March/April 2021

At the Core of Cider’s Appeal

An old beverage is made modern — sweet or dry, or flavored with fruits, flowers and spices

Apples will soon be blooming again in Virginia and, across the state, eager entrepreneurs cannot wait to pound them into submission.

That’s because apples are increasingly being pressed into service in liquid form as a glass of chilled cider, fermented from the product of lush Virginia orchards.

This is not the spicy juice sold by the gallons in farm stores or in the produce section of grocery stores. Hard cider is a unique, versatile libation with a low alcoholic content about half that of wine.

The coronavirus blighted the busy public fall festivities that invite and introduce thousands to commonwealth cideries and taprooms. Still, the time is ripe for the business to flourish, says Anne Shelton, president of the Virginia Association of Cider Makers and general manager of Albemarle CiderWorks in North Garden.

“There is a cider renaissance happening. We opened in 2009 and, at the time, we were the second cidery in Virginia,” she says. “Now, there are over 40 and close to 50 producers of cider. It’s definitely starting to make a good footprint for itself in Virginia and nationally.”

APPLE-ACHIA

Most of the recent growth has been in the Richmond-Charlottesville corridor and the Shenandoah Valley, known affectionately among the cider makers as “Apple-achia.”

In the late 1980s, Shelton’s family business, located on a tract called Rural Ridge, consisted of 16 acres of land with an orchard of apples, pears, peaches and cherries.

Now, with more than 200 acres, many of them rows of heirloom apple varieties with genetic roots as deep as America’s colonial days, the cidery employs four family members full-time as the core of the business, with up to 15 workers during busy times.

Albemarle CiderWorks produces 18 different types of cider and sells about 4,000 cases a year. It has recultivated the Harrison apple, a black-speckled, yellow specimen once thought to be extinct, that now is the basis for one of the cidery’s award winners.

Anne Shelton, Albemarle CiderWorks, holds an award-winning cider.

Anne Shelton, Albemarle CiderWorks, holds an award-winning cider.

Attention to detail is exacting — the cider is hand-bottled, four bottles at a time. Their ciders offer flavor notes that bring up complex tastes of blackberry, vanilla and honey, to name a few.

The sparkling aspects can be as tingling as champagne or even creamy, as visitors to the scenic tasting area can attest.

“The best thing,” Shelton says to customers who are unfamiliar with ciders, “is to try them all. There is a cider for everyone.”

But it wasn’t always that way. Even after Albemarle CiderWorks got rolling, getting a good glass of well-crafted Virginia cider was not an easy commodity to come by.

A BRIT SEEKING CIDER

Ask Stephen Schuurman, owner of Winchester Ciderworks, located just northwest of the city.

After moving to Virginia in 2004 to work as an engineer for a plastics company, he longed for a taste of the ciders that he grew up with in England, a country that accounts for about 40% of the world’s global sales.

“When I moved here, you couldn’t get any good, real British-style ciders. What I found is they were too sweet and usually manufactured by big beverage companies that didn’t pay much attention to the product. I decided to do something about it. After all, I lived next door to an orchard.”

At first, Schuurman thought he would get in on the burgeoning Virginia wine scene. He studied winemaking at the University of California-Davis. There, he learned skills that he applied to his early personal efforts to create his beloved British-style cider — a smooth drink that is slowly fermented and aged at least nine months to reduce the acid and yield a more balanced feel.

“I made ciders and had a talent for it. By then, everyone was into wine in Virginia. So, I kept my focus on cider.”

His opportunity to live the dream came in 2011 during a bluegrass music festival near the George Washington Hotel in Winchester. Standing in the line to get a beer, Schuurman struck up a conversation with the woman next to him.

He told her about his interest in ciders, adding that local friends told him he had to meet Diane Kearns someday because she was well-known as the orchardist at Fruit Hill Orchard in Frederick County.

“Well, you’re talking to her right now,” Kearns responded, laughing as she recalled how she and Schuurman met.

Kearns, a fifth-generation apple grower, owns or manages about 3,000 acres of trees, one of the state’s largest orchards, if not the largest, with annual production of 300,000 bushels of apples. Most of the crop used to go to processors for applesauce and juices.

But since 2009, she and her family had been considering going into cider making.

They bought apple-pressing equipment that had formerly been housed in a cold storage building the family already owned. “The problem was that none of us around here knew much about making hard cider,” she said.

“I tried the cider he was making and then I showed him the equipment we had and that was how our business partnership started in 2012,” Kearns says.

QUICK GROWTH

By 2013, they were selling hard cider. Their flagship product is called Malice, a blend of five apple varieties, slowly fermented and aged a year. It won the 2020 Savor Virginia Magazine reader’s choice gold medal for the Best Traditional Cider. Winchester Ciderworks now can be found in six states.

“The best thing about making cider is the look on somebody’s face when they haven’t tried cider, and for the first time they look up and look into my eyes and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it tasted like this,’” Schuurman says. “That makes all the hard work, all the cleaning that we have to do, all the dirty work of pressing and milling the apples and everything, worth it.”

Winchester Ciderworks presses 30,000 to 40,000 gallons of apple juice a year, about half for its own products. The business employs about 10, most of whom work in the tasting room and mill. During portions of the growing season, another 50 work in the orchard and cidery.

 “It’s been a massive learning curve,” says Schuurman, who earned his accreditation as a pommelier at Washington State University in 2012. “I would put my cider up to any English cider. We are very different because of the aging. A lot of the more mainstream ciders in America go from apples to bottles in three to four weeks. Not us.”

As much as she loves the cider mill side, Kearns says the apple always will be her first love. She has been on the land since 1983, returning after college to learn the horticulture from her father and preserve a family tradition.

“To be able to go outside my door 50 yards away and pick an apple from a tree I knew as a baby is an awesome thing,” Kearns says.

SEARCH FOR PERSONAL PEACE

The need to find that kind of quiet rural tranquility pushed Marc Chretien, managing partner of Mt. Defiance Cidery and Distillery in Middleburg, into the cider business in 2014.

“It was a reaction to getting shelled and mortared, a desire to have something peaceful and serene in my life,” says Chretien, a former advisor to the commanding general of the International Security Assistance Force for the U.S. Department of State. His military duties exposed him to seven years of tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, during the height of the wars.

A sense of history — personal and American — infuses his enthusiasm for cider.

“I have always liked cider. When I was a younger man, I tried to ferment apple juice to make my own. I was thrilled at the idea of an everyman’s drink,” says Chretien, who started a cider business in Vermont with which he is still involved.

Chretien believes hard cider is poised for a boom period in Virginia and nationally.

Marc Chretien’s Mt. Defiance Cidery and Distillery offers tasters views from an 8,400-square-foot cider barn

 

“Cider is an expanding niche market. It grows at about 20 to 22% a year, largely because of the consumer interest in regional craft brewing and distilling,” he says.

In 2010, the cider industry sold about $58.5 million in off-premises sales. In 2019, cider sales were up to an estimated $500 million. Yet, the market is still about 2% that of beer in the U.S.

Chretien shares in a portion of that with tastings at both a distillery and a natural wood cider barn situated on a hill in historic Middleburg.

With the pull of production, plus the marketing and distribution, Chretien says he hardly has time to “sit in his rocking chair, enjoy the view and sip his brew.”

But those details don’t matter when set beside his dream. “No matter what, I now feel a connection to Earth,” he says.

CIDER STORY

America’s first settlers brought both a taste for cider and the skills to make it. One major problem though — the apple was not native to North America until the early 1600s, according to “The Ghost Orchard,” a book that traces the origin of apples in the New World.

Many of America’s founders referenced cider techniques in their writings. A 1785 account of cider consumption in Virginia estimated that some plantations pressed from 1,000 to 5,000 gallons of cider each year.

George Washington wrote that he served more than 144 gallons of cider to voters who elected him to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758. Thomas Jefferson’s plantation records indicated his Monticello South Orchard had 1,031 fruit trees.

But by the late 1800s, the popularity of cider began to wane in the face of cheaper-to-produce beer and ale, and backlash against alcohol during the early Temperance Movement targeted hard cider. By 1920, when Prohibition started, cider production had all but drained away as whole orchards were destroyed to recoup the land.

CiderCon is aiming to change that. It is the industry’s biggest annual event, a massive trade conference with representatives from around the world and an assortment of events and festivities. In 2021, it was held virtually because of the pandemic, but in 2022, it’s scheduled for Richmond, providing a worldwide showcase for Virginia cider.

“We’re really looking forward to being a part of that, exchanging ideas, networking and bringing the cider story to more and more people,” Shelton says.

CIDER MATRIARCH

The Virginia cider community pays homage to a woman who no longer makes it.

She is Diane Flynt.

Flynt is credited with opening the first modern hard cidery in the state, Foggy Ridge Cider. It started with her desire to simply start an agribusiness in 1996 when she and her husband bought land in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Carroll County in Dugspur, Va.

She had a financial background as a banker in Greensboro, N.C., but her passion was growing woody plants. That led to starting an orchard, one that celebrated Southern apples, varietals with such evocative names as Ashmead’s Kernel, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Tremlett’s Bitter, Hewe’s crabapple, Harrison, Redfields and Grimes Golden.

The aim was to produce prized fruit, and the fruits of those labors grew into their first pressings of their signature ciders in 2005. “Ours was old-fashioned — some would say stodgy. We were going to make a beverage reflective of the place where the apples were grown. Period,” she says.

At its height, she was producing 75,000 bottles of cider a year and selling them in 27 states.

So well-regarded were Foggy Ridge’s ciders that from 2015 to 2017, Flynt won consecutive nominee and semifinalist and finalist rankings in the prestigious James Beard Foundation competition for chefs and high-level cuisine producers.

In 2018, however, she gave up that part of the business with her last release, Final Call. Now, she is writing a book on the history of apples in the South to be published by the University of North Carolina Press.

But apples from Foggy Ridge Orchard are still for sale and used in many Virginia cideries. Flynt says she enjoys tasting what cider makers create, and the apples continue to challenge and enchant her.

She has been often quoted as saying she wants to grow them “until she croaks.”

“I’ve said I’ll fall out of my apple tree when I am 95. I love looking at a tree and knowing it will outlive me.”