WATERVILLE — Ben Manter wrote the book on hard cider. Sort of.
Manter, who grew up with in Vassalboro with an orchard, is a recent graduate of Bates College and a self-described farm boy.
During his senior year, Manter, 24, and two classmates hatched a plan to open a hard cider business. Shortly afterward, the biology student pursued the idea academically.
“I wrote my thesis on hard cider production,” he said.
The graduates’ plan for a new business in Waterville will come to fruition this week when the first kegs of hard apple cider roll out of their Hathaway Mill facility and into area bars.
The time is right for hard cider, said co-founder Ross Brockman, 23. Sales of hard cider have grown in the U.S. by 18 percent annually for the past 10 years, while beer sales have remained relatively flat, he said. Brockman said the drink is especially popular in urban areas.
“If you go to bars in Boston, they almost always have cider on tap,” he said. “You don’t see it very often around here, but we’re hoping to change that.”
Brockman said the company just received permits to sell alcohol and have racked up 20 local accounts. Beginning next week, Downeast Cider will be sold at 18 Below Raw Bar, Mainely Brews, You Know Whose Pub and more. The suggested retail price is $4.50 per pint.
Manter, Brockman and Tyler Mosher, 23, graduated from Bates in May. They majored in biology, philosophy and economics, respectively.
“It’s a good mix,” Brockman said of their areas of study.
The classmates hatched the idea for hard cider in fall 2010. They drew up plans over the winter and Manter learned the business through his biology studies.
“I went to my thesis advisor and said, ‘Look, this is what I want to do with my life.’ She said ‘OK,’” he recalled.
Manter’s thesis focused on different strands of yeast strands, the proteins that give hard cider its kick during fermentation.
In April, a month before graduation, the classmates filed paperwork to form their company. In August, they leased a unit at the mill, renovated the space and installed equipment.
Brockman contends their cider is better than the competition. The difference, he said, is authenticity.
“A lot of other companies use concentrate,” he said of the cider. “They have concentrate shipped in from Europe or China. They’re producing a product that’s cheaper to make, better (profit) margins, but it’s not as good.”
Downeast Cider House gets their main ingredient — freshly pressed Cortland, gala, Macintosh and red delicious apples — from Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner, Brockman said.
On Wednesday, the orchard delivered 1,400 gallons of cider to the mill, Brockman said. The cost was about $5,000.
“It’s very expensive, but it’s the right way to go,” he said.
Starting the company was also expensive, the entrepreneurs said. They estimate they’ve spent $60,000 on the equipment, which includes two large fermenting vats, a conditioning vat, a carbonation vat and more.
“It was all of our life savings,” Manter said of the investment.
Brockman said no one has discouraged them from starting a new company in uncertain economic times.
“It helps that we’re young. If you take everything you have and you lose it all, it’s a bigger problem when you’re 50 than when you’re 23. If we lose everything we have, we’re not far from square one anyway,” Brockman joked.
In the meantime, the classmates plan to live simply and reinvest as much money into the company as they can. To cut down on living expenses, Brockman and Mosher, originally from Massachusetts, are sharing a one-bedroom apartment in Waterville. Manter moved in with his sister. Their business plan calls for no salaries during the first three years of operation.
If the business takes off, Downeast Cider will offer their product in six packs. They also plan to make small batches of specialty ciders infused with mint, vanilla or cranberry, and may also feature batches of oak-aged hard cider.
Manter said bars have been receptive to giving their product a try.
“Being local helps,” he said.
Ben McCanna — 861-9239