Tariq Ahmed built Revel Cider from a rare passion for fermentation and a commitment to authentic flavours. Fans of his natural ciders are only getting thirstier.
Fermentation isn’t a process that easily captures the imagination. It’s a simple yet biologically efficient exercise, where microscopic organisms like yeast feed on the sugar in fruit and vegetables, transforming them into alcohol or acids.
While many tend to focus on the tasty results of fermentation, Tariq Ahmed, founder of Revel Cider in Guelph, ON is just as enthusiastic about the process itself.
“It’s the magic of tasting something or smelling something before it gets fermented, and then seeing how yeast and bacteria that are native to our space transform those [characteristics] into something else.”
Ahmed began his journey at an organic vegetable farm in Hamilton, ON where, as an intern, he began experimenting with fermentation. During his stay at the farm, he found an old wine press and, emboldened by his longtime passion for food and agriculture, Ahmed dusted it off and got to work using fruit from the trees on the grounds.
“That was where I really fell in love with it,” he said. “And cider at the time was having a bit of a renaissance in Ontario.”
Cider’s resurgence presented an opportunity and Ahmed jumped. In 2014 he rented his first space in Hamilton and spent those first couple of years making and selling his own products as a one-person operation while still a student at the University of Guelph.
The then-21 year-old was excited to get to work, making big sacrifices to support the business: a daily commute from his home in Guelph to the facility in Hamilton, part-time evening shifts at a restaurant, and even a few nights spent sleeping in his truck, just to make sure he got a few extra hours of sleep between drives.
“It was pretty crazy,” he said. “I made everything myself — kegged it all, sold it all, delivered it all. And I also did my best to keep up with bookkeeping and all the rest of the stuff that you have to adhere to.”
Ahmed saw his hard work pay off when in 2016 he was able to open a new facility in Guelph, which is now his home base. Within the first year of being there, Ahmed hired his first staff member. And as the company grew, the hard work didn’t let up.
The Revel tang
To produce a fermentation reaction, you can either use the yeast that occurs naturally in the environment, or add in yeast from another source, a process known as “pitching.” In Revel’s case, Ahmed says they’re not adding any yeast to their fruit juice bases, using only what yeast already exists in their facility as well as whatever comes in on the fruit itself.
“We’re letting things spontaneously ferment,” he explained. “And we’re not back-sweetening things, either.”
For most mass-produced ciders, makers add more sugar after fermentation to restore the sweetness of the liquid (which is what Ahmed means by “back-sweetening”). Revel’s ciders, on the other hand, all contain zero added sugar. The absence of added sugar means Ahmed and his team don’t have to worry about extra steps like filtering out the yeast, a precaution to ensure that any remaining yeast doesn’t continue to metabolize the extra sugar.
These subtle but vital differences in process are what sets Revel apart from other brands, a distinction Ahmed is proud of.
All of the fruit the company uses in their ciders is grown in Ontario, and includes “anything they can get their hands on,” as Ahmed describes it. Apples, pears, grapes, nectarines, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, chokecherries; you name it, they press it.
And lately, Ahmed says Revel has also been trying it’s hand at flower foraging, making ciders from lilacs, spruce tips, and dandelions. For their most recent dandelion cider, the team foraged 100 pounds of dandelions, which produced about 3,000 litres of cider.
“We’re continually tweaking these recipes. The quality of a flower, for example, can change with different years. Things are constantly in flux, and we’re really just relying on our taste buds a lot.”
For a producer with a knowledge base so broad and a palette so rich, Ahmed is surprisingly more interested these days in basic apple-based ciders. His current favourite is a number called “Bittersweet Freedom,” made from Hyslop crabapples. Thought to be native to Boston, Ahmed says his team has only been able to find three trees across the entire province. With a marked citrus character, the Hyslop crabapple is one of only a few apple tree varieties that bear fruit every other year, a trait that has been bred out of most apple trees today.
“It feels pretty special to me just because we can’t get it so often. But also, the flavor is super tannic, and tannin is something that’s difficult to find in the average culinary fruit that we work with.”
Unlike many food and retail businesses over the last year and a half, Revel Cider actually gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, Ahmed and the team supplied cider exclusively to restaurants. But after the province doubled its take from sales to licensees, Ahmed saw that the only way to survive was to begin selling straight to consumers.
“When we first started doing it, it was a really small portion of the business, like maybe 10 per cent. And then COVID happened, and it was all of a sudden 100 per cent of the business,” he said.
Thanks to this sharp growth, Ahmed has been able to hire more people (they’re a team of seven now), and buy more equipment. And with restaurants in Ontario opening up again, he says the wholesale side of the business has also returned overnight, and things are looking better than ever.
Tayo Bero is an award-winning radio producer and freelance culture writer. You can find her work in publications like The Guardian, Teen Vogue, Chatelaine Magazine, The Walrus as well as on CBC Radio.
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