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Cider On Tap Talk: U Of M Alumni Launch Lionheart Cider Company

If 2015 food and beverage were to be summed up in a word, that word would be "craft."

A trend that has been growing exponentially over the years, craft has now moved its way into the vernacular of beer, cocktail, wine and even cider drinkers. In fact, depending on who you ask, cider is the fastest growing craft beverage on the market today.

So, it makes sense that a young entrepreneur with a taste for the beverage would decide to launch his own craft cider company.

And Jason Dayton did just that.

As a student at the University of Minnesota, Dayton was studying abroad in England when his love for cider really began.

"[I] wasn't a huge beer fan," Dayton said. "I fell in love with good European cider."

Upon his return to the U.S. Dayton met a fellow cider lover, and by luck homebrewer, when he started dating his now wife. Her father was an avid homebrewer who shared Dayton's love of crisp, dry cider.

It was at this time that Dayton was starting his senior year at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. He was enrolled in a class called Entrepreneurship in Action. The premise of the class was students were to pitch ideas for a business and then go through the process of how they would create the business in real life.

Only for Dayton, this would become real life.

He knew he wanted to create a cider company.

"I had been working on this idea at this point for a couple months, so I showed up really prepared," he said. "[I] got a lot of support around it. It's not too hard to get a bunch of 21-year-olds to support starting an alcohol company."

There was one hitch; the syllabus stated that companies created by students couldn't be about vices, i.e. alcohol.

Dayton said he was able to persuade his professor to let him do otherwise, a tactic that seems to have worked as Northern Ale Guide is another company to potentially launch out of that class, and his team of five got to work creating their product – Lionheart Cider.

To hear Dayton describe it, Lionheart is a crisp, refreshing, light European Cider.

"We brew it with a champagne yeast, so you're going to get a lot of aromatics to it and a lot more nose to it. It's got half the sugar compared to the larger brands," he said.

Currently, Lionheart is available in 220 liquor stores and 50 bars in the Twin Cities. This all since the product launched on July 14, 2015.

But it took a bit to get there.

The idea of Lionheart started as a farm winery.

"It's a small winery. It's really easy to get licensed and we were just going to go do it by hand and sell it in wine bottles. 750 mL bottles," he said.

They quickly learned that at $15 a bottle, they may not sell as many bottles as they would like.

So, then they turned to contract manufacturing. This is what the company currently does now.

This means they pay a per case fee to a company that has brewing equipment to then in turn be able to use the equipment to make their product.

Lionheart is brewed out of LDB Beverage in Washington. Dayton does the brewing, but the process and the apples are all out in Washington.

"The reason we moved there was we wanted to create a product that was high quality that could compete with everybody else in the market, but we didn't have the cash to compete with everybody else in the market," he said.

Dayton said the team searched for a Minnesota facility that had both the brewing equipment and proper licensing, and the space to spare, but the one they found just couldn't commit to them.

As for the Washington apples, he said it has to do with the juice.

He explained that while Minnesota has a great apple heritage they don't have the infrastructure to provide juice for 12 months out of the year, like Michigan and Washington.  So, if they rely on Minnesota apples all year they are relying on frozen juice.

"Our goal is when we move back to Minnesota, we'll do Minnesota juice specials for the four to five months that we can do it and then import juice from Michigan and Washington for the rest of the year," he said.

They do use at least one Minnesota variety – and being U of M alums they really should – honeycrisps.

Right now, Dayton said the growing cider company is focused on distribution.

"We're going to launch in Wisconsin as a bit of a test market," Dayton said. "What does our story look like in Wisconsin? Right now we're U of M entrepreneurs, [so] does that connect in Wisconsin? Does it connect in other markets? It may go well, it may not."

He said he knows that getting his product into people's cups is the biggest challenge, hence the focus on distribution, but eventually he envisions Lionheart having its own taproom. There are some laws that need to be passed before that can happen if Lionheart wants to create European cider, as opposed to taking a Sociable Cider Werks approach and brewing into their cider, which Dayton is working to change. But regardless of the law, he hopes to at least have a brewing facility in Minnesota in the next 18 – 24 months.

The six to 12 months leading up to that?

"Really dominating in the Twin Cities. That's the primary goal," he said.

And he said you do that by being lionhearted.

"Trying to start an alcohol company as a 21-year-old, you get blown off a lot. People don't take you seriously," he said. "[But] we persevered. We got up every day. We were lionhearted. We kept going just day, after day, after day."

Dayton and his team will be sampling Lionheart Cider throughout the metro area through the next two weeks. The tasting schedule is listed below:

Friday, December 11

3 – 6 p.m. at Richfield Liquor, located at 6600 Cedar Ave. S. in Richfield
*Lionheart is the cider of the month at all Richfield Liquor locations. As part of the promotion, customers get $1 off Lionheart.

4 – 7 p.m. at Sentyrz Market, located at 1612 2nd St NE in Minneapolis

Saturday, December 12
3 – 6 p.m. at Total Wine Roseville, located at 2401 Fairview Ave. N #105 in Roseville

5 – 7 p.m. at 1st Avenue Grand Liquor, located at 918 Grand Ave. in St. Paul

Thursday, December 17
4:30 – 6:30 p.m. at Target Midway, located at 1300 University Ave. W. in St. Paul

Friday, December 18
5 – 8 p.m. at Dinkytown Wine & Spirits, located at 1412 5th St. SE in Minneapolis

Saturday, December 19
2 – 5 p.m. at Surdyk's, located at 303 E Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis

For more information on where to purchase Lionheart, or their developments, visit Lionheart Cider online.


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