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Alcohol Wiz: Heights hard cider company started by underage entrepreneur goes national

Leprechaun cider, bottles
The newly expanded lineup, including Pomegranate  Photo courtesy of Leprechaun Cider Co.
Leprechaun cider, white background
Leprechaun's Dry Cider bomber  Photo courtesy of Leprechaun Cider Co.
Leprechaun cider, golden cider
Golden Cider is a slightly sweeter option. Photo courtesy of Leprechaun Cider Co.
Leprechaun cider, bottles
Jake Schiffer
Leprechaun cider, white background
Leprechaun cider, golden cider
Darla Guillen, head shot, column mug, November 2012

While some undergrads might require their parent’s signature when purchasing a new car or leasing an apartment, Leprechaun Cider Company founder Jake Schiffer needed mom and dad to sign for a start-up company.

Leprechaun is Texas’ first hard cider company and was founded by a then-underage, aspiring entrepreneur who has since became an of-age business pro.

The Houston born-and-raised founder admits that it’s been challenging and exciting diving headfirst into entrepreneurship rather than pursuing a formal business education.

“This is my business school . . .  I can’t learn business in a book. I have to get out there and do it,” Schiffer says.

 “All we do to add sweetness is add back crushed fresh apple juice. We don't add back sugar." 

Cider has yet to see the craft beer industry’s ubiquity, which is good news for Schiffer, who entered the market and signed a distribution deal with Duff just in time to catch the hard cider wave that’s about to hit the national market. The Texas-made tipple is currently in four states and is in talks with 10 other states as well as Canada.

It’s not just good timing that has lead to the company’s rapid expansion. Unlike the concentrate-rich, mass-produced Woodchuck Ciders of the world, Leprechaun refuses to take cost-saving shortcuts, opting instead to use fresh apples hand-picked at their peak, and limiting themselves to only two varieties of apples.

“[The competition] uses very cheap apple concentrate, dozens of varieties of apples, shaken off the tree or crushed — it’s not cared about,” Schiffer says. “They heat it up to the point where it breaks down all of the bacteria. They ferment it . . . they add water, which dilutes it.

"And because it doesn’t taste like apple anymore, they add back bags of sugar.”

In contrast, Schiffer says Leprechaun takes an artisanal approach to retain the unprocessed flavors of their apples, resulting in a product that is natural and gluten-free, completely devoid of preservatives and concentrate.

“All we do to add sweetness is add back crushed fresh apple juice,” Schiffer says. "We don't add back sugar."

While the cider’s tap handles are side-by-side with beer and often served in pint glasses, the seven-percent alcohol by volume cider ­­­­­­­­­is more closely related to a lighter wine than beer. Schiffer says that after extensive travel through Europe, where he sampled a variety of ciders, from drier British versions to the sweeter, more carbonated ciders of Spain, he could taste the difference with the big American brands.

He wants to present a purer cider that is true to its history.

“We crush the champagne yeast, which gives it a more light-bodied wine or prosecco-like flavor and mouth feel. Not as beer-like or as syrupy [as comparable products],” Schiffer says.

This makes it flexible in terms of cooking and mixing. Schiffer also says he’s a fan of shandies made with Leprechaun and local beer.

 “This is my business school . . .  I can’t learn business in a book. I have to get out there and do it,” Schiffer says. 

Even in the midst of expansion, the company is making big moves to continue honoring its home state. While the cider’s apples are currently grown in Oregon, Schiffer plans to establish an apple orchard in West Texas very soon. The central business office and company has also found itself a new home in the Houston Heights.

For the time being, Lepechaun won’t be doing tours, choosing instead to focus on a cautious national expansion and maintaining its high quality standards in the expanding line.

Pomegranate, which began as a seasonal variety, will soon proliferate the market as a year-round option for those seeking a fruitier, dessert-like pint. It will join Dry and Golden, making for a well-balanced lineup.

Even well before the company was signed over to him on this 21st birthday, Schiffer worked hard to provide a cider that makes him and his state proud.

“We’ve worked our butts off to get where we’re at,” Schiffer says. “We’ve done everything we can to grow, so I feel like we’re right on schedule.”

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