Citizen Cider has enjoyed explosive growth in its four years of existence. The first year, working out of a tiny space at Fort Ethan Allen in Essex, the founders sold 5,000 gallons of hard cider. The next year, 28,000 gallons; the next, 100,000. This year, the company is on pace to sell at least 350,000 gallons. It's hard to find a bar or liquor store in Vermont that doesn't carry its colorful cans.
Citizen Cider gives its different varieties names that are sometimes conventional (Unified Press), sometimes clever (the Full Nelson, Wit's Up), but seldom enigmatic. Yet the name of its second-biggest seller is a constant source of local puzzlement and theories: the Dirty Mayor.
Is the ginger-spiked cider named for a politician the cidery's owners don't like? Did Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger piss them off? Is it an inside joke, a protest aimed at elected officials everywhere? WTF?
For once, politicians can't claim the notoriety. Instead, the fourth estate gets a turn in the spotlight: The Dirty Mayor is named for Ric Cengeri, producer of Vermont Public Radio's "Vermont Edition." Or, as he is known in VPR studios and among his neighbors and buddies, "the Mayor."
"He's really become our unofficial mascot," Citizen Cider co-owner Kris Nelson says. "We're like family. He's been a big part of what we're doing. We absolutely adore him."
The roots of the story lie in a Vermont tradition — buying local. Cengeri, 55, moved to Vermont 12 years ago from Miami when he landed a job at WNCS-FM the Point in Montpelier. One of his bosses there quickly informed him that his new state had a different ethos from that of Florida.
"He said, 'There's only 600,000 people in this state, so whenever you can buy locally, it's a big help,'" Cengeri recalls.
Cengeri put that in practice, tabulating his expenses to see how well he could follow his boss' advice.
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In July 2011, three friends — Nelson, Justin Heilenbach and Bryan Holmes — leased space at Forth Ethan Allen, where Cengeri lives and works, and began producing cider. On Friday nights, they opened their facility to the public, pouring ciders in a tiny tasting room.
Cengeri was excited by the prospect of a good watering hole in his quiet neighborhood. But he had never been into cider before.
"I remember taking the first sip," he says. "I kept thinking, Please don't suck." It didn't.
Cengeri is something of a raconteur and makes friends easily. He had long been known as "the Mayor" of Fort Ethan Allen, an unofficial town to its residents. The Citizen Cider trio quickly latched on to his nickname, and, just as quickly, Cengeri became a regular at the tastings. In fact, he was the source of much of the word of mouth that won Citizen Cider a cult following.
Before long, some visitors to the tasting room assumed that Cengeri owned the operation.
"He has that way about him," Nelson says. "We loved it."
At first, CC had just one drink, the Unified Press. But in those early days, the owners began experimenting by pouring ginger syrup into their cider. One evening, Cengeri ordered one of the concoctions. Nelson began to pour one, but realized he didn't have a clean spoon with which to stir in the ginger syrup.
"It's OK," said one of the other customers. "Just stir it with your finger."
Nelson obliged. And, as he handed the glass to his most loyal regular, he looked at the drink — made slightly cloudy by the syrup mix — and was hit by a bolt of inspiration.
"That is a Dirty Mayor!" Nelson exclaimed. The rest is Vermont drinking lore.
Before long, Citizen Cider outgrew its space in the Fort and decamped for its current industrial quarters on Burlington's Pine Street. But the Mayor's tenure did not end with the move.
Cengeri has a sash stored behind the bar that he wears whenever he visits the cidery. He hands out business cards that depict him proudly wearing the sash over his jacket, with fairly short shorts underneath. Cengeri is permitted to go behind the scenes and give lengthy tours of Citizen Cider's production facility whenever he feels the urge. On the tours, he recalls stats and facts about the company with zeal and refers to the owners simply as "the boys." (As a journalist, Cengeri is quick to note that he pays for all his drinks and makes no money from his work or the use of his nickname.)
"You feel part of it. You want them to succeed," he says. "But I'm waiting for the day when they say, 'Enough is enough with you.'"
Cengeri's tenure doesn't appear likely to end any time soon, however. A few months back, Citizen Cider's owners held a swearing-in ceremony for a new term.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Who's the Dirty Mayor and Why Is He Dirty?"