Jul 19 , 2021
We caught up with Eric Phillips, CSO of Schilling Hard Cider, to pick his brain on bushels more than heirloom apples. From shaking the branches of the craft beverage industry, bold marketing strategies, and reasons why friends shouldn’t let friends drink mass-market ciders, Eric dishes on how a badass tap handle gives a draft beverage the presence it deserves on a crowded tap line.
What did your previous tap handle look like, and why did you want to upgrade your tap handle game?
As we’ve matured as a company, we needed our marketing to follow that path. The original can was based off of the original branding of Schilling spice company, A. Schilling & Company, which [Schilling Hard Cider CEO] Colin’s great-great-grandfather, August Schilling, founded in 1881. He had worked with J.A. Folger of Folger’s coffee, all that good stuff. So, we actually had apple tree branches that were quartered and branded with “cider” and “cider” [on two sides of the tap]. Then, we had an apple topper that didn’t say Schilling, so no one knew it was Schilling. Then, we had people breaking off the top of them. Then, we got wise and upped our game to fit the transition of our branding. We had to come up with a new handle that fit what Schilling is now.
So, the Schilling Cider brand has evolved over the years. How has the brand identity of Schilling Hard Cider shifted?
Now we are so character-centric. Our brand is built around the characters of Schilling Cider and the adventure concept: adventure awaits. We needed something that fit that. What’s authentic for who we are now? What is going to continue to be disruptive in the market?
So, why did you go with Steel City Tap instead of one of our competitors, even the one in your neck of the woods?
Everyone was trying to court us, and they wanted to know: “Why aren’t you guys going with us?” We showed them the concept you guys did for us. They weren't able to match the level of detail or what we were looking for to match the brand identity and the brand feel. And, you guys are made in the U.S.
Beyond the facts that Steel City Tap Co. sources materials from American businesses and manufactures strictly in the U.S., how does our partnership make total sense?
Especially post-pandemic, it’s important to be able to support the community and support local. It has nothing to do with politics. It’s a lot more interesting to be able to communicate on a same-day basis. It’s a quick turnaround [compared to working with people overseas]. For us, it’s supporting companies who pay a fair wage. You guys are supporting people who are passionate about a craft; [the tap handle] is not going to some warehouse where we don’t have a touchpoint. With you, there’s camaraderie being built, there’s friendship—there’s opportunity for connection.
The trust your team has put in us to create the ideal Schilling Hard Cider tap handle, something no other tap company has been able to give you, is awesome and humbling. And, it sounds like our business values really align.
If you guys were double the cost, I don’t think it would make sense. But, it’s because you’re able to figure out a way to grow your business, invest in your business, invest in your community, your people, and come up with a product that’s better than the competition, and, for us, fits our brand identity more closely than anything we’ve seen and actually help set our brand identity, to be honest. You guys came up with the design, you guys saw what our brand was about, and because of that, you were able to capture it better than we could. That’s the sign of someone who understands their business.
What made you pick up the phone to seek out a new custom or semi-custom tap handle? What did your team see on our website or Instagram that made you say, “We want Steel City Tap Co. to make our tap handle.”
I tasked the team with finding tap handles with short notice. Amanda, [director of creative], was really drawn to your different design capabilities and ability to capture different brand or company identities through the tap handles. For me, the interest was, well, we have to have tap handles, so let’s figure that out. It was a risk-reward thing. The concept designs that you guys created were so superior to what we were being sent from the competition that it was a no-brainer. It was in the ballpark of the same price point. Your lead time was a lot better. Whether or not we could have gotten them from China at the same time is kind of irrelevant, because it’s about the long-term opportunity.
How do you see us continuing to work and grow together down the road?
I’m already looking at, say, maybe these new metal tap handles don’t work. Let’s say they are in the market and they’re not working—we didn’t lose money on them, because you know I’m not going to lose money on tap handles. Let’s say they don’t accomplish what we hoped to accomplish. Great. Let’s evaluate and make the next move. Maybe we make a shorty [or shotgun] handle with an apple on top. I know you guys would say, “Yeah, dude. Let’s figure it out together.” That’s an opportunity because you guys aren’t going to lose money on it, and it’s going to help us out.
Let’s talk about the new Schilling Hard Cider metal tap handle we designed together. It’s so big that it might take the place of two standard handles on the draft line.
One of the reasons I want to have a big tap handle is because when you see it, you see it. If it becomes an actual problem, like [bartenders] aren’t able to put them back up, that’s an issue. But the idea is, well, we tried it. If we’re going to fail, fail big. You know, we learned, and maybe after this we transition [to a different tap handle design].
So far, we’ve come up with a resin tap handle concept and a metal tap handle design for Schilling Cider. What were the top priorities during the mockup process for both new cider taps that you think we nailed?
Capturing brand identity. Together, we’ve created a brand that has a look and feel. When you look at Schilling, at the very least, it seems like a fun and whimsical company. If you know nothing else about us, you just look at the characters on the package and you get that understanding. Hopefully, that might draw you in to buy [our semi-sweet ciders or electrolyte-enhanced hard seltzers]. What’s going to bring you back is the quality. You’ve got to draw that consumer in. For the tap handle, we wanted to capture something that wasn’t just what everyone else has.
What are the best features of your new tap handles from Steel City Tap Co.?
What you guys were able to capture on the tap handles is our strong brand presence with who [Schilling Hard Cider] is as a company. Our name and our brand identity, which are the characters that are inseparable from the Schilling Cider brand, that was the main thing we were looking for. It’s such a fun, winning combination.
What would you say to a brewery, cidery, or distiller who is on the fence about working with Steel City Tap or other American tap handle manufacturer?
Start the conversation. Find out what’s possible. What’s fascinating to me is that you guys are still exploring what’s possible for you. That’s really interesting because there are going to be opportunities down the road as we grow. For example, I think the metal handles are going to work as a stop-gap for us while we research something that really does it for us long-term. But, the fact that you guys are willing to work with us and willing to grow with brand needs is really appealing. For a U.S.-based company specifically, no matter what, you are only a few hours’ difference; you’re talking to the people who are actually manufacturing [the tap handles], you are not outsourcing to someone else; and also, you know what your material costs and timelines are.
We like to remind our clients that beverage distributors are Team Tap Handle. Was your beverage distributor’s reaction positive when you told them you’d be switching to custom tap handles?
She was pumped. She saw value in the opportunity to look for permanent tap handles. I think they will be thrilled to have them. I want to get final costs so it makes sense. For example, if it costs us $1.00 to ship it, it’s going to cost [the distributor] $1.00 more for that custom tap handle. You guys [the distributor] need them, and we’re a growing brand—don’t flex on me. Buy tap handles; let’s go. It’s us and Boston Beer that are growing for [our distributor].
Is there anything else as far as our services and turnaround time that have made you excited to keep working with us?
Because you guys were able to turn around a short handle that was customized for our Grapefruit and Chill hard cider, we now have a permanent handle at a brewery in Colorado. That’s the only reason we made them. I fought against short handles, because I like big, bold, in-your-face tap handles—it’s part of the branding, right? But, [the brewery] physically could not fit a handle that was taller than a certain size. You guys solved that problem, and in the place where one of our main cider competitors used to make their cider, we are a permanent handle there. That’s awesome!
“We capture the essence of the Pacific Northwest by creating hard ciders that are deliberately innovative, bold, and flavor forward.” —Schilling Hard Cider, cidery based in Seattle, Washington