If you want to find craft cider in Virginia, all you have to do is follow the trail of the apples. For generations, the commonwealth’s orchards have been scattered along the peaks and valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains range, which extends from the northern tip of the state all the way to the North Carolina border. The region’s climate, soil and sunshine have helped apples thrive here for hundreds of years—so much so that the mountains were known as the “Apple Belt” in the early 1900s. And Virginia’s growing crop of cidermakers has taken notice.
In the last 10 years, more than a dozen cideries have popped up throughout Virginia, but cider is hardly new for the Old Dominion. From the time English colonists established some of their first settlements—bringing with them a taste of the sweet stuff—to Thomas Jefferson’s cultivation of Champagne-like cider at his Monticello estate, cider has quenched the thirst of Virginians throughout history.
For the modern cider connoisseur, Virginia offers a surplus of tasting opportunities across the state. For the purposes of this cider-centric tour, we’ve opted to split up our excursion by regions: the dramatic landscapes of the Shenandoah Valley in northwestern Virginia, the rolling hills around Charlottesville and the steep, foggy highlands to the south. And to complete the tour, we’re highlighting a few cideries in Richmond, the capital city of Virginia. Let’s get started.
Southern Highlands: Home to Virginia’s First Modern Cidery
Foggy Ridge Cider isn’t just the oldest modern cidery in Virginia—at about 3,000 feet above sea level, it also boasts one of the highest elevations in the state. And because the company actually began as an orchard, that little geographic tidbit is significant. “Our elevation allows us to grow cider apples, the bitter tannic apples that are the gold standard for cider production,” says founder Diane Flynt.
If you want to get technical, it has a lot to do with the diurnal shift—or the dramatic day-to-night temperature variations—in the mountains that Foggy Ridge calls home. This creates the ideal environment for growing apples whose flavor and hardiness are perfect for cider, from heirloom American varieties like Harrison and Graniwinkle to English exports like Tremlett’s Bitter.
Nurturing these rare, sometimes hard-to-grow apples, Flynt says, is what makes Foggy Ridge unique. “We’re the first and only ones to plant an orchard just for cider, and to have one that’s mature,” she adds.
The result is a carefully curated selection of four sparkling ciders and two dessert apple ports that have earned Foggy Ridge some impressive accolades, from a James Beard Awards nomination to glowing national reviews. “We’re growing great fruit, doing the best we can do with the orchard and the fermentation room,” she says. “We’re not screwing it up, we’re not manipulating it. We respect the fruit and respect the terroir.”
From April until December, weekends are the days to visit Foggy Ridge’s rural cidery to taste these terroir-driven sippers Flynt dubs as “proudly purist.”
The Central Foothills: Mr. Jefferson’s Territory
When it comes to the history of cider in Virginia, President Thomas Jefferson plays a starring role. At Monticello, his sprawling estate outside of Charlottesville, he planted more than a thousand fruit trees and experimented with various apple varieties to produce his daily serving of cider, which he called his “table drink.” Today, Vintage Virginia Apples in nearby Albemarle County specializes in some of those very same apples—which they then make into cider at Albemarle CiderWorks.
“We have tried to include all of the extant varieties that Jefferson owned in our collection,” says Albemarle’s cidermaker Chuck Shelton. “Our collection has included up to 250 varieties, mostly heirloom, but also some great modern varieties.”
Shelton developed an interest in craft cider soon after his family began harvesting fruit from the orchard in the 1990s. Today, he’s committed to producing a classic American cider using mostly antique American varieties. The cidery offers 11 ciders for sampling and sale at their tasting room, including the popular Royal Pippin, a refreshing single-varietal with hints of pineapple and grape.
Castle Hill Cider is another spot with strong ties to Mr. Jefferson—the 18th-century plantation was founded by Thomas Walker, the former president’s guardian and mentor. Although the modern iteration of the orchard started in 2009, there’s photographic evidence of an orchard on the grounds in the 1930s (likely given up after Prohibition), and the owners are renovating an old orchard of about 80 trees. “They’re inconvenient—bushy, tall, far apart, on a steep mountainside—but the juice quality is extraordinary,” says Castle Hill’s cidermaker Stuart Madany.
Their diverse collection of ciders includes a few that are made using ancient techniques. Levity, the company’s flagship Virginia sparkling cider, is the only commercial cider in the world made using kvevri, a clay fermentation vessel with roots dating back 8,000 years. And the crisp Celestial Merret honors the 17th century Englishman who pioneered bottle fermentation.
North of the city, college buddies Tim Edmond and Dan Potter are combining winemaking techniques with bold flavor experimentation at Potter’s Craft Cider. Their latest venture is a cider made with Virginia raspberries that’s reminiscent of an authentic Belgian lambic. Another quarterly release infuses hops into cider, with various apples chosen specifically for their ability to complement the character of the beer-centric plant. Although their production area at rural Wildair Farm is only available for tours and tastings by appointment, they’re finishing up the renovation of a vintage Airstream trailer that will allow them to take their tastings on the road.
Just to the west in Nelson County, in the shadows of the Blue Ridge, is Bold Rock Hard Cider, the largest cidery in Virginia and the top-selling local cider company in the country. Founded in 2010 by native Virginian John Washburn and Brian Shanks, a New Zealander with nearly 30 years of experience working for the top cider companies in the world, the company’s rustic cider barn in Nellysford is Bold Rock’s center of operations, although they’ve recently expanded to Asheville, North Carolina.
With six-packs sold alongside major market brands in grocery stores across the mid-Atlantic, Bold Rock uses more mainstream apple varieties than some Virginia makers, but they’re still committed to keeping it local. “Everything we’ve done here has been from local apples,” Shanks says. “We have a policy to source as locally as we can.”
With popular flavors like the tart Virginia Apple, made predominantly with Granny Smith apples, and Virginia Draft, Bold Rock has earned nearly 60 medals and awards over the last few years.
Shenandoah Valley: Reaching North
Virginia’s northernmost cideries are scattered along a diverse landscape extending from the picturesque Shenandoah Valley to the Maryland border inching toward Washington, D.C.
Billing itself as Shenandoah Valley’s original hard cidery, Old Hill Cider is located just a few miles from the West Virginia border. Old Hill’s founder Shannon Showalter grew up on his family’s orchard, founded in 1965, but decided to transition to cidermaking just five years ago. Visitors to the orchard and tasting room can try ciders like the dry, creamy Yesteryear and the sweet “front porch sipping cider,” Betwixt.
Several of this region’s producers create more than one type of spirit—Cobbler Mountain Cellars in Delaplane focuses on wine, but also has a hard cider with a beery effervescence, and Corcoran Vineyards & Cider in Waterford also juggles wine and an array of flavored ciders.
In the equestrian capital of Middleburg, Mt. Defiance Cidery & Distillery produces cider along with classic spirits like apple brandy, rum and absinthe. On the cider side, they have traditional blends, like a farmhouse-style that’s made in small batches as well as more innovative offerings like a blueberry cider, a ginger cider and a bourbon barrel-aged cider.
Whether you decide to focus your Virginia cider tour on one region or you’re ambitious—and thirsty—enough to follow the winding Cider Trail throughout the state, you’re guaranteed to meet a diverse range of cidermakers who have one thing in common: they’re passionate about making Virginia cider some of the best in the country.
This article originally ran in Volume 5 of CIDERCRAFT magazine. For the full story and more like this, click here to subscribe.