It’s no secret that cider is booming. It is the fastest-growing sector of alcohol sales in the United States, with a more than 50% increase in the last year alone. After a century of decline, cider is showing sudden new growth, like an apple tree that lies long dormant and suddenly bursts into bloom. The popularity of craft apple cider is not a new phenomenon, but a return to America’s roots.
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In colonial days, cider was the most popular drink in America. John Adams drank a tankard of cider before breakfast every morning. Thomas Jefferson made enormous batches of cider every year from apples that he grew in his orchards at Monticello.
The majority of this cider is what’s known as industrial cider, cider made in large batches, and often made by beer companies. But there’s a steadily growing craft cider movement that depends not on massive sales but on small batches of carefully made product. The soul of cider rests in this craft cider movement, and my husband and I were determined to figure out how cider makers are bringing back the cider that helped feed Americans since Colonial times.
Terroir: Not just for wine
“Apple cider is wine,” Chuck Shelton said. “It’s not beer.” Shelton’s family owns Albemarle Ciderworks in North Garden, Va., less than 15 miles from Jefferson’s Monticello. On a rainy December morning, my husband and I visited the tasting room at Albemarle and sat down to talk with Shelton and operations associate Thomas Unsworth.
Shelton and Unsworth spent hours talking to us about the history of cider in their cozy office, schooling us on the basics of cider making. When we asked about the difference between “hard cider” and “sweet cider,” Shelton smiled and said, “We don’t use the term ‘hard cider.’ It’s cider! The real problem is educating people to understand what real cider is.”
Cider is fermented fruit, like wine. It’s not a fermented sugar from malted barley, which we know as beer. Making cider is very much like making wine. It depends on terroir, the term wine makers use to describe the soil, weather conditions, farming practices and winemaking style that give each wine its own unique personality. Often loosely translated from the French as “a sense of place,” terroir makes a wine what it is. The same can be said for cider-making.
To make a point, Thomas disappeared and returned with a glass of a light brown opaque liquid that turned out to be juice from a pressing of Winesap apples made only a few days earlier. The juice Thomas offered us was made from sweet, fresh heirloom apples grown with care and picked when fully ripe. This cider was — and ready to drink the moment it was pressed. My husband, a California native, described it as “thick, sweet, and nutritious feeling.” I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and this juice tasted like home to me. I don’t know a lot about cider or wine, but I growing up in the apple capital of Virginia means I know a fair amount about how apple juice should taste. This was the real deal.
Next, Thomas offered us a glass of their newest cider blend, a mixture of Winesap and Albemarle Pippins, which is scheduled for release in February under the name Red Hill. I’d never tasted anything quite like it. As I mulled over this unique new flavor, we continued our tour into the processing room full of gleaming metal tanks and past the old-fashioned press that Shelton had used in his early cider experiments. We ended up in the tasting room, where we ran into Shelton’s 92-year-old father, Bud. The elder Shelton talked to us about the humble origins of his family’s orchard, which began as his own retirement project. It apparently isn’t much of a retirement. He still drove the tractor in the previous week’s pressing, which netted nearly 1,600 gallons of fresh cider that would soon start its three- to four-week fermentation process.
Rooted in Virginia tradition
While we chatted, a friendly young woman named Jennifer served us three varieties of Albemarle’s cider: Royal Pippin, Jupiter’s Legacy and Ragged Mountain. My favorite was Royal Pippin, a single varietal made entirely from Albemarle Pippin apples. It’s common practice to make cider from a variety of apples to provide different flavor notes. But there’s something magical about the terroir of central Virginia that allows Albemarle Pippins to stand on their own. Several craft cideries in Virginia make a single varietal with this apple. Castle Hill Cider in Keswick makes one known as Levity. Jefferson himself grew Albemarle Pippins and created cider that was described as “champagne-like,” which is how I would describe Royal Pippin.
Perhaps it’s the purist in me, but I’m a sucker for Royal Pippin, which tasted like the real deal to me. I thought about Shelton and the life he’d created with his family on this farm. It too was the real deal, rooted in tradition and yet utterly unique.
Craft apple cider. Credit: Susan Lutz