Glacial Till Vineyard & Winery is on its way to becoming Nebraska's largest winery, but most of that growth isn't coming from wine.
Instead, it's coming from hard cider, a product made from apples, and Glacial Till is producing so much of it, it's having to change the way it does business.
The winery near Palmyra applied for a craft beer license from the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to deal with its growth in hard cider production.
After producing only 950 gallons of the product in 2015, its first full year of production, the winery churned out nearly 20,000 gallons last year — a more than 2,000 percent increase, and already had produced more than 14,000 gallons through the end of May.
At that rate, Glacial Till will become the largest production winery in the state by the end of the year, said Mike Murman, who owns the business along with his three sons.
Nebraska allows farm wineries to produce 30,000 gallons of wine a year, and Glacial Till could exceed that just with cider this year, not even counting the approximately 6,000 gallons of wine it will produce.
Federal alcohol laws treat cider as wine, but Nebraska law classifies it the same as craft beer. Because of that, getting the craft beer license makes more sense than becoming a commercial winery, Murman said.
"It's more of an accounting change than anything," said Murman, who started Glacial Till more than a decade ago and made it his full-time focus after retiring from Pen-Link, a company he founded, in 2013.
While big national cider brands like Angry Orchard have seen a decrease in sales over the past couple of years, regional and local cider producers have seen big increases. Off-premise sales for those producers grew 41 percent year-over-year in 2016 and another 30 percent in 2017, according to the United States Association of Cider Makers. For the first quarter of 2018, sales were up 26 percent compared with a year ago.
Michelle McGrath, executive director of the cider makers group, said she sees parallels between the current demand for cider and the craft beer boom.
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"Cider drinkers got their start with national brands and are now seeking local cideries as they deepen their love of cider," McGrath said in an email. "Right now, a cider drinker is more fickle than a beer drinker. The cider drinker is curious, exploring and eager to try new companies," she said.
Though only about 4 percent of adults name cider as their alcoholic drink of choice, that's a 300 percent increase over 10 years ago, McGrath said.
Glacial Till has seen its cider business grow much faster than the national average, which has necessitated expansion both at the company's winery near Palmyra and its tasting room in Ashland.
Last year, Glacial Till completed an expansion at the Palmyra facility that more than doubled its size. The company installed one of the first production canning lines produced by Lincoln-based Alpha Brewing Co. for its cider products. As part of a partnership, the brewing equipment manufacturer uses the Glacial Till line as a showpiece to show potential customers.
Glacial Till also is planning to expand its tasting room operations in downtown Ashland, with a plan to add more food options and additional event space.
Murman said the business purchased two buildings next door and plans to renovate them. The current tasting room will close at the end of year, and plans are to have it reopened in new space by the beginning of April.
Murman said he wants to create an "Old Market, Haymarket feel," referencing historic downtown areas in Omaha and Lincoln.
Once the expansion in Ashland is completed, Glacial Till will have four to five times as much space, including two additional event venues.
Events are big for the winery, with more than 80 booked this year. But the event space at the Palmyra location is seasonal.
The Ashland expansion, "provides us more of a venue that can be utilized year round," Murman said.