Appalachia is home to more apple varieties than the rest of the country combined, legacy of a bygone era when mountain settlers experimented with fruit trees in relative isolation. According to Gary Nabhan, an Arizona-based conservation biologist, sustainable agriculture activist, and “scholar in residence” during Virginia’s first annual Cider Week, the American apple is inextricably linked to the area. “It’s not only a place where they came in early in American history, but there’s been more diversification just to the west of Charlottesville than in any other place in the nation.”
The early explosion of the apple in Virginia can be traced to the 19th-century demand for hard cider, and cider’s resurgence is helping preserve heirloom apple varieties today. Charlotte Shelton and her family were among the pioneers of Virginia’s dry hard cider movement. She and her brother Chuck Shelton and their family bought their North Garden apple farm in 1986, and with the help of local expert Tom Burford—dubbed “Professor Apple” for his extensive knowledge of vintage varieties—they built their orchard into something of an antique apple library. About 250 varieties are grown there, many recently rescued from obscurity and near-extinction.
“We started collecting apples because we really enjoyed the richness and variety of flavors that are available, but seldom available commercially,” Charlotte Shelton said. “But when we got up to a couple hundred varieties of apples, we said ‘What do we do with that?’”
As others had begun to discover, cider was the answer. Many of the heirloom varieties the Sheltons had developed a passion for were well-suited for hard cider in ways most popular grocery store apples aren’t. To make a good dry cider, “you need tannins, some bitterness, and acidity,” Shelton said. “You need that structure as well as the sweetness.”
Appalachia—especially Virginia’s Blue Ridge and areas westward—have an unusually high concentration of apple varieties with just those qualities, said Nabhan. To understand why, he said, take a look at the topography. Before highways and cars, traveling just a few miles in the mountains was arduous and took hours. As a result, farmers experimented with fruit tree varieties continuously and in isolation. “Each little mountaintop or valley back in the hills was like an island where the equivalent of Darwin’s finches happened among apples,” Nabhan said.
Back then, cider was one of the most important products that came out of apple orchards, Shelton explained. The simple fermented beverage was the table drink of choice at the time, and the search for fruit with the perfect cider profile drove much of the experimentation.
For decades, Nabhan and others have been trying to keep many of the varieties of that era from going extinct. The resurgence of their usefulness as cider apples has been the key to their preservation. “Until the cideries started to emerge, we just didn’t have the economic incentive,” he said. “And bingo. Now we have it.”
And by we, he means us. When it comes to the careful craft of cider from heirloom fruit, Virginia is at the epicenter. From Diane and Chuck Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider in Carroll County, who were the first to market traditional dry hard cider here, to the Shelton family and a handful of others showcasing their products this week, “you all have the national leaders,” Nabhan said.
For Shelton and other growers leading the cider Renaissance in Virginia, it’s about more than selling cider. “There’s always a hope that by retaining biological diversity, something good can come of it,” she said.