couple of times. And the first one was by far the most disturbing to me because we found out after the fact that they brought their whole salesforce from every single state that they distribute to, we're talking probably 15-20 people, and they specifically targeted Nine Pin draft accounts and they were trained how to sell against it. And they didn't get anywhere, which was really cool to see. It shows that this town's got some heart, that there's real loyalty to us, which was, again, humbling. And I was super stoked about it.

[W]e found out after the fact that they brought their whole salesforce from every single state that they distribute to, we're talking probably 15-20 people, and they specifically targeted Nine Pin draft accounts and they were trained how to sell against it. And they didn't get anywhere, which was really cool to see. It shows that this town's got some heart, that there's real loyalty to us, which was, again, humbling. And I was super stoked about it.

So I think that would be, for me, an epic win in some ways. But it's not really me who's winning, it's more like the people here who have supported us through the whole process, showing their loyalty and supporting us as part of the community.

You talked about the new production capacity and the plans for the new tasting room. But, in general, what's next?

We've got a whole slew of cool, new ciders that we're working on.

This year's apple crop is smaller. Now that I've got almost five years of real focus on differences in cider as it's being made year to year, surprisingly it's the low-apple years that give us the best juice. And it comes from the trees in those low-apple years. The trees have less fruit so they're able to dedicate more of their energy to producing sugars and all sorts of more nuanced flavors. So, anyways, this year is a low year, last year was a big one, and the crop in New York State is around 50-60 percent of normal. We had some freeze, in the springtime there were some warm moments and then it got really cold. That does not inhibit our ability to produce volume because there's so many apples, no matter what. It just makes the juice that we're going to get higher quality. So, in terms of something to look forward to, we've got just a great year coming up, a great vintage in some ways.

We will be able to produce more volume. And so we're going to definitely expand our sales focus outside of the Capital Region. We do distribute to Boston right now, and we've got this great distributor in Boston and it's owned by two guys and they're just super passionate about the craft beverage world, cider, beer. And as they grow, so does the demand that they put on us grows.

We've talked about distribution elsewhere. But really we haven't been able to produce enough to go much further than we already are. Everyone around here drinks so much that we have to satiate, quench the thirst locally. We wouldn't want people around here not be able to get it because we're sending it all out to the rest of the country.

We have this ability to do these bigger batches for our core products, but we're also going to invest in equipment to do a series of small batches. Because we have a lot of creative people here who want to make new ciders and we think the public and market likes to have new stuff to try all the time. We're going to invest in both of those things.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

More follow-ups:
+ Follow up: Nibble Inc
+ Follow up: Lark + Lily
+ Follow up: Takk House

Nine Pin advertises on AOA.

Find It

Nine Pin Cider Works
929 Broadway
Albany, NY 12207

Comments

The part about the competition coming in and trying to squash their business was fascinating. Those business-practices are reason enough to make me choose Nine Pin over whomever that was.

Since it was a company with nationwide exposure, I assume their product is still on the shelves here locally and I'd love to find out who they are, although at the same time I wouldn't want to open Alejandro up for any perceived retribution.

I'm sure Alejandro won't name names because he's a delightful, good person (something I know only from getting to meet him at an AOA party- thanks, guys!) but I like to vote with my wallet and not support that kind of ishy behavior. Glad to hear the area supported him.

"But it's not really me who's winning, it's more like the people here who have supported us through the whole process, showing their loyalty and supporting us as part of the community."

Yes! First, we as a community won big-time by having our locally-made cider be such a great-tasting product. During the Gathering of the Farm Cideries, it was clear that some cideries just make a better product than others. It would be difficult to give as much support to a local business if we couldn't believe in their product, but Nine Pin never dissapoints.

And then, we won again because our local businesses realized the benefit that came with stocking / supplying such a great product. It was enlightening to read Alejandro's story about other, larger companies trying to push them out of their home market. Props to the business owners for sticking with Nine Pin. Now that the local market has been saturated with cider options, having a quality, local cider like Nine Pin on tap is a huge selling point over another establishment that might just have a bland national brand in a bottle.

Nine Pin is so delicious. I love that its dry and light and doesn't make you feel overly full or bloated like some sweeter, heavier ciders do. I'm such a fan! What a great local product!

I can't imagine not having Nine-Pin on draft at Lark + Lily. It's a great product and introducing our out-of-town guests to it is a real privilege. Keep up the good work!

Their Ginger Cider is quite possibly the best I've ever had. All of their products are quality and they never disappoint. It's good to see a great local business continue to thrive.

Everything about Nine Pin is delightful -- the folks who run it, the tasting room, the collaboration with local eateries, the tours of the facility, AND the delicious cider! Proud to be living and working in Albany and supporting the great local businesses.

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