Cider Corner: These Keys Led Scion to Grow in 1st Year

Utah isn’t always the first place you think of when talking about a bar that is special not just in the local market, but is also a leader in its category across the entire United States. Yet here we are.

The groundbreaking cider-focused bar in Salt Lake’s flourishing Central 9th neighborhood officially celebrates a major milestone this week amid community accolades and rave reviews from customers. Scion Cider Bar, which is just one of a handful of dedicated cider bars in the entire country, has overcome a variety of challenges to establish itself as a must-drink destination for locals and visitors in Utah’s largest city. SLC is a gateway for tourists visiting National Parks and world-class ski resorts. 

READ MORE: Scion, Torrey’s Etta Place Debut Limited Release of Azacca-Hopped Cider

Opening during a global pandemic, facing supply chain and labor shortages, and in a state which is known for rigid liquor laws and its government-run retail operations as a “control state” would be a challenge for any new bar establishment, let alone one with a niche market such as craft cider. Despite the long hill to climb, the ownership group remained committed to the vision of offering something new and completely unique in the local landscape, offering guests an exceptional experience within a laid back atmosphere in a vibrant neighborhood, finding its place as a community-focused gathering spot. 

Assortment Opens Consumers Eyes

Against the odds, Scion has successfully navigated an array of challenges in sourcing an impressive menu of over 220 ciders available in all formats — from draft cider to cans and 500ml/750ml bottles.  Working closely with smaller local distributors (who have to work through the state agency for special fulfillment of orders) the diverse menu currently represents urban craft cideries and small orchard driven cider producers from over 10 US states and seven countries, with more on the way. Boasting one of the largest collections of cider in the country was by design, albeit an ambitious goal for such a niche segment of the alcohol industry. The response has been overwhelmingly positive from local residents and visitors from afar who are fans of alcoholic cider. When guests step up to the bar to discover the rotating selection available on over 20 taps, their eyes light up in response to the large curated collection of cans and artfully designed bottles that adorn the glass display cases.

Education Key for 5-Star Experience

For those unfamiliar with craft cider, the knowledgeable staff helps customers explore the options to please individual palates, offering a wide-ranging scale of bone dry to sweet options, with straightforward apple flavors to creative blends of botanicals, spices, added fruits and more. Utilizing affordably priced one-ounce sample sizes and curated flights, it’s a low barrier to entry for guests to explore new flavor profiles. Beer drinkers are often drawn to hopped varieties, or those styles that emulate hazy IPAs and popular sour ales. For wine drinkers, traditional still ciders with complex notes, pet-nats and champagne style bubbles, along with rosé ciders or co-fermented options with grapes and other fruits are an easy introduction to the world of apple wines. Dessert style ciders that are akin to ice wines and related styles appeal to enthusiasts as they begin to appreciate the full range of cider available. The bar also offers weekly free cider education classes that have been a hit, with brief presentations on rotating topics given by General Manager Rio Connelly, and regular appearances by Utah’s only Certified Pommelier™ Matthew Ostrander, plus other featured guests.

Going Beyond Local, Regional Offerings

With just three previously established local cideries in Utah who can sell direct to consumers, the local brands were providing options, but Scion decided to take it to the next level after seeing similar establishments in other major cities. In addition to carrying products from all three Utah cider manufacturers, supporting small producers from around the globe was an important piece of the puzzle to highlight the vast diversity in cider styles, regional specialties, single varietals and terroir driven characteristics of heirloom apples, which can rival fine wines in terms of the sensory experience. 

“We saw a distinct need for craft cider to be better represented in Utah’s hospitality industry, and we designed our business model to take advantage of every opportunity we could imagine under the current parameters set by state and federal laws,” explains managing partner Elisabeth Osmeloski. 

The monumental effort has been greatly appreciated by craft cider producers in neighboring states and across the country, who would have otherwise not been able to tap into the Utah market or were previously discouraged by the complicated state run system. Industry leaders have similarly recognized how difficult it was to execute the vision and consistently express what Scion Cider Bar has accomplished is extraordinary, not just for Utah, but for the cider category as a whole. 

Complex Alcohol Laws lead to Innovative Model

A driving force for the bar concept was the lack of available cider options for those who require gluten-free beverage choices and to better serve adventurous drinkers who enjoy exploring the category as a complement to beer, wine or spirit selections. 

“The extremely limited selection of ciders available at local Utah State Liquor Stores doesn’t adequately reflect the diversity available in cider, nor does it reflect the national trends of increased growth in regional and craft cider brands, while consumer interest in mass-produced national brands has decreased over the last several years,” added Osmeloski. 

One of the differentiators for the bar is that because hard cider is federally defined as wine, and Utah law follows that definition, Scion is able to pour ciders over 5% ABV on draft as a 5oz glass of wine, or customers may opt for larger carafe sizes (15oz and 25oz, respectively). Similarly, Scion keeps traditional white and red wines on tap to be served in the same manner, as kegged wine and alternative packaging for everyday wines have become more commonplace in the industry. While a limitation on draft beer above 5% ABV has proved to be a hindrance to local beer brewers, bars and restaurants over the years — Scion customers are pleasantly surprised to learn that Utah law doesn’t apply to cider, as part of the educational experience provided by staff on cider’s natural place alongside beer and wine.  

Despite that upside, lingering questions about slow moving liquor policy remain a challenge, but could open the door to future changes in legislation. For example, after being exposed to new products at the bar, customers often ask why the bar is unable to sell sealed cans and bottles of imported cider to-go as the state stores don’t offer as large of a selection. The answer is that there’s no specific Utah law or bottle-shop type license that allows wine products manufactured by others to be sold for off-premise consumption. That creates an added layer of confusion for existing and new residents or visitors from other states who were accustomed to such privileges elsewhere. To combat that issue, going hyperlocal with in-house production also created an opportunity for Scion Cider to benefit from a hybrid business model, and leverage its natural strengths inside the ownership group, which includes an experienced beer brewer and two brothers who grew up with family run commercial apple orchards. Scion Cider’s own small batch production of craft cider produced from locally grown juice blends by co-owner and orchardist Jordan Riley, is underway. The first round of house made cider is set to be released on draft in coming weeks, and following that release, packaged cider made by Scion will be available for purchase to-go under a manufacturing retail license. 

Perseverance Defines Success

“To say we’re proud of what we have accomplished in our first year of business operations is a significant understatement given the hurdles we’ve faced,” said co-founder and General Manager Rio Connelly. “Our ownership group was formed between January 2020 and March 2020, when the pandemic hit. That put an immediate halt to our momentum initially but by spring of 2021, we were feeling a lot more confident about our ability to execute our vision. We had put all the pieces in place and moved quickly, signing a lease in our brand new building by June 2021 and acquiring a liquor license.” 

The business was fortunate to purchase an existing liquor license from a shuttering business just prior to a change in Utah law which now prohibits the practice and has made bar licenses a scarce resource and precious commodity. Construction delays at that point delayed Scion’s soft opening until December 2021, and the process of special ordering the bulk of the initial inventory through the state system took several more weeks. By then, the Coronavirus Omicron variant had hit Utah, and a grand opening wasn’t feasible.

The cider bar relied on word-of-mouth and community partnerships as it continued to build up its diverse collection and developed a loyal following of cider enthusiasts over the winter, also offering hot mulled cider optionally spiked with locally distilled spirits for aprés ski sipping.

Spring 2022 saw a massive increase in awareness for the bar, and wearing another hat as Scion’s head cider maker, Connelly utilized his decade of beer brewing expertise to collaborate with southern Utah’s Etta Place Cider and produce a limited batch of 8% hopped cider at their facility, enabling bottle sales at their tasting room near Capitol Reef National Park, and featuring it on draft at Scion Cider Bar.

The release event of the exclusive product and other special events over the summer helped Scion gain traction within the community, despite the summer construction season plaguing all of the local businesses in the redeveloping neighborhood. Fortunately, the first phase of a major infrastructure improvement was completed in recent weeks and the future of the Central 9th community is bright with the installation of the dedicated “9 Line Bike Path”, added public parking and enhanced accessibility to the 900 S TRAX light rail stop. With more local eateries and breweries set to move into the area over the coming months, plus new residential units under construction, the walkability of the neighborhood will undoubtedly attract increased attention as it emerges as a desirable destination within the city. 

What’s on the Horizon for Scion

The one-year anniversary coincides with two recently earned spots on the 2022 Best of Utah Awards Readers Poll by Salt Lake City Weekly for “Best Hard Cider” and “Best New Bar,” which will be celebrated at a local event hosted by the publication on the same day. Scion Cider Bar held its own celebration to mark the occasion on Friday, December 2 with frequent customer and guest DJ Chase Loter from KUAA FM spinning vinyl for a low-key evening reflective of the space and the vibe of the regular clientele. Throughout 2023, Scion Cider Bar plans to host additional educational programming, including pairing dinners and interactive classes, support community driven events and lead the way in organizing block party style events for the reimagined neighborhood.  

Photo courtesy Scion Cider Bar

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