Foundation in expertise, established through Google—Bold Rock Hard Cider is taking the world by storm.
It seems like a new cidery pops up every five minutes these days—many that have formed on a DIY, start-from-scratch philosophy, and have dominated an area as the most popular craft beverage in less than a year, with their only real struggle being keeping up with the demand.
If little-to-no experience can take you far in the booming cider world, then it should surprise no one that the 30 years of cider making experience behind Nellysford, Virginia’s Bold Rock Hard Cider is conquering the North American East Coast faster than Alexander the Great conquered most of the ancient world. What is surprising, however, is how it came together with a quick Google search and a mutual interest in New Zealand farming.
About 26 years ago, John Washburn bought a farm in Virginia’s Rockfish Valley that he hoped to retire on one day. Then about 4 years ago, Washburn noticed a number of craft wineries and breweries emerging on the land around his farm, so he wondered if maybe there was another way he could use his land to be a part of this new trend. He toyed around with the idea of starting a new cidery, and being the modern man he is, he turned to everyone’s favorite 21st century one-stop shop for information: Google.
This is how he found who would soon become his new partner in crime, Brian Shanks. The two hit it off when they found out that Washburn once owned a farm in New Zealand within 200 miles of where Shanks grew up, and as they say, the rest was history. Shanks recalls their first conversation: “One day I’m sitting there running my business in New Zealand and I get a telephone call from a guy who said, ‘Hi, I’m from Virginia—what do you think about the prospects of cider in the United States?’ So we got to talking and I eventually said, ‘Well, let’s come out and have a look at it.’ And I did, and I really liked what I saw, and that was the way it happened.”
Shanks has quite the online reputation (seriously, Google him for yourself) and rightfully so—his cider resume is quite extensive and impressive. With an estimated 25-30 years of cider making experience, he started out on his own orchard and cidery in New Zealand, but later sold a majority of the company to H.P. Bulmer, who also own the UK brands Bulmer, Strongbow and Scrumpy Jack, among others. Shanks worked at H.P. Bulmer for many years as an innovation director where he personally helped launch many North American cideries, including Woodchuck.
A quick Google search turns up tons of articles, interviews and photos with Shanks, who admits he’s “quite popular” online, so it wasn’t particularly surprising to get a phone call from someone requesting his expertise. “I don’t always hop on a plane and go there, though,” Shanks says with a chuckle.
Bold Rock launched in June 2012 with two cider varieties: the crisp, mostly Granny Smith-based Virginia Apple, and the smooth red-apple-based Virginia draft. Both are a very drinkable 4.7 percent ABV, and Shanks estimates that today up to 900 bars, hotels and restaurants dotting the East Coast from Virginia to as far north as Philadelphia offer these two styles on tap. Bold Rock also offers its premium Crimson Ridge styles at 7 percent ABV, which currently includes the almost Sauvignon Blanc-like Vat No. 1, and its dry cousin simply titled Vintage Dry. Check out their other varieties here.
When it came time to name their new business, Washburn and Shanks originally liked the name Black Rock, which they settled on after literally looking around and seeing Virginia’s Blackrock summit. But the name was already trademarked. “We thought that it was bold to invest the money that we had into this business and make it work, and to do that was quite a bold idea, so we called it Bold Rock,” Shanks says.
Bold Rock quickly set up shop in a temporary location where they only expected to produce about 8,000 cases in the first year, but ended up producing 100,000 and are now doubling that volume with more than 200,000 cases produced annually. Shanks says this volume is enough to land them among the top 10 cider producers in the United States, and they’re going to be expanding to a second facility in North Carolina in the near future.
Bold Rock currently operates out of its new tasting room in an old landmark, heritage farm building overlooking the Rockfish River. The entire production line—from apples to bottles—is on display behind a giant glass wall. Visitors can sip on one of Bold Rock’s many cider varieties while watching the busy-bee workers craft the very thing they’re drinking and using mostly Italian-imported equipment to do so.
Shanks says being a part of the North American cider boom is the icing on the cake to his long history with the craft beverage and that he’s proud of what Bold Rock has accomplished thus far. “We like to think we’re a small and independent company,” Shanks says. “We’re real people making cider out of real apples and we’re using real craft and 25-30 years of cider making skills to make products that we think people will like made from apples that are grown as locally as we can possibly get.”
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Photos courtesy of Bold Rock Hard Cider