Hewes’ Crab. Albemarle Pippin. Harrison. Grimes. Baldwin. Esopus Spitzenberg. Winesap. Apples. More specifically, cider apples with deep roots in The Commonwealth of Virginia.
Each of these cultivars played an important role in the long history of hard cider in Virginia and are still grown today by some of the state’s most notable cideries.
From the founding of Jamestown through the Revolutionary era, hard cider made from apples was a common drink for both the rich and poor. Considered a source of nutrition and often safer to drink than water in many areas, cider was drank as much out of necessity as pleasure.
Though our nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, may be better known for his love of wine and his many viticulture failures at Monticello, his home in Charlottesville, VA, hard apple cider was considered his ‘table drink’ and consumed with the main course of his meals.
Between 1769 and 1814 Jefferson planted eighteen varieties of apples in the south orchard at Monticello, some of which are used today by Virginia cidermakers. Based on his many detailed farming notes, Jefferson was a discriminate farmer and particularly fond of four cider apple varieties; Taliaferro (now thought to be extinct), Newton Pippin, Esopus Spitzenburg, and Hewe’s Crab (also known as Virginia Crab).
Hewe’s Crab is a small, nearly round apple with dull red skin highlighted with green-yellow streaks and was the most important horticultural cultivar in eighteenth-century Virginia according to Monticello.org
While apple orchards and hard apple cider production for personal consumption was common in colonial Virginia, the popularity of hard cider waned in the mid-19th century.
The drop in cider consumption was widely thought to be due to the influx of German immigrants in the 1850s who brought with them new and more efficient methods of brewing beer. Making beer was cheaper and quicker than growing apples and harvesting once a year to make cider.
Fast forward about 150 years and Virginia is on the threshold of a cider revival thanks to a small group of farmers dedicated to fine cider production.
One of the modern-day cider pioneers responsible for the cider renaissance in Virginia is Diane Flynt.
“We are the first cider producers south of Massachusetts to plant a cider apple orchard for the purpose of producing hard apple cider commercially,” says Diane Flynt, who founded Foggy Ridge Cider in the mid-1990s with her husband Chuck.
Foggy Ridge Cider is situated on the Blue Ridge plateau in southwestern Virginia, equidistant between Roanoke, VA and Winston-Salem, NC, about 12 miles north of the Virginia-North Carolina border.
A banker by trade, Flynt left the banking industry in the 1990’s to pursue what she calls her “last career,” in agriculture.
Flynt studied cidermaking in England under Peter Mitchell, one of the most recognized global authorities on cider, and also took enology classes at Virginia Tech and Surry County Community College. Flynt counts the time she spent working with other cideries during the fermentation and bottling process among her most valuable learning experiences.
The Flynts planted their first orchard at Foggy Ridge in 1997 and now have about 30 acres of semi-dwarf apple trees planted with 30 different cider apple varieties. The first Foggy Ridge Cider was released in 2005.
Today, with a total production of 5,300 cases, Foggy Ridge produces six different fine ciders — ranging from dry, light and zesty to a sweet dessert-style cider made with local apple brandy. My favorite, appropriately named Serious Cider, is crisp, light, and refreshing with notes of citrus and apple blossoms.
Flynt’s experience and dedication to the craft of artisan cidermaking shows in each Foggy Ridge cider.
Joining Flynt in the Virginia cider revival is the brother-sister team of Charlotte and Chuck Shelton, founders of Albemarle CiderWorks. Nestled in the rolling hills of the North Garden area south of Charlottesville, VA, the Shelton family initially purchased the 80-acre farm in 1986 as a place for the family’s retirement.
In the early 1990’s the family began planting fruit trees (mostly apples), which grew into a commercial nursery operation propagating trees to sell to other fruit enthusiasts. The Shelton’s focus soon turned to cider apples and, in 2009, they officially opened Albemarle CiderWorks.
Like the Flynt’s, the Sheltons have made significant investment in planting sizable cider apple orchards. The Shelton’s farm now includes nearly 12 acres of orchards planted with about 250 different apple varieties, about a third of which are cider apples.
The Albemarle CiderWorks team produces eight different ciders, several of which are single varietal ciders like the intense, floral-inflected Virginia Hewes Crab made from the same type of cider apple grown at Monticello some 200 years ago.
Just 25 miles northeast of Albemarle CiderWorks, in the town of Keswick, VA, Castle Hill Cider sits on a historic, sprawling 600-acre plantation that once belonged to Colonel Thomas Walker, an advisor to Thomas Jefferson.
Founded in 2010, Castle Hill is currently the only cidery in the U.S. fermenting and aging cider in kvevri, a clay amphorae that is buried in the ground — similar to the traditional winemaking process used in the South Caucasus (now known as the country of Georgia) thousands of years ago.
Levity, Castle Hill’s flagship cider, made from 100% Albemarle Pippin apples fermented and aged in the kvevri, is a dry, full-bodied cider with a distinctive earthiness.
About 90 miles east of the picturesque rolling hills of central Virginia, cidermaker Courtney Mailey is producing notable ciders at the state’s first urban cidery. Located in the Old Manchester area of downtown Richmond, Mailey left a career in community and economic development to start Blue Bee Cider in 2012.
On a small plot downtown, Mailey planted several different varieties of cider apples in 2010 to experiment and learn which varieties grow best in this region of Virginia.
Mailey uses apples from a leased orchard in central Virginia to produce up to ten different ciders each year. “We focus on providing a broad range of cider taste experiences for customers,” said Mailey of her decision to produce eight to ten different small-batch ciders each year.
Mailey’s small-batch approach and focus on hyper-local sales seems to be working. In 2012 she bottled 1,500 cases of Blue Bee Cider and expects to double that case production to 3,000 this year. Seventy-five percent of Blue Bee Cider is sold directly from the tasting room and, impressively, more than 90% of her ciders are sold within the city of Richmond.
In addition to these four, Virginia is home to another four cideries with several more scheduled to open within the next 12 months. Two wineries — Cobbler Mountain Cellars and Corcoran Vineyards — are also producing hard apple cider.
In Virginia, cideries are licensed as ‘farm wineries,’ which means they benefit from significant state-funded marketing efforts that promote Virginia wine and cider together. Like Virginia wine, Virginia cider is actively supported and promoted at the highest levels of state government, from the Governor and First Lady, to the Secretary of Forestry & Agriculture, and the Marketing Office of the Virginia Wine Board.
Three years ago, this state government support manifested, via proclamation from the governor, in a week officially dedicated to promoting Virginia cider throughout the state.
Held the week before Thanksgiving, Virginia Cider Week (November 14-23, 2014) will feature dozens of cider tastings, educational seminars, and cider-themed dinners in nearly 50 cities throughout the state. These events serve to educate consumers about Virginia cider and raise overall awareness of the industry.
Positive profiles in national publications like The New York Times, Food & Wine Magazine, Garden & Gun Magazine, and The Washington Post have also helped raise national awareness of Virginia cider while the tireless efforts of the Flynts, Sheltons and others have helped solidify the reputation of Virginia as a serious cider producing region worthy of acclaim.
For more information on Virginia Cider Week 2014, please visit the events home page
Photo credit: Diane Flynt
Hat Tip To: Snooth – Articles