Co-founder Sam Perry is elevating craft cider to lofty heights with a largely local supply chain in the Mancos Valley.
In southwestern Colorado, Montezuma County once grew more fruit than all of Washington state. “Looking around the valley here, there are literally hundreds of old apple orchards,” says Perry.
When he co-founded Fenceline with Neal Wright, Perry drew inspiration from his college roommate and apple geneticist, Kanin Routson. “He was genetically mapping a lot of the historic orchards the pioneers planted in the area, and I started helping him on that project,” says Perry, noting that the USDA catalog includes about 4,000 varieties of apples. “It was kind of an eye-opener. I thought there were just red and green apples before I met Kanin.”
“We ended up planting some of the trees he grafted in that project at my ranch in Mancos. They started to mature and produce a little fruit, and we thought, ‘What are we going to do with this?'”
The obvious answer? Make hard cider.
“There’s really no market for the fruit because we’re so far from a big metro population,” notes Perry. “Most of it just rotted on the ground, so we started coming up with ideas to upcycle or reuse some of this fruit. Cider seemed like a good fit, because if it’s hail-damaged or there’s a little bird peck or the fruit drops on the ground, it doesn’t matter how unsightly or unkempt the fruit is. It actually makes better cider, because it’s not fertilized, not watered, the fruit tends to be smaller and more flavorful and produces a little better product.”
And that launched a new business. Growing up near Carbondale in the Roaring Fork Valley — where his grandfather had a cattle ranch — Perry aspired to make a living in agriculture. “I had wanted to follow in his footsteps,” says Perry.
After Perry and his wife bought 90 acres in Mancos in 2007, they started a grass-fed beef business, but swapped the cows for apples in 2015, started making cider commercially, and opened a tasting room in Mancos in 2018.
The trees Perry planted on his own land should start producing more fruit in a few years, but they’re not yet mature enough to supply much fruit for Fenceline’s needs. But he’s able to source plenty of hand-picked apples from several local partners. “We’ve set up relationships and some contracts with some of these old farmers who used to grow for the Mountain Sun Juice Company,” says Perry. “We have the bins and the picking team, and we go around from orchard to orchard basically.”
The same orchards supplied fruit to Mountain Sun in its heyday as one of the first movers in organic juice before the company’s factory in Dolores (now the home of EsoTerra Ciderworks) closed in 2012.
“We roll up and introduce ourselves to people, and say, ‘Hey, it looks like you have a lot of apples. Got a use for them or not?’ We’ll set a price for them per ton depending on if we have to pick them or not. It’s kind of cool. We’re supporting the old orchards where people have bothered to keep the trees watered and alive.”
Perry uses the fruit to make five canned ciders as well as bottled, small-batch ciders for Fenceline’s Cider Club subscription package. “We tend to focus on old English-, French-, and American-style cider varieties,” says Perry. “On average, we’re working with 20 to 30 different varieties of apples in a year. And that doesn’t include the wild seedlings that are all genetically unique.”
Utilizing a slow and cold fermentation process, production has grown from 4,000 gallons in 2018 to 8,000 in 2019 to 12,000 in 2020, and Perry forecasts more growth in 2021 after signing with Culture Beverage to distribute cans of Fenceline on the Front Range. Ska Brewing of Durango distributes for the company in southwestern Colorado. Fenceline also makes a selection of wines, in part due to the fact it is covered by the same license as cider-making.
Canned cider — packaged in-house on a Wild Goose canning line since 2020 after the cidery dabbled with manual canning in 2019 — has driven the bulk of the growth. Before the arrival of COVID-19, the tasting room accounted for about 75 percent of sales. That’s dropped to about 40 percent in 2021 as wholesale has increased to 60 percent of the business.
“When I started the business, I was hoping we’d be more wholesale, but the taproom, the margins were good and it ended up being where we focused our energy early on,” says Perry. “The silver lining of COVID, if there was one, is that we had to pivot and start focusing on getting our product out to a broader audience.”
Challenges: “One of the things I learned the hard way early on: I really thought it was a production business,” says Perry. “I thought if we just make good cider, it’ll sell itself. That’s been a hard lesson that that’s not the case. Making a really good product is super important, but also getting out and marketing and really selling it is super challenging and takes a lot of energy and time and thought.”
The Fenceline differentiator is all about being local. “We’re buying almost all our fruit from Colorado,” says Perry. “A lot of the bigger producers have a business model that’s based around getting tanker juice from Washington state.”
Wholesale commodity juice usually costs around $1 per gallon, but the juice Fenceline uses typically runs the company about $4 a gallon — and some premium varieties can be twice that.
“We’re sending crews out to pick these old trees — some of them are 30 feet tall. The input costs just for our raw juice — which we also press ourselves — are so much higher that our product has to cost more.”
Telling the story of the business model and supply chain that “benefits everybody” has proven tricky, adds Perry.
Finding enough cans to fill with cider has also been difficult in the last year. Ska “helped us out getting some cans,” says Perry. “Everybody says to brace yourselves for another crunch this summer.”
Opportunities: Perry sees plenty of room for growth in Colorado as well as through its Cider Club ($59 for three bottles per quarter plus shipping), which currently has about 150 subscribers and allows Fenceline to make a wide range of premium and experimental ciders.
“One in each shipment is specific to a single orchard,” he says. “We’ll pick a different orchard and make a blend off of one orchard. One will be a single-varietal, so just one type of apple, and the other is a blend of whatever we think works the best that season.”
Outside of Colorado, Fenceline has about 30 accounts in Arizona and is in negotiations with a distributor in New Mexico to continue to expand throughout the Southwest.
Needs: Perry says he hopes to move from hand-applied labels to sleeved cans in the near future, and is looking to further automate processes at the facility. “We need a pasteurization line,” says Perry. “That’s the big bottleneck in our production. We’re batch pasteurizing right now by hand.”