After a long disappearance, hard cider is making a comeback in the Commonwealth. Often created from organic and heirloom apples, nearly a dozen cideries across the state are creating the fermented libation. Virginia Currents Producer Catherine Komp takes you to one of them, Richmond’s Blue Bee Cider.
A flatbed truck pulls up to Richmond’s Blue Bee Cider with a fresh delivery: 12 bins of Gold Rush Apples from Silver Creek Orchard in Nelson County. Using a forklift, Blue Bee owner Courtney Mailey removes the 800 pound containers filled with the bright green fruit, some tinged with patches of pink.
Courtney Mailey: So many apples (laughter). Truck Driver: You’re going to make a lot of cider, I guess. Mailey: Yes, that’s the plan.
It’s peak apple season, so Blue Bee has plenty of pressing and bottling to do.
Mailey: This is Fall, so I am at the bottom of a 100,000 pound apple mountain which must be juiced and fermenting by Christmas Day.
This new shipment of Gold Rush apples will be used in Blue Bee’s Aragon 1904, a “light, off-dry” cider named after the former coffee-producing occupants of their Manchester facility. They’re also part of the blend used for Fanfare, a rosé cider, and Firecracker, a limited edition dessert cider.
Mailey: They produce a really interesting cider so it’s still not in high production and it still fits the criteria of rare even though it’s not heirloom. But the base cider that you produce from that, I’ve heard sometimes described as similar to sauvignon blanc, so very acidic, nice and clean and it has some nice tropical fruit to it.
Mailey’s previous career was in economic development, including a job at the Federal Reserve. But as she labored, she knew a desk job wasn’t the right fit.
Mailey: The early days of working in an office, the very early days, really my first summer I was riding up an elevator and talking to a co-worker saying I can’t believe it’s getting so beautiful outside but I’m stuck in here everyday, not just for the summer, but for the rest of my life, with only two weeks off, not just for the year, but for the rest of my life. There was an accountant [who said], “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.” And I will never get used to this, never.
Mailey says she spent years getting ready for this major career change, preparing herself financially and emotionally. In 2010, she was ready to make her move.
Mailey: So I made a plan and I eventually left my job on a Friday and drove up to cider school the next day on Saturday and got a little bit of book learning but then did an apprenticeship with Albemarle Ciderworks just outside of Charlottesville.
In the beginning, it was Mailey, her husband and parents along with some seasonal staff. Now there’s a small crew of three full time and three part time employees. They’ve improved their techniques and in the last year, production increased by 100%.
Brian Ahnmark: Our dock bay doors, that wood was reclaimed from the barn where Secretariat was raised, the great Virginia racehorse...
Brian Ahnmark does a little bit of everything around Blue Bee, earning the title Cider Evangelist. Pointing out features in the historical building, he says this room will soon be filled with those just delivered Gold Rush apples.
Ahnmark: That’s our grinder. So each apple we handle individually….
The apples are ground down to what’s called a pomace.
Then they transfer the pomace to two cylindrical presses where the juice is squeezed out.
Ahnmark: In the inside of the cylinder there’s an inflatable bellow so once that’s full of pomace we fill the bellow with water, that pressures the pomace through a filter bag that lines interior and the juice literally will cascade down those little slats, very briefly into the basin at the bottom. That’s the stuff at the grocery store you would call cider in a jug. We just call it juice because that’s what it is, it’s unfiltered juice.
In a separate climate controlled room, the juice goes into large fermentation vessels. These are made out of 8-ply cardboard with a sterilized cartridge inside.
Ahnmark: On a good press day now, we’ll yield somewhere in the neighborhood of 400-450 gallons so we want to put about 200 gallons in each of these and then we’ll activate fermentation with the champagne yeast.
After a month or more of fermentation, the liquid is pumped into blending tanks where Mailey and assistant cider maker Manuel Garcia develop the aromas and flavor characteristics. After blending, there’s final filtration, carbonation and bottling.
Ahnmark: You can see the bottling line, four at a time by hand, it is time consuming, one of the dues we pay. Then we cap each one at a time in the corner and then we label each bottle, front and back stickers. We do as much as we can by hand, put a lot of love into it.
Mailey: Go ahead and start breaking into your kit that’s on the table...
Part of Blue Bee’s work includes educating the public about cider, which they do through tours, tastings and home cider brewing workshops.
Mailey: You should have a flask, still in its shiny wrapper...
At a recent workshop, 20 people sit before cider making kits: a glass carboy container, a flask, funnel, yeast and most importantly - the juice.
Mailey: This comes from an orchard along Skyline Drive, up in the Blue Ridge of Virginia, it’s on a southeastern facing slope so it gets the nice morning sun and not too much of the harsh sun from the west. These apples are from older trees, it’s an old fashioned variety of Winesap. Have any of you tasted a Winesap before?
As Mailey shares her excitement about Virginia-grown apples, the students swirl yeast nutrient in their flasks and then pour the mixture into the Winesap juice. In a few weeks, the cider will be fermented and ready to drink.
Nancy Rusinak: I’ve been piddling around with making beer and cider and wine at home and I’ve never taken a class, I’ve just been kind of self-taught.
Nancy Rusinak says she family tradition was part of the inspiration to start making her own cider and wine.
Rusinak: My grandfather used to make beer in the basement in the 1930s, so there’s family lore about my pops making beer in the basement.
Michael Wingfield: Long time cider fan...
Participant Michael Wingfield is making cider for the first time. The Norfolk resident, who works for O’Connor Brewery, says he appreciates the complexities of cider, which can be as nuanced as wine.
Michael Wingfield: I got turned on to cider when I was living in Europe, French farmhouse ciders, German ciders, and I started drinking Strongbow a long time ago, got hooked on cider and nice to see that it’s coming back.
Blue Bee joins nine other cider makers during Virginia Cider Week, an event spurred by a state proclamation three years ago. Designed to celebrate Virginia’s heritage and spur interest in agritourism, there are tastings, dinners, competitions and workshops held in cities throughout the Commonwealth. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.