Citizen Cider’s Bryan Holmes, Justin Heilenbach and Kris Nelson

Cider for the People


Often, people craft grand ideas while sitting with friends, discussing how great it would be to dive head first into a totally new project. Most of the time those ideas remain just a dream. Luckily for hard cider and craft beer lovers across Vermont, the trio of Kris Nelson, Justin Heilenbach and Bryan Holmes took the plunge into the unknown in pursuit of producing “cider for the people” and launched Citizen Cider in February 2012.

Citizen Cider got its start in 2009 when Kris and Justin, old friends who met in Utah, were on the phone, from Burlington to Portland, Oregon, talking about how they wanted to change their lives and “do something that had a future.” Kris, who works for a local wine distributor, had come across an article about hard cider in a beverage industry magazine and sent it to Justin, who was working in Portland. For about a year, the two took a bicoastal approach and crafted grand plans.


In the meantime, Kris approached Bryan, a chemist, to see if he could help with the “science” part of the cider.

“I agreed to help, never really thinking that it would turn into much. I just thought it would be fun to make hard cider with friends. At the time, I really didn’t understand how much depth could be achieved in hard ciders. I was always a fan of beer and wine and didn’t really know about the potential of apples. Kris showed me some ciders from Britain and also local ciders such as Flag Hill and Farnum Hill and I was sold. I’m amazed that these types of products have fell out of American awareness and am glad that it seems to be coming back. There is so much potential to make beautiful products.”

In the fall of 2010 Justin came to Vermont and the trio began making test batches of hard cider. Kris and Bryan had bought an old, handmade cider press in Lincoln, Vermont, but had nothing to make pomace with. After some online sleuthing, Bryan found a way to use a new garbage disposal as a grinder. With apples from Happy Valley Orchard in Middlebury, innovative work with garbage disposals from Lowe’s and the cider press, the men started their adventure in cider making.

Justin returned to Portland and Kris and Bryan continued nurturing their first batches of cider, reporting to Justin via telephone that they thought they had made something great. In a move that most of us wish we could make, Justin and his girlfriend packed up their life in Portland and made the move to Vermont in pursuit of “a nonexistent business.” Justin said, “I never considered saying no. There was no option to say no, there was no getting off the train.”

Citizen Cider’s first product, called Unified Press, made its debut in February 2012 with a release party that was held at Farmhouse Tap and Grill in Burlington. At the time of the cider’s debut the guys had “nothing bottled,” but they were able to start distributing their bottled product in March 2012. The trio made as much cider as they possibly could, but now say they could have sold twice that much. However, that is the gamble one must take when starting on their maiden voyage.



In the search for cider cloths from local orchards, the guys of Citizen Cider contacted Happy Valley Orchards in Middlebury. From the moment they approached Stan and Mary Pratt of Happy Valley they felt there was a great opportunity for a partnership.

“Stan and Mary were super enthusiastic about the project from day one. Mary got us some apples and end-of-season juice to help us with the first batch, and Stan makes the best fresh cider.”

Both Citizen Cider and Happy Valley Orchard benefit from this newly forged partnership. The orchard has grown to meet the needs of the growing cidery, allowing for a 60- by 40-foot barn to be built at the orchard to be used for cider making.

“Working with Citizen Cider has really invigorated us to do more, to grow, to reach and do something different,” said Mary Pratt. “We’ve built the barn, leased another orchard to grow more apples. It’s been gradual growth but it has been great to see the energy and enthusiasm the three guys have.”

While Happy Valley has grown to help meet the needs of the cidery, Citizen must work with Happy Valley to understand supply fluctuations of volume and variety. By working with Stan they have been able to blend apples to make a consistent flavor profile for their sweet cider so they can replicate batches as closely as possible. Citizen Cider has also relied on their partnership with members of the community to help them get their business up and running. In order to raise the capital they needed the guys created the first “community-supported cidery” for individuals to pre-purchase cases of cider.

In the next year, Citizen is looking to increase their production by about 400%, increasing their volume from 400 to 2,000 gallons. As the business continues to grow the trio will face new hurdles such as the logistics of increased production, crop variability and time and capital constraints. Due to Vermont’s ever-changing weather, this year was a tough one for apples, so Citizen Cider looked to buy fresh apples from several orchards including Allenholm in South Hero and Sunrise in Cornwall. This year’s batch of fresh apples was pressed into juice and blended at Happy Valley and brought in to Citizen Cider, where it is in the process of fermentation. In the meantime, many will be patiently awaiting the arrival of more cider in early 2013.

Citizen Cider currently offers three varieties: their flagship Unified Press Hard Cider, Spy and bRosé, a blueberry-apple cider made with blueberries from Charlotte Berry Farm. The cider can found at Citizen Cider, which is located in Ethan Allen Park in Essex, at local beverage stores and on tap at several restaurants in the Burlington area including Farmhouse Tap and Grill and American Flatbread.

Next time you’re in Essex, the Champlain Valley or Vermont for that matter, swing into the Citizen Cider tasting room, which is open Fridays from 3 to 7pm, to get a taste of the cider, meet the guys and get a few bottles to bring home.



Citizen Cider products are versatile and easy to pair with a variety of foods. They’re even great to use in cocktails. The Unified Press is crisp and refreshing with a great balance of sweetness, tart notes and clean apple flavor. The bRosé is drier than the Unified Press and drinks a lot like a sparkling rosé, which makes it easy to pair with many foods, from light cheeses to grilled meats or spicy dishes such as Asian noodle dishes.

For a nice early-evening snack, here are a few ideas of local items to pair with Citizen Cider:

With Citizen Cider bRosé

Jan’s Farmhouse Crisps of Stowe
Blue Ledge Farm Maple Chevre

With Citizen Cider Unified Press

Red Hen seeded baguette
Tarentaise or Alpine-style cheese


In a champagne flute combine the following:

  • 1 ounce bourbon (Bulleit Bourbon is a favorite)
  • ½ ounce Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur
  • Top with Citizen Cider Unified Press
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