Virginia’s Blue Bee Cider Revives a Centuries-old Recipe

by | Apr 10, 2015

By Erica Jackson Curran

Photo courtesy of Virginia Historical Society

Most serious cider fans already know that the drink played a major role in early American history. Without regular access to potable water and vital nutrients, colonists relied on cider to help them get through dry times. But did the cider they sipped hundreds of years ago have any semblance to the cider we enjoy today?

A small group of history buffs and cider lovers in Virginia are about to find out, thanks to a partnership between the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) and Richmond’s Blue Bee Cider. The urban cidery has been working on making a 50-gallon barrel of cider based on a recipe found in a 1742 edition of “The Compleat Housewife”, known as the first cookbook published in America.

Blue Bee owner Courtney Mailey browsed through several recipes in VHS’s collection of rare books before settling on her final pick. “We chose this one because it’s the only recipe that specified the apple variety, and that’s a very important component in how well it turns out,” she says. “It’s predominantly made with Albemarle Pippin, which is very common in Virginia.” The three other apples mentioned in the recipe, however, are extinct or incredibly hard to find.

While Pippin apples are still widely used in Virginia cider, the recipe also calls for a more unexpected ingredient: raisins. “My guess is that it provided yeast and nutrients,” Mailey says. “The skins have microbes, and then the raisin itself would provide nutrients to the yeast. It adds a really interesting layer of flavor.”

The hardest part of the process was adapting the recipe to modern standards. “It was written a long time ago, so I’m making certain assumptions about their measurements,” she says. “With the raisins, we had a big, long, agonizing discussion about where to source them, where they got them from. Every word that’s in there, you really have to think about it, and sometimes there’s no real answer. You just have to make a judgment call.”

After a few private events for VHS members and Blue Bee Cider Club members, the general public will get a chance to sample the cider at Blue Bee’s tasting room nestled along the James River. The cider will be released May 2. Find out more at bluebeecider.com and vahistorical.org.

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