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Boston Born: Bantam, Cider’s Latest Wunderkind

Bantam’s Somerville facility in taproom mode on a Saturday. The cidery is featured on City Brew Tours, and a group visiting the taproom (right) is shown around by City Brew Tours guide Malcolm Purinton.

Fully utilizing the space at Bantam Cider’s Somerville facility is a lot like playing an elaborate game of Tetris, co-founder Dana Masterpolo confesses. Palettes of cans slot in front of barrels filled with aging experimental varieties. Walkways to and from the giant stainless steel fermentation tanks are constantly shifting, and by 5 pm each Friday, it’s all cleared to convert the 5000-square-foot former bakery into a bustling taproom for their many patrons.

“Welcome to our space,” says Christina Bencivenni, Bantam Cider’s sales manager. “Everything is a little blocked off.”

In addition to the compact home, there are many ways in which Bantam Cider and its co-founders, Masterpolo and Michelle Da Silva, adhere to the company’s “small and mighty” ethos. They create alcohol from the region’s humble apples. They package the majority of their products in cans, which belie the sophisticated beverage inside. And they are a New England-based business — a region known for its underdog attitude. Even the name “bantam” comes from a lightweight boxing class.

“At the essence of small and mighty is this inherent drive to keep pushing our way ahead,” says Masterpolo.

Both Masterpolo (right) and Da Silva (left) are perfectly normally sized, but being women in the male-dominated craft beverage industry is just another example of how their company is fighting against larger forces.

Soon Bantam will be a little less small in stature. Masterpolo and Da Silva recently signed a new lease on a facility in Woburn. Their offices, taproom, and barrel-aged varieties will remain in Somerville, but the 22-foot ceilings in Woburn will allow them to produce cider in fermenting tanks twice the size of their current ones.

But Bantam began in a barn. Da Silva made wine with her grandparents when she was growing up, so she was familiar with the alcohol-making process, Masterpolo says. “In New England we have access to apples rather than grapes, so we started making apple cider for ourselves.”

A bit of experimentation later, Wunderkind was born, and the women realized they’d organically happened upon something quite special. “We realized we could really make something of this,” Masterpolo says. They continued to refine the product, and launched the now-flagship Wunderkind officially in 2012.

Friday through Sunday, the Somerville taproom is open to the public. People can purchase full pours, cans, bottles, a flight of five, or, if they’re really feeling one variety, a growler.

“When we launched Wunderkind, there was nothing that we’d seen or tried or heard of that was anything like what we’d made,” Masterpolo says. With Bantam, they wanted to demonstrate to America that cider was not the one dimensional drink it was thought of at the time. “The big brands had products that were similar to themselves and to each other, so people only really had one idea of cider.”

The duo’s professional background may not be what comes to mind when you think about craft beverage creators. Before they started making cider full time, Masterpolo worked in architecture, and Da Silva in Real Estate. They don’t have beards, or tattoo sleeves, but the sense of refinement around the product is the point of Bantam. Hard cider is trendy right now, and they want to bring a more sophisticated touch to the product.

“Wunderkind does have a more refined character,” Masterpolo says. “Had we never put it into a can, it would’ve done even more so.” The blend is often substituted for champagne at weddings, she says, and while people have enjoyed it for a more elegant drink, the cans accentuated that it is by its nature a casual sipper.

Including the taproom team of 15 people, Bantam has 25 people working for them in total. However, they need to can weekly, which is a massive operation. Like many other craft breweries in the area, Bantam contracts Vermont canning company, Ironheart Canning, to take care of this for them. They bring the rig in the back of a truck, set up, and can for hours.

With a thriving craft beer scene running the gamut from Sam Adams to Trillium, the Greater Boston area seemed like the ideal place to launch something new. Here, Masterpolo says, in addition to there being lots of people, plenty of them are educated in a wide variety of beer styles, and the area’s large population of curious, young people are typically open to trying new things.

The perks of manufacturing cider in New England were clear. There are tons of apples to source from, and much of cider’s history and tradition is based here. “There are romantic notions of the apple harvest and hard cider here,” Masterpolo says. “Where this has sometimes worked against us, is that there is a perception of cider being a fall drink.”

To counter this idea, Masterpolo and Da Silva keep repeating the message that their ciders are year-round drinks, and support that by making their products as available and accessible as possible.

“We think we make really great, nuanced cider,” Masterpolo says. “As the market continues to develop, we want to continue to stand out. We want to keep getting our product out to more and more places, keep building the brand, and keep living the dream.”

Part of the constant push forwards involves a lot of experimentation. Bantam tries aging cider in whiskey barrels, wine barrels, and rum barrels — basically anything they can get their hands on that sounds fun.
The company currently produces 16,000 gallons of cider a month in their Somerville facility, according to Masterpolo. Selected fruit is pressed offsite, and delivered to the 100 bbl fermentation tanks. But they’ve rather outgrown the space.
Bantam’s packaging has changed over the years, starting in glass bombers, then 12oz glass 4-packs and then cans. “Each time we expanded our packaging, was a response to what we believed the market was looking for,” Masterpolo says. “Cans are also more cost efficient from a transport perspective – with the lighter can body, we can fit significantly more cans on a pallet than glass bottles.”
Bantam’s space is limited, so palettes of cider are constantly moving to make buried barrels or empty cans accessible. Offices are squirreled in the back behind everything else.
On the weekend, the taproom serves the big three blends, but also offers exclusives and experiments. “We have eight ciders on tap, all extremely different,” Masterpolo says. “They’re not all wine- or beer-like. We want to show the range of what cider can be.”

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Yelp connects people to great local businesses, and in our Boston Born series, we’re sharing the stories behind some of the highest-rated, locally-owned biz in and around the city. Features researched, written and photographed by Lloyd Mallison. To read what Yelpers have to say about the featured biz, download the Yelp app.