Just off the San Juan Highway — a stunning loop through Southwest Colorado — is a cider works on a mission to change the future of hard cider by digging into its past.
EsoTerra is nestled next to the river in Dolores, Colorado (population: 825) in the heart of orchard country. The surrounding area is home to an estimated 6,000 apple orchards, many of which were first planted to feed miners in historic towns like Silverton and Telluride. EsoTerra draws on this heritage by harvesting the regional fruit to produce artisanal, wine-like hard ciders. The cider works features a taproom for customers to learn about and try its unique blends, as well as an onsite food truck with freshly made cider pairings. Located just 30 minutes from Mesa Verde National Park and a two-hour drive from Moab, EsoTerra is quickly becoming a destination for locals and travelers alike.
EsoTerra is the brainchild of husband-and-wife duo Jared Scott and Elizabeth Philbrick, who took a leap of faith two years ago to combine their passion for cider making with their desire to bring the orchards of rural Colorado back to life. Philbrick recently joined the Rural Business Show podcast to discuss what it’s been like to build a business during the pandemic and how EsoTerra is reviving what it calls “rural America’s drink of choice.”
“We have groups of people that come in and say, ‘Oh man, that cider tastes like what apple juice used to taste like when I was a little kid and grandpa used to press it in the backyard,’ and that’s a lovely feeling … to know you’re making a product that spurs fond memories and is creating new ones,” Philbrick said.
EsoTerra’s ciders are an homage not only to the region but also more broadly to a bygone era before Prohibition, when fermented apple cider was the most consumed adult beverage in rural America, according to Philbrick. With the dawn of industrialized agriculture and centralized production, cider took a backseat to beer for almost a century. Now hard cider is experiencing a resurgence and is one of the fastest-growing adult beverages in the country, alongside hard seltzer. But Philbrick is careful to distinguish what EsoTerra is doing from many of the prominent ciders today, which are often sweet and highly carbonated like soda. Instead, she says EsoTerra’s products are more akin to a traditional American cider, similar to what today’s drinkers would consider wine.
“EsoTerra focuses on the regional apples, the varieties of those apples, and making each apple sing with the right backup dance of yeast,” Philbrick said. The region’s diverse varieties of fruit mean EsoTerra can make a high-quality, flavorful beverage without shipping in fruit, using juice concentrate or relying on artificial flavors. This simplicity is what makes cider a rural beverage, according to Philbrick.
The reality of rural entrepreneurship
Philbrick and her husband founded the business to celebrate the heritage of rural Colorado and to build a life that would allow them to spend more time with their two young sons. Scott leads the fermentation process while working a full-time job, and Philbrick runs the business. Despite romanticized ideas of entrepreneurship and breweries, getting the business up and running — while parenting two children under the age of two during a pandemic — has been no small feat.
“People romanticize alcohol,” Philbrick said. “The fun brewery atmosphere with music playing in the background and everyone having a beer at lunch, or the winemaker romantically strolling through the orchards — that is definitely part of the gig, but that’s 2 to 3 percent of the gig.”
Since launch, EsoTerra has faced no shortage of challenges. COVID-19 requirements from the governor’s office required EsoTerra to change course just as it was opening its doors to the public for the first time in September 2020. Establishments serving alcohol were also required to serve food. So they partnered to launch a second business.
“We pivoted like a tango dancer late at night and got all sorts of things put in place, and there is now a permanent food truck on our site,” Philbrick said.
They had a few months of solid business, but eventually the pandemic caught up with them. Customers didn’t want to gather indoors, and patio weather in Dolores eventually ended for even the most rugged residents. EsoTerra’s taproom shutdown again in January 2021.
“There was a moment of, ‘Oh my goodness what have we done?’ We put all of our life savings [into this], every credit card is maxed out, money has been borrowed and promised to be given back, we’ve remodeled a building we don’t own, and now we don’t have any customers. And that’s mortifying,” she said.
EsoTerra pivoted yet again and got licensed to ship cider to other states. Philbrick learned how to attract customers online and quickly started shipping nationwide. They used the lull of in-person business as an opportunity to regroup and assess what went well and what could be improved. Philbrick says they have been “bustling ever since” they reopened this spring, crediting the success to their pause last winter.
Advice for Rural Entrepreneurs
Despite the challenges, Philbrick still calls it “110 percent worth it” and encourages others who want to start their own businesses in rural areas. She believes now is the time to succeed in rural America, particularly as more people begin to see that they can live in the places they like to vacation, thanks to the expansion of broadband internet and remote work during the pandemic.
Her advice: “Be humble and open your mind to all the things you do not know.”
For Philbrick, the learning curve included everything from SEO optimization to community networking. She credits the mentors from a local business accelerator program for helping EsoTerra get over these hurdles and make the connections necessary to succeed.
“We have been extremely lucky in that our community was very supportive,” she said, down to a nearby brewery owner, who shook their hands and welcomed them.
She noted that new business owners in rural areas can come up against a scarcity mindset — the idea that new businesses will crowd out old ones or they will raise the cost of living — but it’s not a zero-sum game, and more businesses attract more people and improve the local economy. Rather than competing with existing businesses, Philbrick encourages business owners instead to focus on how they can contribute to building a local culture that makes their community stand out as a destination.
“If you focus on creating a culture of what’s unique in your area, your business will be unique. Sure you may be selling coffee. You may be selling cider. But if you’re selling cider in Dolores, it’s very different from selling cider in Seattle,” she said.
To get a taste of the Southwest, visit EsoTerra’s taproom in Dolores or order a bottle online at esoterracider.com.