By Ken Wilson –
It was a staple of the Colonial diet, the most common drink in 18th and early 19th century America. Thomas Jefferson grew two varieties of apples, Hewes’ Crab and Taliaferro, especially suited for making it, and served it with the main course. And then, on American shores, it all but disappeared.
Cider—not the sweet and simple stuff on the supermarket shelf, but the alcoholic, artisanal drink with tannins and acidity and suitably adult complexity to leaven the sweetness—is newly popular again, and it’s no wonder. We buy local now, and cook international. We drink microbrew beer, and wine matched to the food and the season. Cider is back because we’re ready for it, and now that we’re ready, we make plenty of it, especially here in Virginia, the sixth-largest apple producing state by acreage in the country. Apples are a traditional Virginia fruit. Nowadays we grow more than 30 different varieties specifically for the sake of cider.
Seventeen cideries are in operation here now, more than half of which have opened since 2006. A half a dozen more are in the works, and several wineries produce cider as well. This Old Dominion activity reflects a nationwide rise in the production of hard cider, accompanied by sales growth averaging 73 percent each year over the past five years.
Making artisanal cider starts with choosing the right varieties of apples—generally not the ones most popular for eating—then grinding, pressing and extracting them when their acidity and sugar content are just right. The resulting juice—as much as three gallons per bushel—is most commonly, though not always, blended. Fermentation is the final step. In Virginia, cider can be up to 10 percent alcohol by volume.
“There is nothing in our cider except apples,” says Charlotte Shelton of Albemarle CiderWorks in North Garden, which offers 12 different varieties of this popular drink. “No flavorings, no water. With one or two of them we add a tiny bit of sugar right at the end in order to modulate the acidity, but other than that there is nothing added.”
“Crabapples make excellent cider; they have a lot of skin contact, which is where you find tannins,” Shelton says. “The very best cider we’ve made was a Virginia Hewes Crab cider several years ago. Winesap is a classic American apple—the name tells you what is was originally used for—but it was also a culinary apple and you still see that in commercial orchards. We use those too.” Shelton praises the Albemarle Pippin, the York, a 19th century cultivar called Arkansas Black, and a late 20th century cultivar called Goldrush as well. “Harrison is probably the finest American cider apple ever grown,” she says. “It was believed to be extinct but was discovered in the late 20th century and we’re planting a lot of those. In fact we’ll have our first Harrison, a very small batch of it, this year.”
For their flagship cider, Jupiter’s Legacy, Albemarle CiderWorks chooses a blend of apples that changes in accordance with each year’s harvest. “We put into that all our best cider apples,” Shelton says. What they get is a drink with bright acidity with notes of citrus.
Bold Rock Hard Cider
One Bold Rock partner grew up in Virginia and the Carolinas, and owned farmland in Nelson County. The other grew up farming in New Zealand, bought an apple orchard, and after a devastating cyclone gathered his fallen fruit for what would become an award-winning cider. Southerner reached out to New Zealander, and the two sold their first bottle of Bold Rock cider, fermented in a timber frame barn in Nellysford, in 2012. Bold Rock is now the leading cider producer in the commonwealth, offering nine varieties year round and three more in season. The Virginia Draft is smooth. The Virginia Apple is crisp. The Blood Orange blends blood oranges and Blue Ridge Mountain apples.
Blue Toad Hard Cider
First dreamed up in 2013 “in the back of a cold garage in Scottsville, New York by three childhood friends with diverse backgrounds,” Blue Toad Hard Cider takes three to four different apple varieties grown in Nelson County and western New York and blends them at its cideries in Roseland and Rochester. Blue Ridge Blonde, a light, straw-colored cider that is “clean-tasting with a bright taste of fresh apples” and a pear note finish, is made from Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples. Harvest Blend, with notes of clove, cinnamon and spices, is made for cold weather. Each of Blue Toad’s six flagship ciders and three seasonal offerings can be tasted at its pub and tasting room in Afton, open Thursday through Sunday. The Cidery at High View Farm in Roseland is open the same days.
Potter’s Craft Cider
Two college buddies who loved brewing beer began experimenting with cider in 2009, got serious about it in 2010, and founded Potter’s Craft Cider in 2011 on a horse farm with views of the Blue Ridge mountains. Their 14 different ciders range from sober sounding creations like Oak Barrel Reserve, produced with traditional barrel-aging techniques, to more fanciful offerings like Mangose, inspired by Gose-style German beer and fermented with mangos, coriander and Vietnamese sea salt. Their Charlottesville tasting room, a collaboration with the Bridge PAI!, is open Fridays and Saturdays.
Castle Hill Cider
Castle Hill is a privately owned, 600-acre estate in Albemarle County established in 1764 that has entertained Patrick Henry, Robert E. Lee, and seven U.S. presidents. Its cider makers take “an apple-centered approach” to its seven ciders, which include the brightly acidic Terrestrial and the full-bodied Gravity. Levity, the world’s only commercial cider made in clay amphorae, is aged and fermented according to an 8000-year-old process. Visitors to Castle Hill will find a Linden grove, an orchard, a lake, and lawns bordered by cherry trees and wisteria arbors. Its indoor and an outdoor tasting rooms are open daily, except on Tuesdays.
Each November a CiderWeekVA festival, at numerous locations across the state, celebrates the heartening revival of an old American tradition, and marks the swiftness with which it has found a market. “Cider is coming back,” Shelton says, and at Albemarle CiderWorks she’s determined to do even more to spur its resurgence. “We think it’s important to look for those apples”—the rare and historic ones first ground, pressed and fermented—“many of which are going by the board. We work to encourage people who are growing orchards on a much larger scale than we can, to grow these varieties of apples that are excellent for cider.”