Virginia cider, flavored by early America

Columnist October 2, 2012

Diane Flynt plucks a Dymock Red from a tree, digs into it with her penknife, then hands me a wedge. The apple, a few weeks short of fully ripe on a warm, sunny early August morning, makes my mouth pucker — not with the unripe sourness of malic acid but with a searing astringency, as if the fruit has sucked my palate dry. It tastes nothing like a typical farmers market apple.

“This is a tannin apple,” Flynt says, pointing with her knife for emphasis. “If you don’t have an orchard and grow your own apples, you don’t have tannin.”

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

Try these Virginia ciders

Flynt, 59, talks a lot like a winemaker, only her medium is apples instead of grapes. She and her husband, Chuck, planted their first trees of heirloom apple varieties in 1998 in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Floyd, Va., and marketed their ciders beginning in 2006.

The Flynt’sFoggy Ridge was Virginia’s first modern hard cider producer; it ignited a local cider boom that has echoed nationwide. Today, Virginia brands include Albemarle, Bold Rock, Castle Hill, Old Hill and Potter’s Craft. Two more cider works are expected to open in 2013, according to the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office. (Virginia licenses cider works as farm wineries.) With the state’s official Cider Week coming up next month, I went on a scouting trip.

The national market for hard cider grew 23 percent last year, to 5.7 million cases, according to Shanken News Daily, which covers the alcoholic beverage business. Brands such as Woodchuck, Strongbow, Crispin and Ace led the way. Crispin, acquired this year by MillerCoors, is expected to sell 1.4 million cases in 2012. Boston Beer launched Angry Orchard cider in April. A month later, Anheuser-Busch reached for its slice of the pie with Michelob Ultra Light Cider.

Flynt rankles at the involvement of the beer behemoths. She champions her small-production artisan approach. “Cider is a niche in the beverage market,” she says. “Artisan cider is an alcove inside a niche.” Her way means growing heirloom varieties traditionally used for cider and pressing only once a year, in the fall after the apples are harvested.

“You can’t make great cider from Red Delicious and Granny Smith,” Flynt says. “Those make sweet, apple-y, one-dimensional ciders that taste like apple juice from a jar.” Foggy Ridge ciders are typically blends crafted to balance the sweetness and acidity of various apples while capturing structure and complexity from the tannins Flynt craves. Her apples have names such as Foxwhelp and Cox’s Orange Pippin as well as Hewe’s Virginia Crab, which Thomas Jefferson used to make cider. (Flynt obtained her first budwood for the variety from Monticello.) Most are grown at Foggy Ridge; she buys Stayman and Newtown Pippin apples from nearby growers.

The production cycle at Foggy Ridge is similar to a winery’s, with the fruit pressed soon after the fall harvest. Flynt experiments with several blends in January and bottles in the spring. Lot numbers on the back labels of Foggy Ridge cider note the year in which the apples were harvested.

“The idea of buying fruit in May that’s been in cold storage since November,” Flynt says, then shakes her head. “I don’t think there’s good flavor or good cider in that.”

Anyone who has experienced mealy apples in spring compared with the fresh product of fall can relate to that sentiment.

At 7 to 8 percent alcohol by volume and typically with a bit of sweetness, artisan ciders are lighter-bodied than beer and not as heady as wine. Mixologists love them for cocktails. They pair especially well with spicy foods, and because most are at least slightly sparkling, they can substitute for the champagne of a wedding toast.

Flynt’s ciders are well distributed throughout Virginia and the East Coast, where artisan cider appeals to fans of local foods and beverages. Her production facility is sparse and yields 2,800 cases per year, but on the day I visited, a steady trickle of visitors flowed through the makeshift tasting room to taste Foggy Ridge’s Serious Cider, First Fruit and two fortified dessert ciders made in the style of port. The orchard is just a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway and about six hours from Washington, allowing for tourist traffic.

Almost exactly three hours after leaving Foggy Ridge, I turned into the gravel driveway of Albemarle CiderWorks in North Garden, Va., just south of Charlottesville. The tasting room there would be familiar to any winery visitor. Antique apple crates stenciled with the name H.F. Byrd reminded me that apples were as integral to Virginia’s political history as its culture.

“Harry Flood Byrd Sr. was a successful apple grower near Winchester before he became governor and U.S. senator,” says Charlotte Shelton, who runs the family-owned orchard with her brother Chuck. It’s a second or third career for each of them. Charlotte, 66, taught history at Virginia Tech before working for the past three decades as an investment adviser. Chuck, 62, worked in radiation protection in the nuclear power industry before taking over the orchard the family planted in 2000.

Their company, Vintage Virginia Apples, now grows more than 100 varieties, many of them heirloom, and serves as a nursery for other orchards. They opened the cidery in 2009. Their brother Bill, 58, who directs the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, helps out and Bill’s daughter, Anne, 28, handles marketing duties.

We tasted several ciders as Charlotte regaled me with the history of cider in Virginia, which goes back a lot further than Harry Byrd. Chuck, accustomed to spending more time with trees than people, left most of the talking to his sister.

“Cider is why apples were grown in this country in colonial times,” Charlotte says, adding that cider was a way of preserving the nutrients in apples. Industrialization, the growth of the railroads and refrigeration changed the way America ate, and fruit was no exception. “There were fewer farmers and people began eating their apples instead of drinking them,” she says. That led to the near-extinction of many cider varieties and the growth of sweeter apples for eating and cooking. Cider varieties began to disappear from orchards, especially during Prohibition.

“Hewe’s Crab and Harrison are, in my mind, the best cider apples grown anywhere,” Chuck says. “But we don’t have enough of them.” Harrison, a variety developed in New Jersey two centuries ago, was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1970s and slowly reestablished. It is one of the varieties the Sheltons are keeping alive in their orchard.

Their Virginia Hewe’s Crab North Orchard Reserve cider is made primarily from apples grown at Monticello, where Mr. Jefferson, as he is still known around Charlottesville, grew several kinds of apples and bottled his own cider every March. Most plantation owners did in those days, and while Jefferson is known for his love of wine, he drank much more cider because it was more readily available. Albermarle’s Jupiter’s Legacy, a full-bodied dry cider, is a blend of 30 apple varieties named for Jefferson’s slave who was in charge of cider production on the estate.

These modern artisan ciders, made from apple varieties the Sheltons and the Flynts have saved from obscurity, if not extinction, echo the flavors of our nation’s early years. It’s a livelier history lesson than I could get from any book. Tastier, too.

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McIntyre’s Wine column will return next week. He blogs at dmwineline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.

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