When you’re trying to do something different, you have to be willing to put yourself out there and not hide behind corporate processes like design-by-committee.
Soham Bhatt is the co-founder and head cidermaker of Artifact Cider Project. He produces complex yet accessible ciders that aim to connect local cultural foodways to modern diverse audiences, a passion developed and shared with his co-founder and childhood friend Jake Mazar. Since launching in 2014, Soham has produced a number of groundbreaking ciders in 16oz cans leveraging his naturally innovative nature with insights gained from his former career as a patent awarded biotech drug development engineer.
Soham and his team combine fermentation and blending processes typically only reserved for the finest wines with eye-catching packaging design, to bring artisanal ciders to new audiences. His single varietal McIntosh ciders Wild Thing and Slow Down, wild-fermented rare bittersweet apple ciders Perception Shift and cult-favorite Wolf at the Door, and can-conditioned Redfield and Hilltown Swig have been featured in books American Cider and Ciderology, as well as The Boston Globe, Edible, and CIDERCRAFT magazines.
He has built a reputation for his support of Northeastern orchards and advocacy for the cider industry with invitations to speak on national and international panels at CiderCon and CraftCon, podcasts Gastropod and Neutral Cider Hotel, as well as written work in Malus, a quarterly journal for the cider industry. In 2021 he was elected to the board of directors for the American Cider Association, the world’s largest cider advocacy organization.
Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I took a circuitous path to cider making. I started as a consumer and eventually combined my love of food and culture, training as an engineer, loads of travel, and desire to help the environment by supporting local farms and promoting biodiversity to become a producer and start Artifact Cider Project.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Cider was a once popular but forgotten beverage in America. At Artifact Cider Project, we’re changing that by making cider that pushes boundaries and presenting it in ways that make it accessible to new audiences through diversity of taste, unexpected programming, and design. As the craft beverage industry has grown over the last decade, a lot of people have been left out of the wash — you know, people who don’t fit the white-bearded-male aesthetic. We take something that’s fundamentally local and agricultural, produce it in a variety of styles, and then create a brand experience that’s both reflective of our region but also open, inclusive, and welcoming to everyone. For example, we have a dry McIntosh cider, Slow Down, that honors the North Atlantic Coast but besides oysters (it’s perfect companion), we serve it with pork rinds and a thai-inspired nam prik noom at our taproom.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It doesn’t sound funny, but thinking that we had to follow a playbook actually underestimated people’s interest in boldness. We thought in the early days that we had to test out ciders with X number of people or analyze X number of designs before arriving at our own. I laugh thinking back on that — it’s actually just about instinct and vision. When you’re trying to do something different, you have to be willing to put yourself out there and not hide behind corporate processes like design-by-committee.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Philosophy professor Dien Ho has had a profound influence on me over the years, first as a teacher, and nowadays as a friend and mentor. After I graduated from college, I asked him if he would give me private lessons in philosophy since I never had the chance to formally study it in school. He agreed, but only if I promised that if I pursued a career in it and became a taxi driver, I wouldn’t blame him. Over the years, we took a fantastic journey through time, from Plato to Frege, to Russell, Wittgenstein, Putnam, and Quine. In our conversations, we spoke about authenticity, absurdity of language, meaning, even a little philosophy of science. This ultimately gave me the confidence to quit my full-time job as a biotech drug development engineer, and jump right into cider full-time.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
In the craft beverage world, ‘disruptions’ happen all the time. Unfortunately those innovations are too often focused on squeezing out more profit rather than improving product quality. Hard seltzer is a great example of this. The hardest part of making things like cider and beer is the almost impossible task of managing the complexity of inputs that go into making them. It’s equal parts craft, art, and science — you need special knowledge, equipment, practice, and even then it’s hard. With something like hard seltzer, it’s a refined flavorless alcohol, with some industrial grade flavors added to it. It’s less work and therefore more profit, and it’s so exceptionally easy to make that every beer conglomerate jumped in. A beverage defined by its absence of taste, craft, or meaning — do we need it?
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
Pivot — I’d love to say I learned this from a Friends episode but I actually learned this at VVM, a startup bootcamp we were a part of in the early days of Artifact. We are faced with challenges every day — some conquerable, others not so much. There are times when faced with these challenges you have to decide to stay the course or ‘read the writing on the wall’ and explore alternatives. In the early days, we were so under-resourced that ‘pivoting’ or changing course to pursue an altered outcome, was commonplace for us. It’s probably the reason we’re in business today.
There’s no substitute for preparation, hard work, and rigor — Some entrepreneurs can have a tendency to be like Tom Sawyer, getting other people to paint the fence for them. But in my days in biotech, I had a mentor named Donovan Quinn who taught me about the Sino-Japanese concept of kaizen, loosely translated as ‘continuous improvement’. In the field we were working in, an error in manufacturing could lead to grave consequences. There are no shortcuts to elbow grease and rigor in your analysis. Things are never good enough, and it’s up to you to maintain that standard, not someone else.
People and lifestyle matter — Joe Sibilia was our first landlord and the proprietor of a ‘business incubator’ in Springfield, MA. He is also a middle-aged hippie-libertine who made money making soda and brokering deals like when Ben and Jerry’s was sold to Unilever. One of his early lessons was to remind me that we eventually would have employees and to focus on their well being as much as my own. There’s no point in working everyone, including yourself, ragged for the sake of short term gains. Mental health matters.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
It’s taken us seven years to build the business to support a production cellar, two taprooms, and distribution in 10+ states. That takes time and comes with a small degree of compromise and lost opportunity. The next stage for us is to really share our bold vision for how we are innovating not just in terms of cider, but also in terms of cultural programming
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
In Search of Perfection is a companion book to a short-lived BBC show hosted by chef Heston Blumenthal. I don’t really know how I discovered it — I’m pretty sure it was by watching bootleg versions of it illegally uploaded to YouTube in the late ’00s. In the show/book, Heston takes a handful of classic recipes in the common vernacular like pizza, roast chicken, and chicken tikka masala, and breaks down their cultural importance, historical and geographic origin, the science behind technique, and various preparation methodologies. By combining an extreme level of knowledge about food, applying modernist techniques, but also tapping into the public’s perception of how a dish should be, he creates versions of the dishes meant to evoke the most powerful memory of that food. It’s a fascinating exploration of subjectivity in food, how the complex relationship between our senses and memory help us weave together our consciousness about our own society. I still attempt a recipe from the book when I have a full day to myself (sometimes multiple days).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“No, the point is not only does time fly and do we die, but that in these reckless conditions we live at all, and are vouchsafed, for the duration of certain inexplicable moments, to know it.” -Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
In Annie Dillard’s transcendental meditation on life at Virginia’s Tinker Creek, she explores various ideas about nature and spirituality. She juxtaposes seemingly conflicting narratives about natural objects and animals, and spends a good deal of time meditating on ‘what it all means’. It’s my favorite book, and has always been a place for me to return to remind myself that we are all connected (without social media), that we are lucky (nature is a brutal place), and that even though life may or may not have purpose, it’s worth living.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Value-added goods from local producers isn’t a quaint or hippie idea — it’s a fundamentally environmentalistic one. If we all just focused a little more on the small farms and communities around us trying to do real, tangible good we would make an actual impact on the environment. Reduced carbon emissions in freight, reduced resource use in manufacturing, the list goes on. Much more than any single politician or any single tweet could ever do.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow Artifact Cider Project @artifactcider or me personally @sohamxbhatt on Instagram.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!