Rediscover a traditional libation.
By Hope S. Philbrick
When filling up their mugs, which beverage did John Adams and Thomas Jefferson prefer? According to Virginia Cider, Adams drank a tankard of cider each day before breakfast—a habit he credited with his health and long life—while Jefferson’s “table drink” was sparkling cider made with Hewe’s crabapples.
From our founding fathers through the 19th Century, cider was America’s favorite alcoholic libation. But the Industrial Revolution and Prohibition changed all that.
Today, Virginia cider makers aim to revive the American cider tradition. There are currently ten cider makers across the state, with more cideries in the works.
“Party like it’s 1799: Traditional cider makes a comeback.” — Albemarle CiderWorks
On a recent road trip through the state, we stopped at three cider houses and discovered they rule!
Cider is fermented apple juice and its quality comes straight from the fruit plus the producer’s methods and skills. Alcoholic apple cider begins as non-alcoholic apple juice pressed from fruit selected for the tannin, acid and sugar levels needed for specific recipes. From sweet to dry, still to sparkling, single varietals to blends, apple-only to creative infusions, the range of cider options is diverse and plentiful.
Albemarle CiderWorks in North Garden currently produces eight different ciders. “We grow over 200 different apple varietals, but not all are cider apples,” says Anne Shelton, representing her family’s business that began as a fruit tree nursery focused on heirlooms. Labels mention Albemarle Pippin—Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple—Goldrush, Winesap and Arkansas Black as well as crab apples and bittersweet apples. “Jupiter’s Legacy,” the first cider recipe the family developed, is a dry blend of 20 different types of apples. With an eye on history, this cider houses’ recipes are based on traditional beverages like those our forebears enjoyed.
Castle Hill Cider in Keswick is the only cidery in the world that ferments and ages some of its products in buried terra cotta vessels called kvevri—the world’s oldest-known fermentation tanks. “A very sustainable method,” says orchard manager and cider maker Stuart Madany. “Temperature is controlled from the ground.” The orchard is planted with 28 different types of apple trees. The aim here is to “bring out the best of each year’s harvest,” using both traditional and cutting-edge techniques. Both blends and single varietals are produced; labels mention Winesap, Albemarle Pippin, Grimes Golden, English Bittersweet and Black Twig apple varietals.
Blue Bee Cider is the first and only urban cidery in Virginia; it’s located in Richmond’s Old Manchester district. Ciders are produced seasonally. Favoring blends, labels mention combinations of Winesap, Arkansas Black, Albemarle Pippin, Pink Lady, Northern Spy, Jonathan, Hewes Crab and Stayman varietals, sometimes with creative infusions like mulberry, brandy and other ingredients. “We experiment with yeast,” explained one tour guide. “We usually use champagne yeast but have experimented with Hefeweizen, ale, Saison and other beer yeasts.”
When visiting any cidery, time of year shapes the experience. In Virginia, harvest typically begins in August and runs through October (exact timing varies by varietals), fermentation may be taking place in January and February, while bottling often begins in midsummer and lasts through July. Keep in mind that the schedule varies by producer, so what you witness while touring one cider house may differ from another—which adds to the fun of exploring the cider trail.
Whenever you visit, prepare to quench curiosity and gain a thirst for cider.
Tasting Room & Orchard
2545 Rural Ridge Lane
North Garden, Virginia 22959
Taste five ciders for $5 or eight for $8. Keep the glass for $2.
Blue Bee Cider
212 W. 6th St.
Richmond, Virginia 23224
Tastings $8; flights $15. Keep the glass for $3.
Castle Hill Cider
6065 Turkey Sag Rd.
Keswick, Virginia 22947
Tastings $8. Keep the German crystal glass for $16.
– Photos © HSP Media LLC
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