A trip down the barrel with Dana Masterpolo, co-owner of America’s only all female-run cidery
Union Square isn’t the easiest corner of Somerville, Massachusetts to get to. There’s a few busses that pass through, but otherwise, the owners of Bantam Cider rely on foot traffic and word of mouth to get folks into their warehouse tap room and production facility. Lucky for them, they haven’t been having much trouble garnering attention from Bostonians and New Englanders alike; Bantam is currently in six states in the Northeast, and has a slew of exciting product launches in its near future. Aside from becoming a major player in the American cider year in just five years on the scene, the company has another huge claim to fame: it’s the only female owned cidery in the United States.
Dana Masterpolo and Michelle de Silva had been home cider makers for some time before Bantam first opened its doors. In 2011, the two friends became acutely aware of how limited the market was for cider lovers, and felt that there just wasn’t a lot of variety that appealed to them. “We were at a point in our lives where we really wanted to do something different”, says Masterpolo. That shared desire to embark on something new combined with the unique tastes they were able to generate through their home cider productions inspired the two to be the change they wanted to see in the industry. By January of the next year, Bantam was a fledgling business. “We were figuring out what we wanted to do when we grew up”, says Masterpolo, laughing.
But that path to growing up wasn’t particularly linear for Michelle or Dana; Dana’s background is in architecture, while Michelle’s early career was in real estate and insurance. The small businesses they had worked with set them up to tackle the entrepreneurial pursuit of launching a full-service cidery head-on, and Dana says Michelle’s family tradition of winemaking was extremely handy in providing the basic know-how for the process of cider making. Today, Bantam employs around twenty people, and an estimated 80% of the full-time staff are women. “It wasn’t by design, necessarily, but it just so happened to be the case. Our first employees were men, but since then, we have attracted a lot of smart, really awesome women to our team.”
Despite Bantam’s rising star in a steadily expanding American market for cider, Masterpolo says her team has no plans to leave tiny Somerville in the future. “This is where we’re from, we like being here. The retail space is an opportunity for people to come in and get to know us, get to know our brand”, she says. In fact, Michelle grew up across the street from where the taproom currently lives, on Merriam Street. It’s not all easy, though. The urban location poses some unique labor challenges because there are so many opportunities for Bostonians, and Masterpolo describes a mass struggle across retailers and production-based businesses who are looking for talented folks to join their teams. “We’re fighting against all the other breweries and taprooms and restaurants here. It’s not like we’re in the middle of nowhere, people have a lot to choose from here.” Another challenge is the ever-mounting struggle over shelf space, which Masterpolo says isn’t unique to just Bantam, but is especially difficult when the brand has a bunch of different ciders that are all effectively competing with each other for consumer attention. One solution? Expand to new shelves, make inroads in uncharted territory. That’s why her team is rolling out rolling out a ginger beer next month (yes, and this summer will bring a new year-round cider called Buzzwig for all of us old school kids who just want a new flavor of Bantam).
One thing Masterpolo will tell you right off the bat: just because many restaurants group beer and cider on the same half of the menu, doesn’t mean they’re one in the same. “I think a lot of people casually refer to what we do as brewing cider, but we don’t brew cider. It’s a lot more like winemaking. You wouldn’t say you brew wine, you make wine.” But the inaccurate lumping together of beers and ciders hasn’t been all that bad for business. Dana admits that the rise of the craft beer movement (which has taken off in states like Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine, in particular) has been a key reason why the cider market has been taking off. She says that spirit of experimentation has encouraged many Americans to try ciders as a unique flavor. Another trend that hasn’t hurt business? Folks who are gluten-free either by choice or for medical reasons who prefer ciders and come into the Bantam taproom more regularly. Next month, the Bantam team is
For women looking to break into cider making, Masterpolo says that rather than succumbing to the urge to spend a ton of time scoping out an ideal business plan or investing in a lot of fancy equipment in initial stages, it’s important to just take that leap of faith and get a product together –– but not totally blindly. “Some of the most valuable advice I ever got is to make sure there’s a market before you just automatically build something, and I stand by that,” she warns.
P.S: her favorite Bantam flavor? She says it changes year-to-year, but right this second, it’s the Rojo. But ask her again in six months, and it might be something different –– so, drink up!
by Oset Babur
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