Stephanie Carson From Gypsy Circus Cider Company
The cider circus is in town and it’s here to stay! The most awarded cidery in the southeast and named the 2018 Tennessee Cider Producer of the Year by the Tennessee Championship of Beers, Gypsy Circus Cider Company is the state’s first craft cidery and it’s a force to be reckoned with. At Gypsy Circus, …
The cider circus is in town and it’s here to stay! The most awarded cidery in the southeast and named the 2018 Tennessee Cider Producer of the Year by the Tennessee Championship of Beers, Gypsy Circus Cider Company is the state’s first craft cidery and it’s a force to be reckoned with. At Gypsy Circus, you’ll find locally sourced concoctions of delicious cider, mead, and cysers to delight your palate and keep you coming back for more.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Stephanie Carson, co-founder of Gypsy Circus Cider Company, to learn about their one of a kind cidery. A former TV news producer and expert “cat-herder”, Stephanie and her husband, Aaron, put their skills together to create a welcoming space for communities to blend and enjoy 100% real cider. Keep reading to hear all about Gypsy Circus Cider. It’s a heck of a good time and one you shouldn’t miss!
Nancy Trigg (President and CGO of Arryved): Tell me about your journey that brought you into the world of cider?
Stephanie Carson: I always tell people I’m a recovering TV news producer… but I got out. I worked for CBS and left while I still had some soul left. About 10 years ago, my husband and I found ourselves in the middle of Asheville, North Carolina—which is a craft beverage mecca—and we started running these craft beer festivals. At one point it got to about 11 festivals, including a few in Colorado, and through that experience we gained an intimate understanding of the industry. I also call myself a cat-herder because my experience in television—I joke with people that managing a newsroom is about the same as managing drunk people at a beer festival.
About 6 years ago we bought a strip mall in Kingsport, Tennessee. We were just property investors at the time. My husband said, “Gosh, this place could house a brewery. We should look for a brewery tenant.” And then he said, “Wait a minute, there’s no craft cidery in the state of Tennessee. You know what, we’re just going to invest in a cidery and hire someone to run it. Don’t worry I won’t leave my big corporate job.” (Remember that!)
So we started this cidery and opened up a 40 barrel facility, which is pretty big compared to where a lot of people start. Our first cider maker flaked on the first batch so my husband took over the batch and… he won a couple of medals from a California competition. He then left his job in consulting and the rest is history.
Here I am learning about the cider culture, never planning to open a cidery. So much of my background and [my husband’s] background over the last 10 years looks like we were being very strategic and I cannot take credit for that, one thing just led to another.
Image courtesy of Gypsy Circus Cider Company.
N: What makes Gypsy Cider unique?
S: We’re the state’s first craft cidery in Tennessee. We spent a lot of time thinking about how to do this ethically while still being able to mass-produce. We do not use concentrate and we do not use extracts. I think that’s an important distinction because there are some national brands and even regional brands that sell their cider cheaper when it’s not really a cider. If the flavor can’t naturally occur, we don’t do it. We’ve been able to still come up with some pretty dynamic flavors and transition a lot of people from beer to cider.
It was so funny to see people say they hate cider. When you really drill down they have only tried a very specific brand that tends to be on the sweet side. So I would start these people with a couple of what I call a “gateway cider for beer drinkers”, like our hop cider. Now they’re craft cider drinkers. Even last week we were looking at our Arryved analytics on what had sold. Beer makes up about 7% of our bar sales—it’s being surpassed by our cider. We also have a new wine brand called Unicorn Tears that is surpassing beer. In the beginning that number was 50% or more.
I personally love craft beer but I think that’s a testament to where we’ve taken our community in 5 years. Now they’re drinking cider and they understand that if you have real cider, it’s worth your time.
N: Tell us more about how you use your space to educate your guests and expand their palates?
S: The cider association has something called Certified Cider Professionals, CCPs, and we were 100% CCP certified right before the pandemic. After the pandemic hit, we lost employees and now have some new ones so we have to catch back up with that again. Our employees are trained to always educate people—that we use the real juice, there are no extracts in our cider, and even what cider is. We also make meads and cysers, so we educate guests on what those are.
Education is key even with our food. We just launched food last fall and God bless your staff for sticking with me as I navigated that whole thing. Our sauces, barbeque and Thai peanut sauce for the salads are all made with our ciders so we’re trying to help people by pairing food with cider. This world renowned cheese judge that we are lucky enough to have a friendship with, Michael Landis, comes in here periodically and does cheese and cider pairing; he makes sure that there’s always something there to elevate folks and bring them along with us in our journey. It’s amazing the growth that we’ve seen in the market.
Then there is social growth, too. This isn’t what you’re asking but I’ll share that Gypsy Circus is an inclusive brand and we want people to know that. We have pride nights at our cidery and we have drag queen shows. Keep in mind, we are in East Tennessee. It’s been really nice to see the LGBTQ communities realize they’re accepted in our taproom and in the community, and no one is protesting. That has also been a point of growth.
N: Do you have a memorable pride night or drag show you can tell us about?
S: They’re all memorable because they’re all fantastic. It means a lot to me. When we first approached the folks in our area that host those events they said, “No way!” We talked and finally reached a compromise that they would try it if we hired security. They were afraid, which makes me really sad.
We did not need security. People were fantastic! It’s just nice to see the communities blending. If we have a drag night, it doesn’t matter. Our regulars come out, they love it.
Image courtesy of Gypsy Circus Cider Company.
N: What is your favorite thing on tap right now?
S: I love mead! My favorite mead is the Flower Child, which is a hibiscus mead. We’re releasing a dessert series and the first of that came out in July – Key Lime Pie. Baklava and Strawberry Crumble are coming out later this year. later this year. We started as a cidery but if you’re making a gluten free product, you can expand it into other gluten free products without it getting too scary from a production and licensing stand-point. We’re really delving into meads this year and that is also fun to educate people. If some people have only had mead in England or at one of those medieval dinners…well that is mead but the US is adding carbonation and lowering the sweetness slightly to make it more sessionable.
N: How do you get the word out and invite guests to the taproom?
S: We try to do a heavy presence on social and host events regularly… which of course had to dial back during Covid-19. I’m relaunching some of the things we used to do and we’re doing them in different ways—giving people a variety of reasons to come out. We have our trivia night and a night where someone plays acoustic. Thursday nights are Paws & Pints where people can bring their dog and hang out in our outdoor space. Tonight’s Paws & Pints will have a photo contest—if you post with a certain hashtag, we pick a cute dog and you win a gift card for next week. Doing things like that is a big part of engaging our community. We’ve done some radio and print advertising and, with respect to those mediums because I come from that background, I have not seen as much traction as we do with social promotions.
Beyond that, we have a heavy presence at nearby festivals. We’ve been through the state of Tennessee and the top counties in Georgia. We have a team of sales reps and they go out and engage with people. That hand to hand combat is what people remember the most and if you’re just a nice person, it goes a long way.
N: What makes your team unique and proud of what you all are doing from the human perspective?
S: We’ve traveled all over the world, which is where the name Gypsy came from—it’s something we’re passionate about. Many of our employees have their own love of travel and their own passions and we try to support that. We’ve got somebody that has a goal next year to hike the whole Appalachian Trail so we’re working with him to make sure he can do that and still come back to a job. We have somebody that sailed around the world with his family a few years ago. We tend to attract those people that want to do that. The other thing that has been special to me is I’ve seen folks that are from Tennessee and hadn’t really traveled. We started pushing their envelope a little bit by sending them to cider school and investing in their professional development. In some ways because of the area that we’ve located in there are folks that now have a cider profession that otherwise may have not had a profession.
N: What was your experience during Covid?
S: We were shut down in late March by state order from Covid-19. We felt it was coming and were kind of prepared for it so we took a day break to do a deep clean of the taproom, revamp, and immediately launch into selling packaged cider. Fortunately, several months ago, we transitioned our restaurant and invited in some delivery services for food—like GrubHub—so we were already positioned well in that way. As a cidery, we invested heavily in packaging our products way before this ever happened; we own our own canning line so we already had that all good to go. I think that as I reflect back on the beginning of this pandemic, people that were positioned to immediately launch with package sales did well earlier, or did better earlier. I don’t think any of us would say we did well after this, I think we’ve survived.
Gypsy Circus Cider’s Kingsport OutCider space. Image courtesy of Gypsy Circus Cider Company.
N: Is your taproom fully open now?
S: We’re fully open under State and CDC guidelines. We chose to wait for 2 weeks after the rest of Tennessee because we wanted to make sure we understood what was happening, that there wasn’t a huge uptick, and to understand best practices. With that, we are open with social distancing and masks are required of our staff and customers when they’re not seated at their table. We pulled out some tables, pulled out the bar stools, and had already had plans to amp up our “out-cider” space. We got some turf from a local football field, covered the back with AstroTurf, repaved, put all these tables up, and are trying to drive people outside versus inside. Right now we’re open and this is probably as normal as it’s going to get this year.
N: Any other little tidbits you want us to know about from these past few months?
S: It has been a wild ride. It was a perfect storm in some ways because we’re in this position of an expansion. We’re adding a second taproom in Knoxville, Tennessee in addition to our headquarters in Kingsport. The Barrelhouse by Gypsy Circus will focus on the fermentation of wild yeast ciders and will be the southeast’s first production facility dedicated to that. The pandemic definitely delayed that project in some ways but in some ways it also gave us room and space to think about what was happening in Knoxville—to be more strategic and be more present there. I don’t want to say that this was a silver lining at all, it’s like very tarnished silver if anything, but we were able to keep that going. Knoxville isn’t open yet but it will be in the next month or so and we’ve been able to do construction preparing for the fact that we’re going to be open for at least 6 months under some of these restrictions.
Our new Knoxville location has an event space associated with it and so we have a plan to do some indoor festivals like a cider cheese fest or things like that, again for the education part of it. I look forward to being able to do that once the pandemic allows. Just to bring people along because the more they engage with your brand and the more you expose them to things they’ll stay with you longer that way.
Soon to be Knoxville Barrel House. Image courtesy of Gypsy Circus Cider Company.
N: What else would you like all of the people who read this to know about Gypsy Circus and why they might want to come hang out with you?
S: Well it’s super fun. We try to make sure that it is a very positive experience. Our Knoxville location is going to have a 200 game library of board games and we’re employing Game Masters that will actually teach you how to play some of those board games, so they should know that. Please buy the cans, please support us and other establishments and are honoring the craft. But if you have the time to come visit us in the taproom, you’ll have a really great experience and a unique one.