MINERAL, Va. — In the scruffy pine woods near Lake Anna, workers are spraying insulation into the walls of Chris Denkers’s big gamble.
Denkers, 33, prowls the construction site in jeans, Marmot fleece and ball cap. He built most of this himself, a barn-like structure with red siding and a stone-clad foundation. In April, he plans to open it up as the Coyote Hole Ciderworks — a huge investment for his family and friends in an industry that’s suddenly on the rise in Virginia.
Ten years ago, there was only a single cidery in the state, and it had just opened. Denkers’s will be the 19th.
Or 18th — state officials disagree on the exact number. The industry is just now getting big enough to track. The state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control didn’t collect production and tax data on cidermakers until July.
“It’s a baby industry,” said Denkers, who moved here seven years ago from Upstate New York. “A lot of wineries are now starting to do cider.”
The rise was predictable. There seems to be a winery at every highway exit, and craft beer breweries are popping up like coffee shops. Cider was ripe for a resurgence. But Virginia is catching up to a national cider-drinking trend that may have eased in the past year or two.
Retail sales of hard cider (at stores, not restaurants) grew by about 11 percent in 2015, a fraction of the 71 percent growth the year before, according to Nielsen. Draft magazine, which covers the beer and cider industry, reported over the summer that cider sales slowed toward the end of last year.
Washington state and New York have far more mature cider markets than Virginia. But Virginia has apples, and picturesque countryside, and the new businesses feed other industries important to the state.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is a big booster of cider, as well as craft beer and wine. His office regularly cranks out news releases announcing jobs that involve fermentation. Brewpubs and wineries are among his favorite spots to hang out.
“Sometimes I get some grief from people” for the announcements, McAuliffe said. “But this whole space drives our agriculture business and at the same time helps boom our tourism.” He can spout the precise numbers off the top of his head: “Last year we sold 416,750 cases of cider, and that was up 52 percent from the year before.”
And to be clear, the governor’s talking about hard cider. Technically, it’s a wine, fermented from the juice of a fruit. Most hard ciders have a little more alcohol than the typical beer, and maybe a little less than the average grape wine. The same is roughly true for its sweetness.
Cider is another of those forsaken products that was huge in Colonial times — like hemp or leeches. Thomas Jefferson cultivated cider apples at Monticello, and John Adams drank it every day. After all, water was often unsafe back then, so cider was a healthier option. (A reporter at Vice recently spent a week living in Colonial mode and found himself constantly drunk from all the cider).
Cider apples are different varietals from the ones people eat — gnarlier to look at and less tasty. Many of the old trees were ripped up in Virginia during Prohibition, so growers have had to re-establish them. They come with poetic, old, lip-smacking names such as Albemarle Pippin, Roxbury Russet, Burford’s Redflesh and Winesap.
Jefferson’s favorite cider apple was the Taliaferro, “nearer to the silky Champagne than any other,” he wrote, according to the Monticello website. But that variety has disappeared.
Virginia still has a sizable apple industry, ranked sixth in the nation, producing nearly 200 million pounds worth roughly $35 million per year. Cider orchards are a minuscule portion of that, but they’re increasing. Denkers, for instance, committed to buying more than a million pounds of Virginia-grown apples and other fruits during the next three years.
Cidermakers tend to fall into three categories: the mass market (Angry Orchard, owned by the maker of Samuel Adams beer), the mid-range (often made from dessert apples and served in kegs or beer-type bottles) and the fussy artisanal (wine bottles all the way).
“This particular business is based on the farm winery model,” said Geoff Robinson, director of sales and marketing at Castle Hill Cider outside Charlottesville. By that he means that Castle Hill, set in the patrician foothills of the Keswick hunt country, is very much a small-batch operation with a cozy tasting room and facilities for private events such as weddings.
Castle Hill was the state’s third cidery when it opened in 2010, Robinson said. He’s not worried about the recent flurry of competitors. “It’s still a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships kind of thing,” he said. The big national brands may have saturated the market, but he believes the local-source movement leaves lots of room for craft ciders to grow.
And really, cider is only part of the equation for a place like Castle Hill, with its temple-like white barn and painterly vistas. Wedding photo books are more prominent than menus around the tasting room. “We’ve seen this wedding industry boom and blow up in the last few years,” Robinson said.
Denkers scouted Castle Hill, among other places, when gathering ideas for Coyote Hole. But he’s aiming at a slightly different crowd — fewer cheese plates and millennials, more barbecue and families with kids.
He and his wife, Laura, moved from New York to his sister-in-law’s basement in Ashburn seven years ago when he got hired to do Web design for a government contractor. After his boss told him he could work from home, Denkers moved to Lake Anna, a rambling, unpretentious getaway spot between Fredericksburg and Richmond.
There, he and his wife are raising twin 7-year-old boys. It’s a relaxed lifestyle of panning for gold in local creeks and watching for coyotes on trailcams stationed around their property.
Denkers is a guy who likes to build stuff. He built a house for his in-laws. And with another friend, he started a nonprofit that hosts party events to raise money to fight cystic fibrosis, which both of his sons have. He has home-brewed beer and cider for years.
The cidery grew out of all those interests. Armed with a 60-page business plan and about $750,000 in investment from his family and several friends, Denkers has spent the past year methodically lining up permits, ordering equipment and designing everything from the logos to the main building.
“I just thought, why not take what I love doing and make it a business?” he said. “In my opinion I think the industry has got a long way to go. More and more people are really starting to drink cider. . . . I think it will definitely support us and support the other cideries as well.”