Entrepreneur brews up cider revelations

Mar 21, 2016 | Client Stories

“Ask everyone you know as many questions as you possibly can,” says Revel Cider founder Tariq Ahmed. “People want to help you and mentoring is crucial. No one does it alone.”

Tariq Ahmed describes Revel Cider’s fermented apple “sippers and chuggers” the way a wine connoisseur might characterize a fine vintage.

His Hop X dry cider, for example, has a “nice, tropical, fresh taste with aromas of orange, strawberry and lychee,” while Revel’s award-winning Liquid Gold cider, “aged for four months and fermented with wild Ontario yeast” features “notes of guava and citrus.”

“I’ve always loved flavours and playing around with them,” says Ahmed, who had toyed with the idea of becoming a chef before falling in love with the idea of making hard cider, after tasting some home-brewed varieties during a fateful dinner at ManoRun Organic Farm.

He was working as an intern at the farm, tired of “learning things out of textbook,” as a break from his plant science studies at the University of Guelph.

Encouraged by farm owner Chris Krucker, Ahmed soon dragged an old apple press from the rafters of the barn, scrubbed off the rust, climbed up into apples trees that hadn’t been pruned for years and began to experiment.

Upon his return to Guelph, Ahmed continued making cider in his living room, and applied to U of G’s fourth-year entrepreneurship course where he created a business plan for a cider company.

That was also the year that the University of Guelph’s Centre for Business and Student Enterprise (CBaSE) launched The Hub Incubator Program, for students and alumni between ages 18 and 29.

Ahmed was among the first students to vie for entry to the program by pitching their business ideas to a panel of experienced entrepreneurs.

His impassioned presentation earned a ticket to The Hub and $8,000 in seed funding. He took it as a sign that cider making could be something more than a hobby.

“I thought ‘maybe I’m on to something if strangers, not just friends, think this is a legitimate business opportunity.’”

With entry to The Hub also came mentorship from Innovation Guelph, first with mentor Steve Barrett and currently with mentor Jane Dummer, an entrepreneur and registered dietitian.

“At our first meeting, Steve gave me this giant spreadsheet with a bunch of tables, a balance sheet, an income statement,” he recalls. “I forced myself to sit through it and learned how to use it.”

Barrett and Ahren Brunow at the Hub also advised him on branding and business development, and Ahmed made use of sales, financial and accounting workshops to learn the business fundamentals he needed.

Revel Cider – the name a nod to the Kings of Leon song Revelry – officially launched with the sale of its first keg to Borealis Grille & Bar in Guelph in March 2015.

Ahmed soon paired up with Chris Haworth, owner of West Avenue Cider, to share a production facility in Hamilton and went on to sell 20,000 litres of cider last year.

Revel Cider is currently sold by the keg to about 60 licensed establishments in Ontario, including Bar Volo and Bar Hop in Toronto; Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium in London; as well as Borealis, the Baker Street Station, and The Woolwich Arrow in Guelph.

The fledgling company scored impressive early recognition last spring when its Liquid Gold cider won a bronze medal at the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, the biggest competition of its kind in the world, says Ahmed, who has also earned the distinction of being named one of 2016’s Top 30 under 30 by the Ontario Hostelry Institute.

“A start-up’s success is intimately tied to the character of its leader,” Dummer says. “Tariq is always optimistic, passionate and has a keen awareness of flavours, all which translate into his award-winning ciders. I believe Tariq’s finest skill is his aptitude to intersect the art and science of cider production, as a result creating some of the most innovative and unique tasting ciders in the Ontario marketplace today.”

“The key to excellent cider is finding the right balance between the sugar, alcohol, acidity and tannin levels,” says Ahmed, who drives around the province to buy the best ingredients he can. “We use fresh juice, which means less processing: ours have a fifth of the sugar that most of the big commercially-prepared ciders do, and more nuances and depth.”

A major challenge is finding apples with the right tannin content – such as the Northern Spy, Golden Russet and costly and rare Bittersweet varietals. Such apples are prized because tannin acts as a natural preservative in cider, but they are also harder to find in quantity because during the Prohibition era farmers cut down their cider-apple trees, and largely replanted with barley for beer once alcohol was legal again.

Revel is becoming known for distinctive, small-batch varieties, with average alcohol content of 6.9 per cent, including four new, limited edition “Revelations” ciders that will be served up this month to celebrate the company’s first anniversary.

The limited-run releases – named Bittersweet Freedom, Oud Blanc, Wild Honey Crisp and Revelry – will be available for one week each at partner bars and restaurants in Guelph, Toronto, Hamilton and London that have helped the young cider company get its start.

Ahmed is also eyeing a potential move to a larger production facility and may eventually seek an LCBO listing, despite the “huge barrier to entry” created by the hefty cut the LCBO takes of each sale.

Last year the industry saw about 80% growth, he notes, and the trend is expected to continue. “Cider is taking off, following the exact same curve that craft beer did 15 years ago. Cider’s an alternative; it’s a different product. And we’re appealing to craft beer drinkers. People are less likely now to buy a six-pack than to pick up a different can of something. If you have a new exciting product, people are interested in that.”

“We’re very proud of Tariq and the success of Revel Cider,” says CBaSE’s director Melanie Lang. “The businesses that enter the Hub incubator program must meet a specific set of milestones to be successful in the program, and Tariq has demonstrated a commitment not only to growing his business, but also to changing the way people view the cider industry.”

Ahmed expects to see many more of Revel’s custom wood-and-metal bar taps – made in U of G’s Digital Haptic Lab – pressed into service as the cider industry continues to surge. And he credits the advice of the many people who have helped him along the way – from seasoned business advisers to branding experts to other cider makers who have shared their knowledge – with helping him turn his business concept into a viable enterprise.

“Ask everyone you know as many questions as you possibly can,” he advises others contemplating a start-up. “People want to help you and mentoring is crucial. No one does it alone.”