Two Rivers rides wave of cider popularity – seeking a spot on the grid

For the first decade of its nearly 17-year history, Two Rivers Cider was close to a one-man show, with founder and owner Vincent Sterne at center stage. While building his hard cider business, Stern worked behind the bar at Rubicon Brewery, rubbed elbows with those in the homebrewing community and sought advice from wine and beer makers. Back in the mid-’90s, there really wasn’t much ado about cider.

The bubbly, alcoholic apple drink was in its infancy when Stern broke into the industry, and mostly big brewing companies made fermented fruit suds. "It was mainly large companies I was in competition with, and they weren’t giving away their secrets," Sterne said. "When I started there wasn’t really anybody for me to go to for cider advice."

With so many craft beer and wine makers, Sterne wanted to differentiate himself, and cider seemed like the perfect fit.

"I thought it would be a good niche," he said. "I was a little premature – the newfound popularity of hand-crafted cider has emerged in the last two years."

It’s true. The volume of cider consumed in the United States grew 65 percent last year alone, according to an NPR story on Americans rediscovering “the kick of hard cider.” 

That boom hasn’t gone unnoticed locally, says Sterne, who said his company experienced a 50 percent bump in sales from 2010 to 2011. Since opening Two Rivers Cider, the company has averaged a 25 percent growth in sales per year, he said.

“We have a huge demand for cider that we have a hard time filling to be honest – we kind of got caught off guard,” said Sterne, who admits the cider isn’t aggressively marketed, saying it “kind of markets itself.”

Sterne and his team often “get weird” when experimenting with new flavors, fruits and batches, and have developed several mainstays over the years. In addition to the classic hard apple cider, Two Rivers brews a blood orange cider, pear cider, raspberry cider, huckleberry cider, pomegranate cider, dry oak cider and seasonals.

Nick Vellanoweth, Two Rivers Cider’s production manager and Stern’s right-hand man, said Sterne will oftentimes have an idea for a new mix in his head, discuss it with the team to see if it’s feasible, and if the fruits are available, then start experimenting.

“As I grow the business I’m constantly trying to come up with something innovative and creative that will captivate our customers,” Sterne said.

While Sterne prides himself in maintaining what he considers a small, locally produced, regionally distributed cider company, the fact is it’s growing every day. Two Rivers now employs about a handful of people, and recently expanded its production facility by 1,000 square feet.

Recently, Sterne was on the phone with the owner of The Local, a bar in Humboldt County, which wanted to add some cider to its array of taps. He already distributes to Portland, and dreams of adding a production facility somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

"I have the dream of someday growing my company large enough so I can retire, grow my apples and have a little roadside cider stand," said Sterne. "But until then I have to grow the business enough until I can afford that dream."

Doing so may mean adding a tasting room to its current production facility, or creating one in Midtown.

While Sterne hasn’t nailed down a site yet, he is currently in "conversations" to attain a building. "We’re definitely aiming for within a 3-mile radius of downtown Sacramento, this side of the river for sure," he said.

Vellanoweth says they’re hoping to find something on J or K street, around the 2000 block. “Midtown is the place to be, that’s where our cider drinkers are,” said Vellanoweth. “Right now we’re tucked away in Hollywood Park – when people try to find us the first question they have is ‘Do you have a tasting room?’”

“If we’re more visible, it wouldn’t be such an adventure to get here.”

But it’s a matter of money and the city’s zoning codes at the moment. If Two Rivers can find a spot in Midtown with an alcohol permit grandfathered in, that’d be ideal, Vellanoweth said. If not, one costs $13,000 and is non-transferrable to another location.

It’s a big chunk of money to say the least, says Sterne, and he’s hoping the city changes its zoning code to exempt businesses in industrial zones from paying that hefty fee.

But this could all change this year, as the city council is slated to update the zoning code as part of the 2030 general plan. A public hearing on this is scheduled for this Tuesday night’s council meeting. 

By nixing this $13,000 fee, the cost of establishing a microbrewery in Sacramento would be drastically reduced, at least in industrial zones, said Dean Peckham, senior project manager for the economic development department.

“They can become real community assets,” he said, citing Track 7 as an example. “We’re just trying to increase the cultural diversity of the city and be business friendly at the same time.”

For Sterne, hard cider is the most fascinating because it’s the newest. “There are thousands of wine and beer makers, but only a handful of cider makers,” he said. “Unfortunately there are a lot of ingredients and the process gets pricey.”

But it seems to be working, and appealing to beer drinking audience and beyond.

“He found a way to make cider that’s more appealing to everyone,” Vellanoweth said. “It’s not on the sweet side, and closer to dry, showing there’s more to cider than what’s out there.”  

  • Nice article, Karen: Vince is a true “Rags to Riches” story, and should make every Sacramentan who knows him proud; in addition to what he brings to local economy, Vince also donates considerable time and money to many non-profit organizations and local events. Every time a friend from out-of-town asks me to describe Midtown, I say it’s a place where you can be a little creative, a little eccentric, while owning your own business and trying to make the world a better place–all at the same time. And that’s Vince in a nutshell. Let’s hope the Midtown Business Association can help him to find what he needs.

  • Ed Murrieta

    Cider has a long tradition, even in our young country. Johnny Appleseed wasn’t pushing apple pie. Cider is great. It’s food friendly. It’s delicious on its own. And it’s low-alcohol, which may be its marketing downfall, along with the ingrained perception that cider is Martinelli’s. Fact is, those gnarly, wooly, astringent heirloom apples that make great cider don’t make great juice.

    • It’s great having hard cider when I’ve been in the U.K. or Canada. But don’t get taken by that low-alcohol pitch. It can have as much as 8% alcohol & can buzz you much faster than a couple of beers!

  • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

    Great article and good luck to Vince! Couldn’t happen to a better guy. I asked him about a tasting room a couple of months ago, and he said he was definitely looking around, just waiting for the right spot. I’m glad that things are continuing to progress! A Midtown location would be great if it doesn’t break the bank, but Track 7’s proven that a little more offbeat location can still attract people with a good product.

  • John Boyer

    Pick our neighborhood Vince!!!!

    • Linda Hardy

      I hope so ! Hey John ill see you at the next swap meet …sorry I missed but coyldnt be helped

  • Kristi Dvorak

    Great article, I personally love 2 Rivers and wish them success.

  • bye bye Sacpress

    Great article and a great product.

    But I didn’t really understand Mr. Peckham’s point that easing access to alcohol permits in Sacramento’s industrial zones would “increase the cultural diversity”.

  • Cogmeyer, It would be because then you would have a wider range of people and businesses drawn to use those spaces. I am in the process of opening a brewery, and right now, I am considering somewhere other than Sacramento to open it even though I live here. The $13000, (and 4-6 month waiting time), city permit is one of the most costly of the wide variety of start-up unfriendly costs that the city imposes. By contrast, West Sacramento has a much lower fee structure, and brewery/wine making is actually written into their codes as allowed uses for certain zoning areas. In Sacramento, these uses are considered and variances on a case-by-case basis.

    • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

      Thanks for clarifying. I wasn’t clear as to how that worked either. I hope you’ll be lobbying the city (and building a relationship with your council member to see what changes they might help champion) to alter that code before you write off doing business in the city.

    • Dan Scott

      Let’s remember that Sacramento just had the opportunity to allow Rubicon Brewing to open a major production facility which will make them, by far, the largest production brewery in the Sacramento area.

      It will open in WEST Sacramento later this year.

    • bye bye Sacpress

      i am 100% with you that our city’s anti-business attitude needs to change. I have no idea whether a radiator repair shop or a ciderhouse is the most culturally diverse use of a light industrial area. My point is that it shouldn’t matter…the economic development board (and our city leadership) should challenge these high fees on the simple precept of economic competitiveness.

      The cultural diversity aspect is a total red herring.

    • William Burg

      I’m pretty sure there are already a lot of people in the neighborhood around 20th and J/K who are there to drink alcoholic beverages. How would adding another one make the area more diverse?

    • bye bye Sacpress


      It is a sad indicator on how out of touch Sacrmaento is when even the alleged champion of economic development has to lean on a worn out “cultural diversity” cliche to justify reducing barriers for small businesses.

  • sure, the city council will take on the codes. they have backbone to spare . . .

  • Ryan, I hope these new changes do go through. I do know my council member, I would love to not have to cross the river, but we shall see. However, If I am going open a business, I need to do it smart and not just throw money at bureaucrats when it would better used to build the business

  • William Burg

    Is this supposed to be two different facilities, a production facility in an industrial area and a tasting room on K Street? The only industrial-zoned part of the central city is on the far north end of Mansion Flats along C Street–there aren’t any industrial-zoned lots around 20th and J/K.

    Is the $13,000 mentioned for the state-regulated ABC permit? The city of Sacramento doesn’t issue alcohol permits.

    • William, the $13000 is for the city’s conditional use permit. Basically, you need to secure a location and then, because Sacramento does not have brewery/wine making as part of their permitted use designations in any zoning area, you need to pay the $13000 and apply for the conditional use permit and hope that you are approved. So you are paying a lot of money for the city to give you permission to do business. While I can understand that there needs to be some sort of fee to cover the cost of processing these requests, I can’t understand why it is so high.

      It sounds like Vince’s tasting room won’t be a manufacturing facility, so I would be willing to bet that the issues in opening something like that in the 20th and J/k area are different that the ones I am wrestling with.

    • William Burg

      The issues would start with finding a vacant space in that area…it’s pretty much the hottest retail market in the city right now, there are darn few street-level vacancies in that neighborhood unless he takes over the old Capitol Dawg location at 20th & Capitol. But if he isn’t manufacturing cider in that location, no need for a conditional use permit–just the state-mandated ABC permit, which is just as required across the river as it is here.

    • The City’s recently adopted Planning and Development Code allows beer/wine manufacturing (and associated tasting rooms) by right in the C4, M1 and M2 zones (heavy commercial and manufacturing). The ordinance goes in to effect in September of this year. West Sacramento is not as clear about “tasting rooms” in their manufacturing facilities.

  • Tasting room in Hollywood Park!

  • I am having challenges finding your product. Where is the best place to have a choice of products? I miss my beer (gluten intolerance) but am I learning to appreciate good cider that doesn’t taste like candy.

    • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

      What part of town? Lots of cider options, including several from Two Rivers, at my local corner store, Curtis Park Market, if you’re ever in that area.

    • The Sacramento Co-op has some of Vince’s product in bottles, but you can find his cider all over MIdtown.

  • Mark

    Is Midtown really the place for another alcohol-specific business? Maybe it’s time to rethink that. What about R Street (central corridor)? That’s one place that is about to “blowup.” So why not be a part of that rather that fight with fatigued Midtown neighbors? Besides R Street (west of 19th) is the perfect place for this type of business.

  • Two rivers has long been my beverage of choice. I love the dry yet fruit rich taste. I prefer it to beer as it does not give me that bloated feeling. Knowing it is a local product is great but that is only icing on the cake, it just adds to my enjoyment. I have tried different varieties of Two Rivers with Pomegranate being my favorite. You might have seen Two Rivers in Sunset magazine and some other publications. The word is getting around. After many years it is almost an overnight success. thank you vincent for persevering with Two Rivers.

  • We love Vinnie’s ciders and we can’t wait until he opens up a place in Portland!


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