Terroir and the Colonial Roots of Craft Apple Cider

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craft apple cider

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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.

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.”

 

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Chuck and Bud Shelton in the tasting room of Albemarle Ciderworks. Credit: Susan Lutz.

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


Zester Daily contributor Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer. A native of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, she lives near Washington, D.C., where she is writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner. She also blogs about the subject at Eat Sunday Dinner.

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Comments

Richard Unsworth
on: 1/18/13
Thomas, dear nephew, I enjoyed the piece you sent me, with the good pictures of the process for making fine apple wine. Too bad you're far away, but you are doing good things, as Lauren is as well.. Joy and I send you love and good wishes for the New Year. Dick
Jane
on: 1/18/13
After reading your article I am dying to try some cider. Is there someplace in L.A. that I could find a good cider like you described?
Susan Lutz
on: 1/19/13
@Jane- Any large liquor store like BevMo or specialty stores like Trader Joe’s will have cider in the liquor department. Most of it will be from the large distributors – not craft ciders. Brands like Woodchuck and Angry Orchard are popular, but they’re made in bulk from concentrate (which is why they can distribute so widely). I particularly like Crispin, which is pretty close to the dry, champagne-like taste and texture of a craft cider. For good craft ciders in California, you’ll probably have to rely on names from Oregon and Washington – Wandering Aengus and Tieton have good reputations. To find craft cider across the country, check out oldtimecider.com, which is run by a guy known as “Old Timey Dave”. Click on a link for the "North American Cider Map" to find craft cideries throughout the U.S. And there is one craft cider that I know of that relies on the Southern California apple terroir – Julian Hard Cider, from the tiny mining town in the mountains east of San Diego. My suggestion: start tasting cider and see what you like.
Brad
on: 1/23/13
Great article, thanks! I would just point out that there is also a thriving artisanal cider industry in the province of Québec, including some lovely ice ciders.
susan lutz
on: 1/23/13
@Brad- I haven't been to Québec in quite a while and it's wonderful to hear this news! I will be sure to look for artisanal ciders the next time I'm lucky enough to head that direction. Thanks for writing.
John Scott
on: 12/3/13
In the spirit of colonial Americans and craft cider makers; rather than look for cider to buy, why not do a little research and make your own? Anything you make will probably be better than the crap that is sold in bulk with fancy labels on the bottles. Getting started is fairly simple and you can take your cider making as deep or complex as you like. If you keep your ingredients local and get creative with what you have, you can't help but create something that is delicious. ~JCS
susan lutz
on: 12/3/13
John- You're probably right, but my husband and I have tried to make our own cider with pretty dreadful results. Our current batch isn't BAD... but it isn't good yet either. Let's hope it mellows over the winter. In the meantime, our only hope for decent cider is to keep looking for small-batch artisanal ciders!

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