Siblings step up to sustain cidery
GERMANTOWN, Md. — When Susan White approached her niece and nephews about buying her and her husband Washington “Wash” White’s apple orchard and on-farm cidery, they may not have been fully clear on what they were jumping into, but they knew they could make the leap.
After marrying in 2010, the Whites set about their plan of starting an orchard for pick-your-own sales, opening to the public in 2015. Two years later, Susan retired from a long career at her family’s operation Butler’s Orchard, and focused more on the new orchard, where her niece Hallie Butler-Van Horn and nephews Ben and Tyler Butler are part of the management team.
“Susan’s dream was always just apples,” said Hallie Butler. “She wanted to slow down and focus on growing apples and building this farm. It really was a pastime of love and a passion.”
That was also reflected in their travel; it was nearly always apple-centered, touring farms, visiting cideries and engaging with other growers.
“Everything was focused around cideries, and the funny part was Susan didn’t drink at all,” Tyler said.
Wash had been a hobbyist cidermaker for much of his life and devoted part of the 15-acre orchard to heritage varieties that were prized for their use in making cider. There’s even a group of pear trees growing in the orchard that were grafted from a 100-year old tree on the farm.
“He was like a mastermind out there,” Tyler said. “There was a lot of tinkering happening.”
After consecutive years of heavy crop damage coming from late freezes or hail, the couple leaned into their cider interest, establishing Doc Waters Cidery in 2018, named for one of Wash’s ancestors.
By adding the cidery, blemished or damaged apples could still be used for cider and in a year with a short crop, the farm could buy apples and still make cider. The move bore striking similarity to the Butler family decades ago adding strawberries to their operation after multiple years of poor peach crops, Tyler said.
As the cidery took off to great success during the COVID pandemic as an outside attraction in heavily populated Montgomery County, Susan was diagnosed with cancer and when her health declined in the summer of 2021, she and Wash went to the Butler siblings with a proposition: Operate the orchard and the cidery as they focused on fighting the disease.
A month or two later, Susan’s situation worsened and the Whites came back to the trio with the desire to sell them the business and land.
Taking over operations at the cidery, much less buying it, wasn’t on any of the Butlers’ radar. The siblings had the year prior purchased a 60-acre field, making it the first expansion in land at Butler’s in decades. They also were heading into fall, the busiest time at their farm,
But they each said they went in without hesitation and embraced is as an opportunity to have their own business and keep it in the family.
“The biggest word they used was ‘legacy,’” Hallie said, recalling the conversation with Susan and Wash. “It was like, how do you not do it?”
As daunting as the new venture may have been then, Tyler said Susan and Wash had set them up for success with quality equipment and a popular business.
“We knew we could do apples, we knew we could manage people. We had to learn cider,” Tyler said. “It never was a question of whether we couldn’t do it. We just kind of had to.”
Tyler also attributed their mindset to the structure of having regular business meetings, knowing their finances and a having reliable and empowered employees that could keep Butler’s Orchard running well while they put more time into Doc Waters.
“There’s so much emphasis on family and legacy and business success,” he said. “I think that kind of drove home our real mission and goals.”
That’s not to say it’s been smooth sailing, though. As the sale was being finalized, the cidermaker who worked under Wash told the new team she had landed a dream job elsewhere and couldn’t pass it up. That prompted a search for a new cidermaker, which drew from a very limited pool of qualified applicants. They eventually surfaced Nick Mattingly who was working as a winemaker in Kansas and looking for a change as well.
The Doc Waters Orchard has 42 varieties, which takes a much different management strategy than the five acres and five varieties at Butler’s Orchard.
“We’re trying to find that sweet spot of what’s manageable,” Ben said.
Two weeks after the sale of the Doc Waters orchard and cidery was finalized, Susan died on Jan. 15, 2022. She had lost the battle, but succeeded in finishing the transition to maintain the legacy she and Wash began.
In taking on Doc Waters, the siblings largely mirrored their roles at Butler’s Orchard; Tyler is the general manager, Hallie is the purchasing manager and supervises hiring and Ben is the farm and finance manager.
Wash remains a consultant to the Butlers but is also embarking on a new adventure and has fully handed over the reins, Tyler said.
“He was a great asset in the transition,” Tyler said of Wash.
With a full year as owners of the orchard and cidery behind them, the siblings, along with many of the original Doc Waters staff, now strive for success in a post-COVID era. They’re considering some changes and improvements, Tyler said, but don’t want to get away from the atmosphere Susan and Wash created.
“We’re not trying to make it another Butler’s orchard,” he said. “We want to make it a quaint little cidery that’s profitable.”
One component they plan to continue is Cider Thursday, an open invitation each week for volunteers, family friends and staff to gather, try different ciders and connect with one another.
“Cider Thursday was one of those things that really speaks about the business as family-oriented and community-centered,” Tyler said.
The crowds may not be as robust as during the pandemic when there were fewer options for things to do, but Tyler said there’s a loyal following and it caters to a different customer base than Butler’s Orchard.
“You can pick an apple and drink an apple at the same time, which is pretty sweet,” Tyler said.
Hallie, like her brothers, said there’s a lot to look forward to.
“We get to kind of create our own business and make our own moves,” she said. “It’s definitely an exciting challenge to say, ‘Yes, we took the reins from Susan and Wash.’”