Brian Percy and Barry Fancher are used to learning as they go.
It’s a skill that comes with working for the U.S. military, both nationally and internationally.
“A lot of our experience in work historically is, you know nothing about what you’re doing, now here’s a project, go to Serbia, make this happen,” Percy explained.
So when the retired Air Force buddies decided to go into business together, purchasing a cidery was another chance to do just that.
“It’s something new, something out on our own, and something we can learn,” said Fancher, who with Percy assumed ownership of Santa Fe Cider Works in mid-November.
With plans to renovate and move into a new production facility by spring, the duo hopes to expand the business’s profile. Their plans include increasing production, offering new flavors and opening a small on-site taproom.
Percy also emphasized that they want the business to be more about helping to build community wherever their ciders or served – their own taproom, other brewpubs or bars or at home – rather than just the drinking.
Santa Fe Cider Works, which has been around since 2013 and is now located on Center Place off Airport Road, distributes hard cider to taprooms and stores across northern and central New Mexico. Its flagship product is Enchanted Cherry cider and it also produces Cider Different, a semisweet, non-carbonated apple cider. Its current sellers include Second Street Brewery, Santa Fe Brewing Co. and, in Albuquerque, Nexus Brewery and Bosque Brewing Co. Stores that carry Cider Works include Susan’s Fine Wine and Spirits on St. Francis Drive and Albuquerque’s Jubilation Wine and Spirits.
The company was co-founded by brewer Jordy Dralle and business manager Michelle Vignery. Dralle, who is sticking around until the end of January to help teach the new team the ropes, said she and Vignery were looking for buyers when Percy and Fancher came along.
“It was time to let it go to some people who could take it to the next level, which are these guys,” said Dralle.
Looking for something new
Fancher and Percy met in 1987 at California’s Beale Air Force Base. For several years, they and their families moved around to the same bases. First to Spokane, Wash., then to Colorado Springs.
“Which is kind of weird in the military to have that happen,” said Percy.
“But we had fun doing it,” Fancher added.
After his time in Colorado, Fancher was briefly stationed in Alaska before retiring from the military in 2003, while Percy was sent on special duty assignments at embassies in Serbia and Brazil before working at Florida’s Cape Canaveral.
Over the past five years, following his Air Force retirement, Percy worked at the U.S. Embassy in London. His department acted as a liaison between the U.S. Department of Defense and the host country’s military. Fancher has been living in Colorado Springs working in defense contracting since his own Air Force retirement.
“When I was getting ready to leave London, I was tossing around the idea of completely jumping ship and started looking into some random opportunities,” said Percy, adding that he and Fancher had previously talked about getting into the “alcohol-related field” together.
They first looked at a distillery in Alabama. After that was purchased by someone else, they randomly came across the cidery in Santa Fe early last year. Percy moved to Santa Fe in July to focus on the business. Fancher is still living and working in Colorado, traveling back and forth as they work on their new business.
They openly acknowledge their newcomer status in the cider industry. When they bought the business and started seeking approval from the city, “we both knew what an apple was,” Percy said with a laugh.
“We knew what cider was, but we didn’t know how the two came together,” Fancher added.
Percy said he and Fancher are utilizing their “quality management” and “process improvement” experience. “And then take as much advantage of people who are experts to get us on track,” he added.
Earlier this year, Percy took cidery-focused business courses at Oregon State University. They also worked out a deal for Dralle to stick around and assist during these first few months.
To manage the cider-making, Percy and Fancher tapped Dave Shepard, a Los Alamos native with a longstanding passion for craft brewing, as the lead fermenter. Like his bosses, this is a new professional venture for Shepard, but he comes with a background in chemistry and biotech.
For the past 25 years, he’s been working across the country in pharmaceuticals and was looking to “retire” from that field. He’s currently receiving his certification in Brewing Technology from Central New Mexico Community College.
“A lot of the equipment that we use here is really similar to what I’ve used in my career, too, and the microbiology and chemistry aspect of it, too, so it was a good fit,” said Shepard.
Expanding the product
Right now, the business is producing as much cider as it can, which Dralle said is about 2,000 gallons a year. In a new location off Bisbee Court just south of town along N.M. 14, Percy said, the team wants to triple the output, which he hopes will allow the company to seek more distributors.
Fancher and Percy said they hope to receive all of their zoning approvals to start production in the new, 1,500-square-foot space by the end of March.
“If we were going to stay the same size, we would stay in here,” Fancher said while standing in the current, 500-square-foot warehouse. “But we want to bring in the bigger tanks and more of them.”
The team plans to add one or two new 1,100-gallon fermenters, along with other new machinery. Currently, they have four 300-gallon fermenters. They will also bring over a large cider press, which Shepard said can be used toward Percy and Fancher’s goal of collaborating with local orchards in the spring to create small-batch flavors.
The team is currently working on some new flavors, supported by the larger equipment. Percy said the new offerings will incorporate “Southwest-related” flavors and labeling.
Something they’d also like to start later this year, Percy added, is hosting occasional tastings through pop-ups or at bars that sell their cider, to test out new creations.
“We want to expand it to many different people,” he said of the craft cider scene. “Millennials seem to be one of the giant groups jumping on this because they want something different than wine, they want something different than beer, they don’t want to drink your grandma’s Schlitz. Everyone’s looking for a new flavor. Hopefully, we’ll be able to tap into some little niche that’s different than the local bar scene.”
The new facility also has space for a small taproom for serving Santa Fe Cider Works products and other locally brewed drinks. Percy said the cidery team doesn’t expect the spot to be as high-profile as other brewery-based taprooms like the one at Santa Fe Brewing Co.. But he said it could be a chance to take advantage of proximity to the Interstate 25/N.M. 599 interchange or serve a niche audience of people who live or work near the Turquoise Trail.
In the United Kingdom, he said, nearly everyone has what they call a “local,” meaning their neighborhood pub where they regularly go to drink and hang out with friends.
“Our taproom is more maybe going to be under the premise of we have tourists that are passing by from Madrid, from Albuquerque, to Santa Fe, to come take a (break), or we find that opportunity to have our own little ‘local’ for that portion of the area,” said Percy.
Further down the line, Percy and Fancher foresee taking Santa Fe Cider Works to neighboring states like Colorado and Arizona. The question they still need to answer, however, is how to do that while avoiding mass production. They say they want to maintain the small-business roots and artisanal creation process that they inherited. So whether expanding across state lines means long-distance distributing or setting up nano-cideries in other cities remains to be seen.
“It’s a learning situation of how we can be different,” Percy said. “Different, small, sustainable, local.”