The Northern Virginia Summer BrewFest in Leesburg over the weekend featured a nice mix of old favorites (Mad Fox Brewing with its Orange Whip IPA; Vintage 50 with a dry, herbal Shiny Happy Pilsner) and promising newcomers (Three Heads Brewing, a Rochester, N.Y., microbrewery, with its Common Man Special Lager, an amber lager in the Anchor Steam mold).
But the biggest story at the festival was the inroad being made by hard cider. Instead of the usual token tap or two, no fewer than four of the stands were dispensing fermented apple juice.
They included producer Bold Rock Hard Cidery in Nellysford, Va. “We’re very, very new,” says company president Brian Shanks, who just began marketing two brands in six-packs of 12-ounce bottles: Virginia Apple and Virginia Draft. Shanks hopes to see the two distributed statewide in about three months.
Virginia-grown Granny Smith apples form the backbone of the ciders, says Shanks, giving them a fragrant, fruity aroma and a tart, refreshing acidity. Virginia Draft, the darker of the two, has a little tannin to cut through the sweetness, and is the more drinkable of the two in Shanks’s opinion. Both measure 4.7 percent alcohol by volume. Shanks plans to supplement the lighter ciders with a Crimson Ridge line in 750-mililiter bottles: “They’ll be a little stronger, and will compete with lighter grape wines,” he says.
Shanks is a New Zealander who marketed a brand called Harvest Cider in his homeland and later worked for British giant H.P. Bulmer. His partner, John Washburn, who owns the land the cidery stands on, lured him out of retirement. “Apples have been growing here for 200 years,” Shanks says. “They’re well suited to the climate — a huge, untapped resource.”
Long-range plans are to erect a barnlike structure housing a restaurant/cider pub, with glass partitions to allow visitors to observe the cider-making process.
Meanwhile, the Sam Adams stand dispensed Angry Orchard Crisp Apple Cider, part of a new line of ciders that Boston Beer chairman Jim Koch has described as being “a little crisper, more fruit-forward, a little drier on the palate from a cleaner fermentation” than the HardCore brands he released during the 1990s.
At the Woodchuck booth, district manager Dave Fredlund was pouring the Vermont company’s limited-edition Belgian White Cider, flavored with coriander and grated orange zest in the style of a Belgian witbier, and fermented with a Belgian yeast strain. Sweet, spritzy and fruity, it was a little reminiscent of a mimosa. That brand is transitioning out to make way for Woodchuck Private Reserve Ginger. (Angry Orchard also offers its own ginger-flavored cider.)
Finally, the Crispin Cider was drawing samples of its Original Cider and Fox Barrel Pear Cider. The Minneapolis-based company was snapped up last winter by MillerCoors and now forms part of their Tenth and Blake specialty beverage division. Although it wasn’t present at last weekend’s beerfest, Anheuser-Busch InBev has released its own contender, Michelob Ultra Light Cider.
Although the market for hard cider is growing rapidly (according to Advertising Age, about twice the rate of craft beer), it remains “a very small niche,” Koch cautioned in an interview last spring, shortly before he went national with his Angry Orchard ciders. He estimated that total production in 2010 was about 350,000 barrels, or .2 percent of the beer market.
“I’ve never seen the big guys jump into something so quickly,” he commented on MillerCoors’ and Anheuser-Busch’s attempts to tap into cider. “The last three years, they’ve lost 10 million barrels of volume. They’re not going to get it back with cider!”