.Tenacious Focus

How Bex Pezzullo crafted a line of fine hard ciders, Sincere Cider

If it wasn’t a ridiculous, horrible idea, Bex Pezzullo might have named her company and the fine hard cider she crafts, “Tenacious Focus.” Instead, the hospitality and beverage industry veteran applied greater wisdom, selecting Sincere Cider and demonstrating the combined qualities—tenacity, focus, sincerity and wisdom—to produce a line of ciders that has swiftly risen to become a top California brand. 

Throughout the Bay Area and statewide, Sincere Cider can be found at Whole Foods, BevMo!, Lucky, Safeway, Raley’s and Berkeley Bowl, as well as multiple restaurants, liquor stores, bars, clubs, cafés and hotel dining rooms.

Sincere Cider is made with culinary apples from Washington’s Yakima Valley and fermented with a French chablis yeast. The company’s flagship flavor is Sincere Cider Dry Apple. But a new line introduced for summer 2023 expanded the frame with three season-inspired flavors: Granada, a savory mix of cider, Seville orange zest and pomegranate juice; Pine-Apple, a cider infused with juicy pineapple and foraged spruce tips available only in springtime; and Ginger Agave, a combination of hard apple cider with ginger juice and agave the company says is “heat meets sweet.”

Pezzullo certainly experienced heat, if not sweetness, while sweating in an Oakland garage through an arduous product development process—testing, trial and error, starting over and eventually finding success as she sought to perfect a Class A cider that has elegance, finesse and balance, and uses 100% whole ingredients, single-strength juices and can be infused with botanicals. 

With a background as a winemaker and decades working in the hospitality and beverage industry, she canned her first batch and launched Sincere in March 2020. The plan was to travel in her customized van to off-the-grid food festivals, concert venues, restaurants and locations throughout California to introduce her product.

“I was all in,” Pezzullo says, “but then the pandemic. Lockdown hit one week later. I had sunk my life savings and had a warehouse of apple juice and aluminum (cans). My industry was events and restaurants, and those were all closed. I got pushed off a cliff, but I was like, I’ll be damned if this is going to stop me. My parents instilled a can-do attitude. In companies I’ve worked in, they’ve always called me a force of nature. If I say I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it. I have this vision and luckily, it’s also really fun and charges my battery.”

A primary factor supercharging her energy is busting into the male-dominated brewing industry as a woman-owned, LGBTQIA+ California cider brand.

“I try to identity first as a businesswoman, because that’s where the greatest pendulum shift can happen,” says Pezzullo. “Less than 2% of breweries nationwide are wholly owned by women. And less than 10% when you add in spousal ownership. I identify as a queer woman, and that’s very important. But if I change the narrative for one marginalized group, like women, a lot of ships will rise. Equality means equality. 

“I put women first because there’s disadvantage for women owners and producers. When I was coming to cider, it was Goldilocks. I made bad wine in my garage, and was bummed I couldn’t try again until the next harvest, so I thought of making beer. But the culture was very ‘bro’ land; there was nobody who looked like me. It was a testosterone-filled space. Making cider, I met apple growers who ran matriarchal orchards. It was more fun to be in that space,” she continues.

Although she mentions fun often, there’s serious science, savvy and expertise applied in every corner of Sincere’s operations. Product, visual design and branding created with designer Molly Russell avoids the primarily cartoony or alpha-male vintage gas station aesthetics of competing brands and presents a crisp, bold, vibrant and infinitely iterative white/orange/green graphic profile. The website and ordering process are similarly streamlined, but thorough.

Specific to the product, the apples from the Pacific Northwest are curated for the perfect blend of acidity and bite. The yeast is approachable and has the delicious expression of a fine chardonnay. Attention is paid to appearance, but never at the expense of flavor. A fall/winter cider on the horizon, Blood Orange and Rosemary, was developed to capture the fruit’s vibrant orange-red color and balance the savory notes of fresh apples blended with the tang of citrus and hints of rosemary.

“The guiding principles for me are the culinary influences of season and the best ingredients. It’s more savory than cloying, gloppy, candy bar-in-a-can cider,” Pezzullo notes. Recently, she says she’s even seen cider as outrageously promotional and stunting as what she recalls was a Jolly Rancher Fire Flavored Cinnamon Donut cider. “It was over the top. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should,” she adds.

Which is where integrity and focus come into play. With “money coming back faster,” meaning a significant bump in sales and profitability, Pezzullo can more easily splinter off into new flavors. There’s an essentialism and practicality that protects her from the candy bar rabbit hole, arguably stemming from food insecurity and other deficits she experienced during her childhood, which set her priorities as an adult on sustenance, conviviality, community and connection.

Recently, Pezzullo donned renter’s “handcuffs,” signing a lease for a place in North Oakland to call home after the last few years of living in a van and couch surfing with friends and family members. “I’m still going to go out in the van,” she promises. “It’s become a part of my identity. I actually sold that first van in December and upgraded to a 37-foot class A. I wanted more space and comfort and to stay longer in spots and get out of stealth camping. I spent February to July this year moving up and down the coast of California.”

Now, she’s selling the 37-footer and looking to replace it with a decommissioned ambulance or first responder vehicle to build out a hybrid. “My family thinks I’m insane, but selling, buying and rehabbing vehicles is for me like trying on shoes. It’s OK to do. I’m still committed to going off the grid to find people to connect to. I like people who are with the wind. When I hit the road, I found freedom. I signed a lease, but I still want both,” she admits.

As for the future, Pezzullo says, “We’ve gotten to a point where I’m not bailing water out. I can sit back and decide the kind of company I want to create. My job is to determine how Sincere Cider interacts with women-owned businesses, LBTQIA+ communities, nonprofits or other outliers who need us to support them, and I get to think about what employees are going to look like. 

“A lot of people hire in-field reps, but I view it as a horizontal organization. It’s not about sales alone; it’s how can Sincere give the first hires agency and be authentically present to communities that have welcomed us? The boat is planing now that I’m not struggling so much,” she continues.

Asked what she is most proud to have achieved, Pezzollo says she’s pleased to have created a grownup product that is made with integrity, balance, fun and playfulness. That, and her tenacity. Adds Pezzollo, “I set out to do this, and I’m actually doing it.”

Lou Fancher
Lou Fancher has been published in the Diablo Magazine, the Oakland Tribune, InDance, San Francisco Classical Voice, SF Weekly, WIRED.com and elsewhere.

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