Diane Flynt had an orchard full of apples and a pie-in-the-sky idea: to return cider — hard, alcoholic cider — to its rightful place as America’s favorite beverage. She’s one of a handful of Johnny Appleseed-style evangelists across the country who have spent the past decade plotting a revival of the drink. (Appleseed’s famous fruit trees were, in fact, for cider.) In 2005, when Flynt and her husband, Chuck, opened Foggy Ridge Cider off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Dugspur, it was the only cidery in the commonwealth of Virginia. Today there are eight.
And that’s a perfectly good excuse to raise a glass of something bubbly, says Flynt, who’s spearheading Cider Week Virginia (Nov. 15-24). Nearly 50 events throughout the state — including cider-food pairings, home cider-making workshops and cider cocktail tastings — are on tap for the second annual festival, which is designed to open minds as well as mouths.
“Cider isn’t one thing. It’s like beer and wine,” Flynt says. “If I lined up five Virginia ciders now, you could have five different flavors, as different as Champagne and pinot grigio.”
To experience the full range of local cider — single varietals, ice ciders, cider ports, hop-infused ciders and more — you need a map. (And an impressive tolerance.) That’s why Flynt recently put together a brochure with information on all eight of Virginia’s cideries.
What she’s dubbed the Virginia Cider Trail already features more stops than anyone could pack into a single day. It extends from Foggy Ridge’s outpost in far southwestern Virginia, through a cluster of cideries around Charlottesville, over to Richmond’s Blue Bee (Virginia’s first urban cidery) and north to Winchester Ciderworks.
Maryland’s cider scene is lagging behind, with just three cideries in the state: Distillery Lane Ciderworks near Frederick, Great Shoals Winery in Silver Spring and Millstone Cellars north of Baltimore. But the trio are close together geographically and eager to establish a similar cider trail. As a first step, they’re hosting a scavenger hunt this weekend to encourage visitors to trek to all of their tasting rooms.
With people interested in buying locally and drinking experimentally, the market is ripe for cider, says Kyle Sherrer, co-owner and fermentologist for Millstone Cellars. Everything he bottles is limited to ingredients found within 150 miles and packs surprises, such as gingerroot, fresh raspberry juice, cranberry honey and Baltimore fish peppers. (“Why let craft brewers have all the fun?” Sherrer says.)
Fermented apple juice has come a long way since its heyday in the Colonial era, when cider’s strongest selling point was that it was safer and more palatable than water. In the late 1800s, as the soft drink industry emerged and beer competed for American taste buds, cider fell out of favor. Then attitudes about alcohol shifted.
“Prohibition put the nail in cider’s coffin,” says Charlotte Shelton, co-founder of Albemarle Ciderworks, near Charlottesville, Va. Teetotalers co-opted the term “cider” to refer to juice, which is why the alcoholic version is called “hard” today.
Overlooked for a century, the hard stuff is finally getting the hard sell. Several big-name beer manufacturers have recently jumped into the cider business, rolling out products such as Stella Artois Cidre, Michelob Ultra Light Cider and Angry Orchard Hard Cider (from the Boston Beer Co., best known for Samuel Adams).
These and other mass-produced “macro ciders” tend to be sweeter and blander than what local cideries produce. But they help whet customers’ palates for more artisanal, adventurous stuff, says Rob Miller of Distillery Lane Ciderworks.
“Maybe then they’ll try a dry cider,” Miller says. “Or something not sparkling.”
Or maybe they’ll even swing by Distillery Lane, where folks are invited to take a self-guided tour through the orchard (with a satchel, if they’re inclined to pick fruit to haul home). They can nibble on apple slices to get familiar with some of the lesser-known but best-tasting varietals. And then it’s $5 to belly up to the bar and sample from a rotating crop of ciders.
Tastings, naturally, are at the core of the cider trail initiatives in Virginia and Maryland. Vineyards have become destinations where visitors can kick back with a drink and a stunning view, and cideries are striving for the same reputation with many of the same tricks.
So, at a cider tasting, a guest can expect to get a wine glass and then a series of splashes from wine-size bottles. The person behind the counter will happily discourse on the merits of certain fruits and food pairings and possibly encourage the purchase of a bottle to enjoy on the spot. (Take it to a picnic table along with some local cheese, Shelton suggests.)
If you’re worried about drinking and driving, Great Shoals Winery’s tasting room, which opened in June, is accessible by Metrobus. On a recent Friday evening, a constant flow of people perched at the bar. The cider tasting flight started with a pour of the Spencerville Red Hard Apple, made from a varietal discovered in Montgomery County.
The best thing about cider tasting, Flynt says, is that “it’s simple — not fussy like wine.”
So how do you know if a cider is any good?
“When you drink it,” she says. “You like it right away.”
Anyone can make cider. Leave out a jug of unpasteurized apple juice (available for sale at several cideries) and it will naturally ferment. Wait too long, though, and it will turn to vinegar. Making a cider worth swigging is half science and half art. It starts with apple selection, picking varieties that possess the right balance of three qualities: sugar, acid and tannin. Next is the chemistry test: Which yeast to use? Then comes carefully monitored fermentation. The result is a drink that’s gluten-free, typically with an alcohol content between 5 and 10 percent.
Can’t Make the Trip?
Here are a few local spots that really know their cider:
Cowgirl Creamery (919 F St. NW). As part of Cider Week Virginia, a cider tasting will replace the usual weekly beer tasting 4-6 p.m. Nov. 21. Three ciders from Albemarle Ciderworks will be paired with cheeses. “Classic apples and cheddar — it’s an old-school concept,” manager Joyce Miller says.
Pizzeria Paradiso (Georgetown, Dupont Circle and Old Town locations). Beer director Greg Jasgur says locally produced ciders from Foggy Ridge Cider and Millstone Cellars are hitting the spot with his customers. “They’ve had sweeter, simpler flavors,” he says. “Now they want something acidic with blue cheese notes.”
The Pig (1320 14th St. NW). The Pig just hosted the D.C. release party for Orchard Ale, a collaboration between Frederick’s Flying Dog Brewery and Distillery Lane Ciderworks. On the menu: bottles of DLC’s Celebration Cider and Bold Rock Cider (from Nellysford, Va.) on draft.
If you only spy a couple of apple varieties for sale at your grocery store, blame Prohibition. With cider verboten, orchards were no longer profitable, and many were chopped down.
The next few decades were a rotten time, says Tom Burford, 78, a fifth-generation apple grower from Lynchburg, Va., known as “Professor Apple.” But the resurgence of cider — along with the farm-to-table movement — is ushering in a new heyday for his favorite fruit.
“We have the potential to be the greatest apple producers in the world,” says Burford, who just released the book “Apples of North America: 192 Exceptional Varieties For Gardeners, Growers, and Cooks” ($30, Timber Press). It serves as a primer of which apples to hunt down at a farmers market near you.
Here are a few cider staples that are just as nice in your lunchbox as they are in a bottle:
Newtown Pippin. Called the Albemarle Pippin in the mid-Atlantic, this apple is so juicy and crisp that it found favor with Queen Victoria’s court: It was the only foodstuff exempt from import taxes. It’s complex enough to make a single varietal cider, a rare feat.
Winesap. The name tells you exactly what this firm, succulent apple was celebrated for originally. But bakers know it as the secret sweet-but-tart ingredient in their prize-winning pies.
GoldRush. Modern-day pomiculture has produced some lip-smacking new varieties, including the Honeycrisp. “It’s a wonderfully expressive apple and people are riding the trendiness of it,” says Burford, but he suggests passing on any grown in this region. (They’re best from the upper Midwest.) Instead, he recommends the perfectly tart GoldRush, with its ideal balance of tannin and sugar.