By Olivia du Bois, C’22

Jerry Thornton, owner of Bryant’s Small Batch Cider and 2017 graduate of the SPCS Beer Brewer Professional Certificate program, began work on his new cidery and tasting room in Shockoe Bottom at the beginning of January 2020. After nonstop work for about two months, the location was ready to open with just a permit and a few hours of work left to go. 

Then the coronavirus hit, the governor shut down the Commonwealth and the beautiful new location was shuttered from the public eye. 

On March 30, 2020, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued a temporary stay-at-home order in effect until June 10. On March 24, Northam ordered the closure of all restaurants, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries and tasting rooms, but allowed for continued offering of delivery and take-out services. Phase I of reopening began May 15, allowing outdoor seating at 50% capacity in much of Virginia. Richmond city’s reopening was delayed until midnight on May 28 upon request of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

In response to the governor's orders, the Virginia ABC adjusted its licensing regulations to allow businesses such as Bryant’s Small Batch Cider to sell alcohol in sealed containers through curbside pickup or home delivery without a permit. The Virginia ABC also limited store hours from 12-7 p.m. seven days a week starting March 27.

Since these orders were enacted, the story has been the same for many businesses like Bryant’s, which have had to fundamentally change the way they operate because of the pandemic.

These regulatory changes have made it possible for Bryant’s Small Batch Cider to remain open. Bryant’s began curbside pickup and home delivery from its historical Shockoe Bottom location on March 20, the weekend it was meant to open. The family-owned farm in Nelson County has done the same, but located north of Wintergreen Resort, it has lost much of its customer base. Without nearby tourist attractions open, people aren’t willing to drive that far out for cider.

So far, none of Bryant’s employees have been laid off, though hours have been cut. With restaurants and bars being closed, kegs are no longer in demand making canned cider Bryant's primary product. This refocus in production has led to a repurposing of employees. For example, those who had been doing only tasting or marketing are now doing more production work. 

When Thornton first started the company in 2017, he had thought getting it running would be a five or six year goal. After taking a week-long fundamental cider making program in upstate New York, Thornton came home and began filling out the paperwork right away.

“I had absolutely no idea what the hell I was doing other than: I want to do this; I'm going to do this,” Thornton recalled. 

As the sole proprietor of Bryant’s Small Batch Cider, Thornton has invested a large portion of his personal savings into the business. “This is kind of who I am. I don’t have investors for this, and there’s no partners, so it’s just kind of me and me,” Thornton said. 

With everything Thornton has put into the business, the shutdown has put that much more on the line for him.

Just before the shutdown, Bryant’s Cider was awarded grants totaling $25,000 by the city of Richmond — part of an initiative to revitalize Shockoe Bottom. Bryant’s was also awarded the Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development (AFID) Fund grant, which matches the Richmond grant for another $25,000. Virginia Governor S. Ralph Northam issued a press statement recognizing the cidery’s contribution to Richmond.

The AFID Fund is an economic development program created to reverse a declining trend in Virginia agriculture. From 2009 to 2018, the number of farms in Virginia decreased from 46,900 to 42,500, a decrease of about 9%, according to the Virginia Agricultural Statistics 2019 Annual Bulletin compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The goal is to incentivize businesses to keep the supply chain within the commonwealth to bolster the health of the farming and agriculture industry.

To qualify for the AFID grant, a facility must produce value-added agricultural or forestal products and demonstrate that a minimum of 30% of the agricultural or forestry products purchased annually will be grown or produced in Virginia, according to the fund’s guidelines. As a true farm cidery, meaning the apple orchard is on the farm, Bryant’s uses most of its own apples, and any outsourcing comes from within Nelson County. Bryant’s also guarantees about $500,000 in spending over the next three years to meet the AFID grant guarantee. 

The grant was awarded in February, but Bryant’s has not yet received the grant money with the stay-at-home order delaying necessary paperwork, Thornton said. The pandemic and emergency measures the government has employed have made Thornton concerned for the future of the grant, because he has invested more into the Shockoe Bottom location than he otherwise would have, with the expectation that a certain amount of it would come back. 

In an interview, Thornton noted that a lot of people were in a really bad spot and said that multiple businesses staying alive was more important than his own receiving a grant.

“I feel it’s better to keep other businesses alive. But still, it puts us in a hard spot, you know, if these things don’t come through, because we can’t produce as much as we need to, we can’t really invest in the equipment that we need and things like that,” Thornton said. 

The new tasting room and cidery are located at 2114 E. Main Street in the historical Shockoe Bottom neighborhood. The building itself was built in the 1850s and is one of the oldest on the block. The family farm was also built in the 1850s creating a historical link between the two locations, which is part of what drew Thornton to the Shockoe Bottom building.

The tasting room is a full bar, though it only serves cider, and a large, industrial warehouse in the back serves as Bryant’s second cidery, which began production in late April. 

Thornton earned the SPCS Beer Brewer Professional Certificate in fall of 2017. Though the curriculum doesn’t focus on cider making, the program had a big part to play in getting the company up and running and helping Bryant’s come at the market with interesting ideas and concepts, Thornton explained. 

“Applying a lot of that knowledge and technology and information to cider helps you put a very different spin on what you’re making and how you present it to the market,” Thornton said. 

Thornton gave the program high praise, describing how much he learned about the fundamentals, the background, the ingredients and the chemistry of beer brewing. It provides considerable value for the cost of attendance, Thornton explained. “It was honestly dirt cheap for what it was, which was kind of a steal,” he said. 

Thornton’s corporate finance background has also helped him ride the waves of the business world. In Thornton’s eyes, COVID-19’s impact on business is a challenge to improvise and find innovative ways to continue selling their product.

In the spirit of innovation, Bryant’s held a Tiger King virtual trivia night on April 25 where the night’s Zoom link got sent out with any purchase of a Bryant’s cider. Participants could win an additional 200 points for showing the moderator which Bryant’s cider they were drinking during trivia night. Thornton has continued hosting trivia nights since, with a different show or movie featured almost every weekend.

“I think everyone is just trying to find something to do to give people not only something to do, but, you know, keep them energized and give them good stuff to drink,” Thornton said.