Apples are delicious for snacks, pies, applesauce and, once again, for drinking. While alcoholic cider production is still a niche market, the rise in U.S. sales has been tremendous. In 2012 sales of the top 10 alcoholic cider brands in the United States collectively grew by 62 percent, according to Impact Databank, which tracks statistics for the wine, beer and spirits industry.
Virginia farmers and cider makers are taking advantage of an opportunity to bring back a drink with a lot of history. Thomas Jefferson’s champagne-like cider, made with Hewes crabapples, was his “table drink.” Throughout the 19th century, crafting cider was an integral activity in every community.
“Everyone consumed cider, as the water was not safe for drinking,” said Courtney Mailey, owner of Blue Bee Cidery. “From young to old and free to slave, cider was critically important to our early Virginians.”
Today artisanal cideries throughout Virginia are producing ciders with qualities from dry to sweet, still to sparkling. When Mailey started Blue Bee in 2010 there were only two cideries in Virginia. Now there are more than 10.
Mass-produced ciders have been driving the beverage’s popularity, but Mailey believes the next growth in the industry will come from premium and super-premium ciders like those she produces.
Apples have always been a showcase crop for Virginia farmers. There are 733 apple orchards in the Old Dominion, and the majority of them are smaller than 15 acres. Virginia is the sixth largest apple-producing state, and growers collect approximately $31 million from sales of their fruit each year.
Blue Bee has a tasting room in Richmond but uses apples from trees on leased land in Nelson County to make its ciders. “We crush the apples. Then once we have the juice, it’s a white wine-making process. I’m a white winemaker; I just use apples instead of grapes,” Mailey said.
There are as many different varieties of cider as there are apples. Some creative choices at Blue Bee include the Hopsap Shandy, which is infused with hops; the Mill Race Bramble with blackberries and raspberries; and the Fanfare with wild mulberries. The cidery’s Rocky Ridge Reserve is aged in fruit brandy barrels.
This past November, Virginia became the first state to have an official Cider Week.