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VA Apple Cider Makers are Getting Serious About Their Craft

There’s a new appreciation for well known fruit and Virginia is leading the way.  Heirloom apples, coveted for their nuanced flavor, are in demand for making hard cider.  And if a recent tasting is any indication, that demand will surely grow. 

Megan McGuire: So this one is called, “Serious Cider.”  We compare it to like a brewed Champagne.

Megan McGuire is pouring 5 different varieties of hard apple cider made here at Foggy Ridge Cidery .

Megan McGuire:  You can’t find a lot of cider that tastes like Foggy so it’s nice to introduce people to something they’ve never had before.

McGuire is studying food science at Virginia Tech. When she graduates next spring, she’ll start her paid internship here, at this immaculate, picturesque, boutique cidery, nested in the hills of Dogspur, Virginia. Sue Carter is general manager.

Sue Carter:  We’re a little bit different than a lot of other cider makers in that they’ll do batches throughout the year, bottle it and sell it and what we do is we purchase and press the apples we want, so we’re very specific on the types of apples we use-- at the peak of the season and then we do our blending in January and then bottle it through March, April, May sometimes into June. 

Carter says they buy all their apples from Virginia growers and sell their product here at the cidery and online. In 2005, the first year they fermented 400 cases and sold out in six months. This year they’ll have forty seven hundred cases and expect to do the same. But that’s still relatively small compared to corporate producers who are also going big into the hard cider/craft brewing space but using a very different process than what’s done here.

Sue Carter:  “And that’s one of the things we’re trying to educate people on because typically the first experience people are going to have with hard cider is going to be on that macro level. So you’re going to get something that was mass produced, it may have chemicals or sweeteners or ‘natural flavoring’ in it. Carter makes the sign for’ air quotes’ there.

Sue Carter: And what we do is all fruit and very similar to fine wine, it creates that complexity so there’s a balance to it so it’s very food friendly... Amanda Stewart is assistant professor of food science and tech specializing in oenology and fermentation.

She says the hard cider industry has grown 800 percent in the past and if the trend continues it could take a serious bite out of the country’s apple crop.

Amanda Stewart: A lot of the bigger cideries are taking what’s already available so dessert apples like those used to make apple juice, apple sauce, fresh consumption apples, those are being used also for cider making, even though the cideries may prefer these type of apples, they’re just not available .The nurseries are backed up 2 and 3 years for new trees and there’s a real demand for getting these trees planted and they’re not in the ground yet.

Eliza Greenman is the Orchardist here at Foggy Ridge.  She says heirloom apples growing here on a hillside have other advantages even beyond their unique flavor. 

Eliza Greenman:  You gotta go with the genetics.  So there’s a lot of the heirloom apples that are more genetically resistant to some diseases like fire blight.  You know the resistance is quite high with some varieties in this orchard. With Cider vs. dessert fruit we’re not even on the same level because we’re trying to grow ugly apples, we’re not trying to grow these glistening orbs of perfection. 

And while most Americans still think of the sweet stuff when you mention ‘hard cider’, New York Times food and wine writer Eric Asimov says, that appreciation is getting a bit more… serious.  He organized a taste test last year of the top 20 dry apple ciders in the US.  The winner: “Serious Cider”from Foggy Ridge.

More information on Cider-making workshops here.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.