When it comes to apple production, Virginia ranks sixth in the nation – well behind Washington State which supplies 2/3rds of this country’s apples. It’s worth noting, however, that farmers here offer a huge variety, and our cider industry is growing.
Albemarle Ciderworks recently celebrated ten years in business on Route 29 south of Charlottesville. Charlotte Shelton and her brothers offer more than 200 kinds of apples and cider.
“Of course there are literally thousands of varieties of apples,” she says. “This is an experience that so few of us are able to have, because we are the beneficiaries as well as the victims of an industrial agricultural system and a mass distribution food system.”
Beneficiaries because our food is relatively cheap and plentiful – victims because most supermarkets offer fewer than a dozen kinds of apples.
“They are tasty and they are certainly nourishing, but they tend to be bland and sweet,” Shelton explains.
The only exception is Granny Smith – a tart green option.
“It’s amazing how many people will say, ‘Oh that’s my favorite apple, because tartness is a flavor that gives some life and spirit to sweetness.”
Shelton says none of our apples are native to Virginia or even North America.
“The only native apple in this part of the world was a virtually inedible crab apple that the Indians maybe used a little bit,” she says. “Malus domestica – the apples that we know – originated in Kazikstan, and they spread across the trade routes in ancient times. You know an apple seed can travel forty miles a day in the innards of a horse.”
But the English brought them here in 1607 – along with their love of hard cider. Into the middle of the 19th century, that’s what everyone in America drank.
It was not only tasty and intoxicating but safe at a time when water supplies were often polluted.
“The consequences of putting your cow lot or hog lot uphill from your spring or well was very poorly understood,” says Shelton. “Fermentation kills nasty little things like e-coli.”
As immigrants began arriving from Germany, Italy and Ireland, American preferences began to change.
“The libations of choice there were not ciders but beers and ales, and the Irish preferred their whiskey I’m told, and the southern Europeans their wines, but you couldn’t have grown those in the first 200 years of American existence.”
Fortunately, some of the old time varieties survived and are now growing on the Shelton family’s 14 acres. Technically a member of the rose family, some of these trees are a challenge to maintain.
“You have to give them care – care both in their pruning and in keeping pests off them, because people aren’t the only ones who like apples. Every bug in the universe seems to, not to mention the bears and deer.”
One of the best loved heritage apples is the Albemarle Pippin, a favorite for England’s Queen Victoria.
“Ironically it originated in what is now Long Island, New York, and in the rest of the world it’s called the New Town Pippin – Newtown, New York was the point of origin. It may be the best flavored apple in the universe. When it’s well grown it is a fabulously flavored apple that’s good for dessert, it’s good for culinary usage, and it makes a fabulous cider.”
Today, cider is making a comeback with at least 20 commercial producers in Virginia. People are also beginning to grow their own. This weekend, Shelton will host a workshop on planning and planting an orchard – and for those who aren’t quite so ambitious, a tasting event on Saturday morning.
You can find more information on planning and planting a home orchard here.
The apple tasting event scheduled for Saturday morning at Tufton Farm is now sold out, but there will be ample opportunities to taste next month at Albemarle Ciderworks.