Malaika Tyson is one half of the blogging duo, Cider Soms, which was started as a way to introduce wine-lovers to the world of cider. Created along with her husband Sean, the “Soms” blog seeks to uncover and explain the complexities of ciders in a fun way.
Brian Bolzan is Threadbare Cider House & Meadery’s head cidermaker. We first met Brian in Chicago at CiderCon 2023 and had a chance to get to know him better after spending a few days in Pittsburgh for the Barrel & Flow Fest. I was excited to learn more about Brian and how he got his start in cider.
Malaika Tyson: How did you get your start into cider?
Brian Bolzan: I fell in love with fermentation from a pretty young age and grew really interested in homebrewing. I made beer at home for a really long time, and every fall I would make cider. My techniques started very minimally, like getting juice from an orchard, but that progressed to milling apples myself, or trying out different techniques with fermentation of apples and other fruit. A lot of my interests align with local geography, fruit varieties, agriculture and eliminating food waste. Being able to make those connections with people that are growing fruit was super-important to me.
What were you doing before working in cider?
My first job out of college was at a nonprofit kitchen incubator in Youngstown, Ohio. The concept was essentially helping small entrepreneurs start businesses around a food concept or a food product. I always had a strong interest in food production. My family tried to point me towards culinary school, but I realized that wasn’t something that I wanted to pursue. I ended up studying economics in college — something completely different! But I wanted to use my knowledge and passion for ingredients and food to make an impact somewhere in the community and really found all those things with cider.
How did you end up at Threadbare?
I made the jump into professional brewing and working in a quality lab for a brewery. I then worked for Jack’s Hard Cider for three years. I learned a lot from the folks there and got a really good grounding for large fermentation, distribution, and managing a supply chain. I heard about Wigle Whisky Distillery opening [Threadbare] in Pittsburgh and interviewed over Thanksgiving weekend. I had a job offer that Monday and kind of uprooted our whole lives.
Threadbare is my dream job. I get to do what I love every day, which is great. We’re a pretty small, very tight-knit, production team. There’s three full-time people, myself and two others, and we’ve now created over 60 unique ciders!
What advice do you have for people getting into the cider industry?
First, I would say welcome and thanks for joining us. I think that the first big step to getting involved in cider is just putting yourself out there and looking to see what’s available. I think if I was getting started now in cider I would attend CiderCon, or enroll in a Cider Institute of North America (CINA) class. I was able to take an advanced cider and perry production course with Peter Mitchell at Washington State University. Even though I had been making cider for five years at that point, the class was a really transformative opportunity for me.
Also, go around and try cider. There’s so much great regional cider, so many styles and expressions, so figure out what you could do that’s unique to cider.
What is something that the cider industry as a whole should consider?
We need to address how we speak to our consumers. Their opinions are valid! We’re not a business if we don’t have drinkers at the end of the day.
At CiderCon 2023, a friend of mine said, “Be proud of everything you make.” And that really stuck with me because, regardless of what I make, it is my taste preference, we shouldn’t make anything if we’re not proud of it.
What are some of the ways you’ve reached your consumers?
We recently launched the Tree to Glass Cider House Tour and Tasting. We had eight people on our inaugural tour. It’s an intimate experience, with a tour and guided tasting. In the past, we would leave you with a sample at the end of the tour and say, “Now you can enjoy some cider.” But we learned that people want to feel more confident when they’re tasting cider, and by guiding them, letting them know that there’s not a right or wrong way to taste cider, and that all styles are equally valid, we’ve given our customers the confidence that they too can be an educated cider drinker.
Are there any cidermaking pipe dreams you’re dying to make a reality?
Yeah, definitely. At the scale we work at we’ve never really been able to get a small-batch system off the ground. And sometimes when you work at bigger and bigger scales, you really don’t get to pick and choose as much of what goes in. I would love to find a way to have a little bit more room to experiment and let those experiments bear fruit in our tasting room with specific customers. I would also love to get our barrel program off the ground in a big way, like getting a lot more cider in oak barrels, and being patient and waiting to see what works.
Do you have a mentor in the industry?
Some of the people that have really helped me started in beer. The person who initially hired me at Flying Dog Brewery, Ben Chambers, had so many broad swaths of experiences in the industry. He really took a chance on me first and hired me into this industry 11 years ago. He was someone that really did help me to see that your first job or your first Ink link into the industry didn’t need to be your whole career trajectory.
Here in Pennsylvania, we’re a small but dedicated cider industry. Some of my peers that are cidermakers are Edwin [Winzeler] and Ben [Wenk] at Ploughman Cider, Scott [Topel] who used to make cider at Wyndridge Farm and Brian and Olga [Dressler] who own Dressler Estate. It’s been monumental for me to talk with them about common or different problems that we’re dealing with in fermentation, sales or any aspect of the day-to-day or big picture of this business.
I also look up to a lot of people, like Eleanor Leger of Eden Specialty Ciders or Autumn Stoscheck of Eve’s Cidery, who really laid the ground for us all. But the people that have really made this possible for me are those that are in the trenches doing it right alongside us and who have gone and started their own things, like the guys at Big Hill Ciderworks.
If you could have any superpower, what would you like to have?
That’s the hardest question you’ve asked all day! My superpower would be the ability to turn back time. I’m happy with all my choices in my life, but would like the ability to just enhance and do things better each time.
- Photos: Threadbare Cider