Unicorns & Steampunk: Bryant’s Cider Crafts Their Own Path

by | Oct 17, 2019 | EAT DRINK

Ahead of their move to Shockoe Bottom, Jerry Thornton of Bryant’s Cider talks new recipes and future plans for the family-owned cidery.

“We’re the new beer,” says cidermaker Jerry Thornton, owner of Bryant’s Cider. It’s a bold statement, but it fits the vibe of their Jackson Ward tasting room. On its graffiti-covered walls, “Change the rules” is spray-painted in all caps below an image of a black cat and skull.

There may be some truth to Thornton’s words in regard to popular dietary trends. Bryant’s Cider produces small batches of uniquely-flavored hard ciders that are sugar-free, low-carb, keto-friendly, and made with whole, organic ingredients that are local whenever possible. Everything currently on tap at the Jackson Ward tasting room is also vegan and gluten-free.

PHOTO: Bryant’s Cider

With chalkboard paint atop tables that customers are encouraged to decorate, along with board games, card games, and adult coloring books, Bryant’s has a quirky (but edgy) vibe that marketing director Vanessa Gleiser maintains in their social media presence.

But days at the quaint Adams Street tasting room are numbered. Bryant’s just announced their purchase of 2114 E Main St. in Shockoe Bottom, where they’ll be relocating their Richmond tasting room to a mixed-use building that will also serve as a production facility. They hope to make the move in January 2020.

Right now, all of Bryant’s production happens in their other tasting room location, at Edgewood Farm in Nelson County, VA. The 386-acre property has been passed down through Thornton’s family since as early as 1850. His grandmother was born and raised there, and Thornton spent some time growing up there as well. After taking care of his grandmother for several years until her passing in 2014, Thornton took over the farm, because no one else in the family wanted to deal with it.

“For about four years, I didn’t know what to do with it,” says Thornton. At the time, he was working downtown at BB&T, in budgeting and forecasting analytics — “douchey stuff,” as he describes it. So while affording the farm wasn’t an issue, having the time to care for it was. Thornton is a single dad who raises his five-year-old daughter half of the time, so it wasn’t possible for him to work 80 hours a week, between the office and the farm, while also parenting a young child.

PHOTO: Bryant’s Cider

Nelson County is in an apple-dense region, so Thornton started growing cider apples at the orchard on his farm and quit the corporate-suit life to experiment with making cider. He got Bryant’s off the ground out of pocket, with not a single investor. “I still think I’m crazy,” says Thornton. As his family likes to remind him, he had a good job making good money with a guaranteed comfortable retirement, and he threw it away to make alcohol.

But he did so for honest and relatable reasons. “I’d just like to be human,” he said. “My objective isn’t to get rich. I just want to take care of my kid and my farm and not… hate life.”

Thornton went to cider school in upstate New York, but considers himself mostly self-taught. He likens cider making to cooking — you learn by experimenting, by trial and error. And what’s on tap at Bryant’s is certainly experimental: some batches on regular rotation are the chai-spiced Chaider, the cucumber- and habanero-infused Coolbanero, and the cold brew coffee-infused Red Eye.

Thornton is always playing with new flavors and testing them out in small batches. Right now, you can try the seasonably-appropriate Punkking, a pumpkin-spiced cider, and Still Swingin, which is infused with bourbon and peach. There’s an Old Fashioned-inspired batch in the works, and their next autumnal special planned is the Bryant’s Dirty Chai, a pairing of the Red Eye and the Chaider.

Their best-selling cider in retail is Bryant’s Unicorn Fuel, which has garnered somewhat of a cult following among customers. “I feel like more people know the name ‘Unicorn Fuel’ than ‘Bryant’s,’” says Thornton, which doesn’t necessarily bother him, but he cites the current location of the Richmond tasting room as to why they haven’t become a household name yet. “Jackson Ward is a great neighborhood, but no one knows we’re here,” says Thornton. “I could put a fucking unicorn suit on and stand on the corner, and maybe that would get a couple people in, but I don’t want to do that.”

PHOTO: Bryant’s Cider

The hope the move to Shockoe Bottom will expand their customer base since they’ll be in an area with higher foot traffic, right off the beaten path, and surrounded by popular bars and restaurants. “It’s an up-and-coming neighborhood, and really dense in terms of housing — just loft after loft,” says Thornton. “Whenever I’m down there, I see all these people walking their dogs and just hanging out. It’s the right type of people for us.” (Yes, both tasting rooms are dog-friendly!)

Bryant’s will also be preserving their safe distance from Scott’s Addition, where the only other craft cideries in the River City are located: Blue Bee, Buskey, and Courthouse Creek. Generally, the crowds in Shockoe, Church Hill and the East End don’t want to travel all the way to Scott’s Addition for a hard cider, so Bryant’s is hoping to corner that market geographically.

They considered moving to The Fan, but the historic quality of the building in Shockoe Bottom helped seal the deal. Built in the 1850s, Bryant’s liked that it’s about the same age as Edgewood Farm. “It’s super old and super cool. It fits our vibe,” says Thornton. “I didn’t want some generic, super-modern place because that’s boring.”

Thornton wants to do a steampunk theme at the new tasting room, which should gel nicely with the vibe of Shockoe Bottom, with the Canal Walk and Great Shiplock Park just a block or so away. He’s nervous about the move, but excited that he was able to buy instead of rent, because he has complete creative freedom in how to use the space. “There’s no landlord. If I want to break things, I can break things,” says Thornton. “Which I do, frequently.” He already has an idea for a light fixture: he wants to build a spider web chandelier across the entire ceiling using iron piping and Edison bulbs.

PHOTO: Bryant’s Cider

Byrant’s long-term goal is to split production between the farm and Shockoe Bottom. First, they’ll work to get more distribution and build the brand so Thornton can operate on a regular production schedule. Currently, Bryant’s has 85 active accounts in the Richmond area. “It’s getting there,” says Thornton. “We’re on rotation at a lot of places, but it takes time to build up.”

While Bryant’s is a young, independent business, they’re also an intimately small one. Thornton makes all of the cider himself and works on sales when he can. The only other full-time employees are the respective managers of the two tasting rooms, Afton Massie at the farm and Vanessa Gleiser in Richmond (who also directs marketing operations).

If you’re curious about where you can buy Bryant’s, they update their retail locations weekly. But what they really want is for you to visit the tasting room, and try some ciders that you wouldn’t normally order from a bar or buy in a six pack.

“We do weird stuff,” says Thornton. “You gotta come down and try it.”

Top Photo via Bryant’s Cider

Noelle Abrahams

Noelle Abrahams

Noelle is a senior at VCU, a stereotypical Tarantino fangirl, and honestly thinks that Miller Lite tastes good. She lives with her cats, Donnie Darko and Big Girl.

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