Virginia will soon celebrate Cider Week, which runs from November 12-21. This event is an opportunity to heed Benjamin Franklin’s advice that, “It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all into cider.”
Cider makers must have listened because sales of Virginia hard cider have skyrocketed in the last decade. Virginia now has over 30 cideries, most of which opened in the past 4 years alone. According to the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office, in fiscal year 2020, approximately 55% of all hard cider sold in Virginia was Virginia-made.
Critics have taken notice. The Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition now uses dedicated cider judges for its cider entries, with Lost Boy Cidery’s “Comeback Kid” taking the win in 2021. Fellow cider professionals have also heard the buzz because CiderCon®, the world’s largest professional cider conference, is coming to Richmond in February 2022.
More Complex Than Most People Realize
For both business and stylistic reasons, some cideries model themselves after wineries with a focus on beverages that reflect conditions in the orchard, while others draw more inspiration from breweries by experimenting with new flavors. It gets even more complicated if you add in perrys (cider made from pears) and specialty ciders, including those made with hops, spices, or other fruit.
This split parallels cider’s two main categories; Heritage and Modern ciders.
Heritage ciders are usually made from apples traditionally associated with cider making, including Kingston Black (bittersharp), Roxbury Russet (American heirloom), and Wickson (crab). These beverages are usually drier, emphasize the flavor profile of the varietal it’s made from, and served in wine bottles.
Modern ciders are primarily made from apples you find in the grocery store including McIntosh, Golden Delicious, or Gala. They also offer a dizzying array of flavors not usually associated with cider, such as pumpkin, cherry, even habanero. The need for carbonation means they are usually served on tap or in cans.
Both styles are found in Virginia but few are as passionate about Heritage ciders as Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider, one of the pioneers of the Virginia cider movement. Foggy Ridge was the state’s first cidery, which Diane modeled after an estate vineyard with an eye towards ‘orchard focused cider’.
While Foggy Ridge Cider’s last call was several years ago she still grows apples and advocates for Virginia cider, especially those that reflect the orchards they come from. In explaining her hopes for the future of the industry, Diane said, “We need locations that are willing to invest the time to make great cider. What (Foggy Ridge) did is focus on what the site gives you for flavor, not any additives.”
That said, the line between Modern and Heritage cider is sometimes fuzzy. Many cider makers treat their Modern ciders as artisanal beverages, while the term ‘Heritage cider’ may seem something of an oxymoron since they are made using very modern techniques.
Don Whitaker of Castle Hill Cider makes both styles, explaining, “Our Heritage line pays tribute to the apple, while our craft line is more fun and accessible. But it doesn’t matter which line it is, we still want to showcase the apple.”
“But some of our friends (in the cider industry) want to take cider making as far as they can go with new flavors. It’s all up to the imagination and the market.”
Explaining Cider’s Newfound Popularity
According to several cidery owners, direct sales are roughly split between men and women and skews towards a younger demographic. When asked why cider sales have seen such growth, Philip Carter Strother of Valley View Farm had a straightforward explanation.
“The truth is hard cider is delicious, but it’s been overshadowed by beer. Hundreds of years ago cider was just as popular as beer. But a lot of effort has been made to make cider approachable to a larger audience, and a larger audience drinks beer.”
Emulating the marketing and distribution of craft beer has allowed cider sales to soar. Last year 63% of Virginia cider was sold via distribution and the remainder in direct sales. While this ratio favors modern ciders that are packaged and sold like beer, growing recognition has helped heritage cider sales as well.
This popularity has pushed a number of Virginia wineries to get in on the action. Wineries recognize cider fills a niche for lighter, fresher beverages, and their ability to step up is eased by how much of the equipment and licensing is the same. Several make their cider in-house, while others use an outside partner.
Cider’s status as a lower-alcohol, gluten-free beverage is another selling point. While no alcoholic beverage can ever truly be called ‘healthy’, cider compares relatively well to beer. In his description of Comeback Kid, Tristan Wright of Lost Boy Cider explained how the cider’s name was in part a tribute to his own health comeback when he discovered his allergies to gluten and soy.
Even though hard cider is unlikely to ever be considered a health drink, it has one additional advantage over other options. “Nobody has sentimental feelings about barley. But everyone has a connection to apples” enthused Will Hodges of Troddenvale Cider. “People just have a pull to it; it’s a very American beverage.”
Ciders You Should Try
Cideries can be found in every corner of Virginia, ranging from urban tasting rooms in Alexandria and Richmond, rural businesses in the Blue Ridge Mountains, to wineries and breweries serving cider alongside their own beverages.
Don’t wait for CiderCon; start sampling Virginia’s cider today.
Blue Bee Aragon: Blue Bee is Richmond’s first urban cidery, located in an old stable and carriage house. Aragon is their best seller; an off-dry blend of modern and heirloom apple varieties that provide a light, crisp mouthfeel.
Castle Hill Cider’s Celestial: Located south of Charlottesville, Castle Hill’s Celestial has strong fruit aromas, bright acidity, and a clean taste. While you can drink this anywhere, their tasting room is stunning – and beverages always taste better when sampled in the place they were made.
Coyote Hole Ciderwork’s Apparition: Coyote Hole kicks off Halloween with a cider that brings all the cozy flavors of fall in one drink. The perfect balance of cider and pumpkin, Apparition has all the comforting notes of traditional pumpkin pie with a hint of spices.
Lost Boy Cider’s Comeback Kid: The first beverage to win the cider award at the Virginia’s Governor’s Cup, Comeback Kid is Lost Boy’s bestselling cider for good reason. Made with Shenandoah apples, it’s light, dry and unfiltered. While heritage ciders boast about their complexity and tastiness, this cider could give them a run for their money.
Troddenvale at Oakley Farm’s House Cider: One of the most ‘wine-like’ ciders on the list, this heritage-style cider is made with a blend of eight apples. Its use of lees during fermentation provides a fuller mouthfeel and greater complexity. It’s then bottled like a sparkling via the “traditional method” until disgorged before release.
Valley View Farm’s Noble Pome: Noble Pome benefits from aging on the lees, which gives it a texture and body somewhere between a white wine and a beer, and contributes yeasty flavors and toasted notes. Bone dry and crisp, it tastes strongly of the Stayman apples used to make it. An excellent accompaniment to food, particularly with barbeque and pork dishes.