David Whitley explores the craft cider boom in the state of Virginia
For Chuck Skelton, craft cider is part of a logical market progression. “The 1980s was the first time the US got known for wine. In the early-to-mid 90s, the craft beer industry took off. Cider is the next natural wave.”
Chuck is the cider-maker at the Albemarle CiderWorks near Charlottesville in Virginia. It started out as a nursery for rare fruit trees in 2000, but started selling cider in 2009 after Chuck retired from his full-time job and had more free time to actually do something with the apples.
It’s one of a growing band of cideries in the state (“I wanna say 15, but it might well be 16 now,” says Chuck) trying to change the American perception of what cider is. A lot of ‘cider’ sold in the US is essentially apple juice, but to the rest of the world it’s an alcoholic drink made from fermented apples.
In the early colonial days, Chuck remarks, cider was the drink of choice. It remained that way until the US expanded westwards — apples being less economical to transport over large distances than grain — and waves of immigrants came over from traditionally beer-drinking northern Europe to work on the farms.
In producing his ciders, Chuck attempts to hark back to that rich past. The property’s early beginnings as a nursery means there are plenty of rare apple types to work with — the sort that may have been grown by early Virginian plantation owners, such as Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Chuck references Albemarle’s 1817 cider as “the epitome of what American ciders are like”. Based on a historical recipe, it uses Hewes crab, Harrison and Virginia Winesap apples.
If such blends sound closer to winemaking than brewing, it’s because, according to Chuck, cider is much closer to wine than beer. “There are blends, varieties, flavours, sweetness, dryness, alcohol levels and fizziness that alter — and it’s taxed as a wine, too.”
Most of Virginia’s cider producers are small-scale and craft-focused. Bold Rock in Nellysford is the only cider company to have made a significant impact outside of the state so far. Being a small firm can, however, have its benefits — there’s always room for experimentation and for indulging personal tastes.
Many cider makers are open to visitors, offering tours, insights into cider production and tasters. Perhaps the most unusual of these is Blue Bee Cider in downtown Richmond, known as Virginia’s first urban cidery. Owner Courtney Mailey says it’s all about being closer to the market than to the fruit. Blue Bee offers tours of its facilities, as well as sampling sessions with detailed tasting notes.
Blue Bee opened in 2013, but it’s no longer the newbie on the scene. Courtney has lost count of how many have opened since then, remarking, “I know there are six or seven, and I think there are two others in the process of getting a licence.”
This firm, too, focuses on resurrecting old apple varieties that were once nearly wiped out — it’s somewhat of a trend that marks out the Virginia cider scene as unusual. “Prohibition in the 1920s led to the destruction of a lot of cider orchards, and many apples were either wiped out or became very hard to find,” says Courtney. “The Hewes crab was considered lost until it was discovered about 20 years ago — and the Harrison was thought lost for generations.”
Cider is now the fastest growing alcoholic beverage in the country and, for the new generation embracing the world of proper cider, Virginia’s historic pioneering spirit is coming to the fore again.