Ode to the Bee, Blue and Otherwise

Bees were, in a sense, my entry point into becoming a part of Blue Bee Cider. During my master’s program, I observed both traditional and modern forms of beekeeping across different cultures, including visiting apiaries in Calabria, Italy and Texel Island, Holland and attending courses taught by beekeepers from Venice, Italy and Bulgaria. In these circles of whole food and slow living, the bee is lauded, regal even. Happily, bees are understood in our culture for their essential importance to pollinate the majority of our foodstuffs. Documentaries like “Queen of the Sun” and “More Than Honey” are gaining ground and helping to bring the bee further into the American public eye.

The connection between bees and beverage goes back quite some time and, according to Kenneth F. Kiple, may even be the origin source of modern beekeeping. In his book, A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization, Kiple writes, “A taste for alcohol was doubtless also a reason for honeybee domestication. These natives of the Mediterranean region and the Middle East were making honey for millions of years before human hunter-gatherers were around to steal it from them. […] Mead, which can be as simple as fermented honey and water, was almost assuredly humankind’s first alcoholic beverage.”

However, all of these experiences and discussions have been focused around the honey bee and honey production. It wasn’t until I arrived at Blue Bee Cider that I started giving more thought to that other purpose of bees – pollination – and learning about those species that, while not producing honey as an edible food source, are just as important.


The Bee & the Apple Tree

Blue Bee Cider was named after the Orchard Mason or Blue Orchard Bee, known in scientific circles as Osmia lignaria.  (Check out some photos here.) This solitary, wild bee is native to North America (one of 4000 native species, in fact) and is crucial for pollinating early blooming fruit trees throughout the U.S. and Canada. Though originating in the Pacific Northwest, the blue orchard mason bee can be found across the continent and its eastern subspecies (Osmia lignaria lignaria Say) is particularly important for helping our Virginia apple trees thrive.

While honeybees have some part in supporting pollination of fruit trees, the blue bee has been found to be up to 70% more effective, which has led to it becoming the most managed solitary bee. (Learn more about managing blue bees here.) This efficiency is due to the way that blue orchard bees collect pollen – it sticks to the hairs on the underside of their bellies and is more easily transferred to flowers’ stamen in its dry form than the sticky nectar and pollen balls created by honeybees. Blue bees also show a natural preference for foraging among mid-sized fruit trees, making them the perfect choice for pollinating orchards.

Much research is being done, particularly in light of the widespread impacts of colony collapse, into how native pollinators like the blue bee can help supplement the work of honeybees and take some of the stress off at-risk species. Each female blue bee is a queen that looks after her own small brood rather than hiving in a community structure like honeybees with a queen and worker bees. This solitary characteristic, and the blue bees’ nature to build nests in small holes in wood, reeds, straw, or similar material, means they are not subject to colony collapse like their hive-minded relatives.

Once they’ve found the appropriate location for their nest, the female blue bee will take sticky nectar, mix it with pollen, and lay her egg on top of this concoction at the back of the hole or tube. She then collects mud and uses it to create a partition, repeating the process until she reaches the front opening, thus having formed a series of cells. In early spring, males emerge first and wait for the females in order to mate, an occurrence that usually takes place around the time of blooming for redbuds, one of the blue bees’ favorites to pollinate and a crucial tree for attracting and keeping blue bees in a particular area.  

In On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, food chemistry expert Harold McGee reports that, “It appears from the fossil record that bees have been around for some 50 million years, their social organization for half that time.” With some luck, cultivation, and education, they’ll be around for much longer.

-Nicole Martorana

Watercolor by Val Littlewood of http://pencilandleaf.blogspot.com

Resources:
USDA Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/mason_bees.shtml
University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences “Featured Creatures”:  http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/MISC/BEES/blue_orchard_bee.htm
Virginia State University Department of Agriculture:  http://www.agriculture.vsu.edu/files/docs/native-bees-as-alternative-pollinators

 


2017 Good Food Awards Remarks

Full text of Courtney Mailey’s acceptance remarks at the Good Food Awards in San Francisco, Jan. 20, 2017.

Thank you for honoring our little company with this award tonight. It is one that we share with our Virginia Grown partners Silver Creek Orchards, Seaman’s Orchards, Henley’s Orchard, and Coote’s Store Farms, as well as with our distilling partner Catoctin Creek Distilling Company. I want to especially mention John and Ruth Saunders of Silver Creek Orchards, who were the first to enthusiastically embrace growing cider fruit that only cidermakers, not grocery stores, would buy.

Like many people, the financial crisis was a turning point for me. I used to work at the Federal Reserve and part of my work was interacting with home owners and housing counselors on the front lines of the foreclosure crisis. It was not fun.

So at a certain point I was ready to say, “Enough. I am going to cider school.” And that is what I did. Afterwards, I apprenticed with a nearby cidery, Albemarle CiderWorks. It was an hour and half drive both ways. On the way there I would think about what I was going to learn that day and on the way back thought through the details about building this business.

About six months in, it was time to start getting serious and making decisions. I asked my husband how he felt about me taking this risk and his response was, “Fine. But I am not leaving the City.” Most cideries are near the raw materials, the fruit.  He wanted me to figure it out how to be near the customers and so from this conversation Virginia’s first urban farm cidery was born.

I drew on my previous career in economic development to make a viable urban farm cidery, one where the apple country and the city could win together by creating jobs and high-quality cider that would highlight the best of both worlds. In apple country, we work with growers to revive prized heirloom variety apples that have been out of use for generations but are well-acclimated to Virginia. These apple varieties don’t need lot of extra fuss in terms of sprays and such. As we learn about how to integrate them into blocks with modern apples with similar growing patterns, more and more acres are being planted. These apples have higher marginal returns and attract positive attention to the growers.

In the City, we turn the apples into cider and sell it to a primarily urban audience. We also grow apples in the city and try to teach others how to work with hearty heirloom varieties that require less ongoing management. We partner with nonprofits and the park system to raise awareness about tree fruit growing in key neighborhoods where it was once common a hundred years ago; neighborhoods that may have fallen on hard times but are poised for a renaissance of their own.

While Blue Bee Cider is still a work in progress, each day we are little bit closer to: making cider of the highest quality from local fruit, raising awareness about prized heirloom varieties with local origins, building pride in that agricultural legacy, spreading skills for fruit growing among urban households, and creating economic opportunity through skilled job creation tied to traditional cidermaking.

Thank you for this honor and thanks to our customers whose support has enabled me to change my life.


The Official Blue Bee Gifting Guide

‘Tis the season for gift-giving!

Can’t decide what to get for your special someone? Here at Blue Bee Cider, we offer a variety of options for everyone on your list. Here’s a breakdown:


GIFT CARDS

With gift cards, you’re gifting a unique experience to your loved ones! While our cider itself is delicious, a visit to the cidery is definitely worth the trip. Our historically-preserved cobblestone stables make for a unique date spot, a post-brunch stop, or a new reason to venture into the city.

One thing to consider: If the recipient hasn’t had Blue Bee Cider before, they may be wary to venture to Scott’s Addition unprompted. We suggest including a bottle of your favorite Blue Bee cider to give them something to look forward to when they visit.

You can order gift cards for any amount over $10 over the phone by calling our tasting room at (804)-231-0280.

BOTTLES

Do you want to gift some bottles to your loved ones, but don’t have the time to make the trip to the tasting room? Don’t fret! You can order bottles to be delivered to your loved ones’ door from the comfort of your home by visiting our online store or ordering over the phone at (804)-231-0280.

If  your gift purchase exceeds $100, we offer free hand-delivery within the Richmond area. We also ship to CA, FL, MD, NC, TX, VA, & DC via Fedex. Please submit out of state orders on or before Dec. 19.

Click here to visit our Online Storefront

For every bottle purchased this holiday season, $1 will be donated toward tree stewardship programs in Richmond City parks.

SAMPLER PACKS

If you want your gift recipient to enjoy a variety of Blue Bee’s selections, but don’t know which to choose, we offer sampler packs! These contain four pre-selected 500mL bottles of our most popular ciders, a great gift for anyone who loves trying new things.

Sampler packs are available in-store only.

CIDER CLUB MEMBERSHIPS

If you’re looking for the perfect gift for a die-hard cider connoisseur, then a Cider Club membership is a must-have! The Blue Bee Cider Club is dedicated to cider fans, by cider fans. Some of the club’s perks include quarterly bottle shipments, special small batch tasting events, and bulk discounts.  For more information, click here.

One thing to consider: club membership dues recur on a quarterly basis. If you are purchasing this as a gift for someone else, you are committing to those regular payments unless you designate a transfer of payment to the recipient. Also, be sure that we have the correct email address for you AND the recipient for better communication about ongoing club perks.


With the holidays just around the corner, we here at Blue Bee Cider are thrilled to help you make this season even more special.

Happy Holidays,
– The Tasting Room Team

 


The More the Merrier

Neighborhoods rise and collapse, sometimes disintegrating into the very ground they once thrived on. Decades and decades pass before someone sees potential in skeletal structures, abandoned buildings and overgrown lots. Eventually a neighborhood develops a character, becomes known as something to the locals and in time becomes known to places far away.

Scott’s Addition is a neighborhood of local businesses, of long-time family-owned companies and of new entrepreneurs that took a gamble on potential they saw here. Over a relatively short time, the neighborhood has become a hub of craft alcohol production in Richmond. It is made of a diverse group of producers creating quality beverages and customers that want to experience that rich diversity firsthand. Blue Bee Cider is preparing to move into an established neighborhood, one that is already frequented by our team members in order to enjoy the creativity, knowledge, and labor of our peers.

The grand opening of Blue Bee Cider at Summit Stables in Scott’s Addition is a celebration of our new home and the many hands it took to build Blue Bee Cider into what it is today. We want to celebrate Scott’s Addition as a neighborhood, encourage customers to wander through Scott’s Addition and explore what everyone has to offer. In the spirit of unity and mutual respect, we have collaborated with six alcohol producers from the Scott’s Addition Historic District for special products to be released at our grand opening. They are being released every hour on the hour in the following order:

  1. 1.  Ardent Craft Ales made “Smokin’ Mower”, a session blonde ale fermented with smoked Winesap and Stayman juice. Cellar team brought a bin of apples to Ardent and smoked them whole in ZZQ’s smoker with help from ZZQ and the Ardent team. We also fermented the smoked juice with a champagne yeast to dry and created the 2nd batch in two years of our smoked cider.
  2. 2.  Black Heath Meadery made “Scott’s Edition”, a cyser fermented with Gold Rush juice and Virginia wildflower honey, with a generous addition of Bosc pear juice and Black Mission figs.
  3. 3.  The Veil Brewing Co, made “Boi Friendz”, a barrel-fermented Brett IPA with Mosaic and Citra hops fermented with 30% unpasteurized Gold Rush juice. One of the barrels previously held the Veil’s Jeune (single barrel spontaneously fermented ale) and the other was a first use Virginia red wine barrel.
  4. 4.  Isley Brewing Co, made “Apple Brown Betty”, the return of our 2014 collaboration – an English brown ale fermented with Grimes Golden juice.
  5. 5.  Reservoir Distillery provided one of their recently emptied barrels and helped us decide on what unique offering to age and which one of their barrels to use (rye, wheat, or bourbon). We chose our Harvest Ration (dessert cider fortified with brandy) in their rye whiskey barrel for over four months.
  6. 6.  Three Notch’d Brewing Co.‘s RVA Collab House made “Farm to Stable”, a gose fermented with Gold Rush juice. The collaboration combines the tropical notes and high acidity from Gold Rush apples with a tart and salty gose base.

Note: We’re also excited for Buskey Cider and Väsen Brewing Co. to be our neighbors. Väsen is still under construction and Buskey’s schedule was tight, so we will look for opportunities to collaborate with both of them in the future.

All producers of alcohol have fermentation in common, something that immediately allows us to connect with other. We lose our minds when talking about yeast and the magic of fermentation, we discuss the patience it takes to get something just right, we share our excitement with each other about new products, new processes, and that new yeast strain we’ve just discovered. We also vent to each other, talk about sanitation, long hours, and frustrations when experimentation brings obstacles. We let each other borrow valves and gaskets; we help and learn from each other, inspired by each other’s work.

We’re humbled that each neighbor took the time to collaborate with us. Being welcomed to a neighborhood filled with peers you admire is overwhelming in the best of ways, not to mention the generosity and warmth we’ve received. We hope everyone that visits Summit Stables for our grand opening takes time to visit our new neighbors and experience what Scott’s Addition has to offer.

-Manuel Garcia


Notes from the Orchard

Like most small businesses, Blue Bee Cider wouldn’t be what it is today without the support and energy of many people. In the tasting room, we get the occasional question about where we source our apples, but it is a rare, almost never-occurring thing to have questions about the hands that grow the apples for our cider. This post highlights a few of our most important partners, the people growing our ingredients in Virginia’s apple country.

This summer on a sunny, typical humid morning in Richmond, our staff climbed into the rental van with travel coffee mugs, the requisite iPod cables, and a double chocolate cake (made by Courtney). There was the normal joking around and passionate debate about a bevy of topics, including a lengthy reverie about lunch meat preferences. When we encountered a soda machine when we stopped for gas that had all of the choices marked as “Surprise,” Taylor put in a few quarters, but it turns out the only surprise was that the machine didn’t work. After about two hours of driving, we reached our first destination: Seaman’s Orchard at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from Skyline Drive.

Seamans Orchard_Nicole Martorana
Carter Parr met us and, after a brief greeting, showed us the mulberry trees where we had hoped to pick several buckets for our Fanfare cider. However, much to our chagrin, the trees had only a moderate amount of berries at various states of ripeness and we were only able to pick a few handfuls. The late frost this spring has created problems for mulberry trees throughout the region, causing the first blooms of berries to drop prematurely and the second bloom to come in smaller or not at all. But all was not lost. Right next to this stand of mulberry trees, Carter showed us the new acres of Summer Rambo apples planted this spring to help expand our production of one of our most popular ciders, Mill Race Bramble.

Not to be discouraged, we loaded our scant pickings into the back of the van and headed out to a neighboring partner orchard, Silver Creek. There, John and Ruth Saunders met our crew and took us on a tour of the Silver Creek & Seaman’s Orchards apple storage and production facility they co-run with Seaman’s. As she shook our hands, Ruth smiled and asked how we each were doing, thanking us for taking time out to come spend the day with them. “Ya’ll know we call you the ‘busy bees’, right?” she laughed.

Silver Creek + Seamans Orchards 1_Nicole Martorana

We walked through the packing shed, where apples are sorted for sale to grocery stores or for juice and cider, and the new cider room with a bladder press and UV machine for jug cider. We then got to tour the cold storage buildings that were built in the 1960s. My favorite feature was the small metals doors with porthole windows that workers use to enter and exit the rooms and keep the temperature moderated rather than having the large garage doors opened for each check on the apples. About 2500 bushels of apples can be stored in each of the warehouse’s three rooms and crates are stacked and organized by apple variety. During apple harvest season, this area is one of the first to market in the country, only three days behind Georgia and around the same time as Anderson, North Carolina, home to one of the Southeast’s largest apple-producing areas.

Silver Creek + Seamans Orchards 2_Nicole Martorana

After the tour, we gathered around picnic tables in the front room of the packing shed and sat down to a quick but delicious lunch of fried chicken, potato and bean salads, watermelon, and chocolate cake. Full and happy, we clambered into a small white school bus and set off for a drive around the farm’s more than 1000 acres, with a short stop to pick up Ruth’s border collie, Annabelle.

Orchard Trip_Nicole Martorana (5)

The Silver Creek Farm is impressive, to say the least, with approximately 600 acres of pasture for livestock and fields for crops like sweet corn, 250 acres of apple orchards with about 25 different varieties, and 70 acres of vineyards. We stopped several times along the way, to look up close at the small but growing Ashmead’s Kernal apples, young root stocks for next year’s crops, and trees heavy with juicy white and golden peaches.

Orchard Trip_Nicole Martorana (6)

Carter and John are third and fourth generations of the Silver Creek and Seaman’s Orchards’ founding families, dating back to 1954 and 1933, respectively. They both run pick-your-own operations in addition to their own production schedule, and they partner with local companies to produce jams, jellies, sauces, and spreads with their apples and other produce.

Orchard Trip_Nicole Martorana (9)

Together with Ruth, Carter and John took turns pointing out different features of the farm that kept it productive and healthy, including the natural ponds staggered across the mountainside that created the perfect setup for trickle irrigation, using the natural gravity created by planting downhill from the ponds. They explained how new distances are being used between planted rows of apple trees to maximize production while maintaining a manageable density and how the weight created by young apples will naturally pull the branches down and apart, providing more room and sunlight to grow. We also saw large brush piles from apple trees of constantly-shifting, less-popular apple varieties that would either be burned or chipped and sold, a result of ever-changing market demands and expectations.

Throughout the day, we shared the road with tractors loaded down with hay, made a brief stop so John could flag down and direct a truck delivering gravel, and passed workers picking and tending to crops. There’s no doubt that there is never a still moment here. But as John stated as we pulled back up to the packing shed and he pulled a walkie talkie out of his pocket, “it’s been radio silence for most of the trip, meaning no trouble. Now that’s a mark of a good day.”

-Nicole Martorana

Orchard Trip_Nicole Martorana (8)


Mulberry Collective, Assemble!

Virginians, we need your help.

Fanfare is one of our most challenging creations each year. Infused with wild mulberries foraged in the Richmond area, this cider is wholly dependent on the whims of Mother Nature. April’s late freeze and May’s perpetual rainfall did nothing to help the cause this year. Some trees prematurely dropped all of their mulberries; others have set a light crop, delayed by the wet weather.

But we’re getting close. Over the next month, keep an eye open for plump, purple mulberries on trees. A telltale sign of a mulberry tree location: fallen berries on the sidewalk or ground under a tree. Pluck only the ripest berries (which look like miniature blackberries), or place a tarp beneath the branches and shake – the ripe berries will fall from the tree on to the tarp.

After getting off the tree, place the berries in plastic bags/containers and FREEZE them. It can take several trips to the tree over several days/weeks before you have a full harvest. Freezing keeps them all ripe and wonderful until you can get them to our tasting room, where we will weigh the crop and add you to our list of donors/trade partners. As with previous years, there will most certainly be a reward once the finished product is released.

I emphasize that mulberry trees are wild. As such, there are no orchards to make it easy on us. Team Blue Bee Cider can also assist with messy grunt work if you are aware of a massive mulberry tree nearby – just let us know at 804-231-0280 or brian@bluebeecider.com. And please, no trespassing as you commence your treasure hunt.

Last year, we collected about 200 pounds of mulberries. Let’s see how we (Fan)fare this time around!

-Brian Ahnmark


Secondary Bloom

Since the earliest days of Blue Bee Cider, we have had challenges and hard luck. The longer you work here, the more you share in our common memories of bad weather, equipment failures, human errors, and all the fallout. But almost every time we come out on the other side with a new relationship, a technical solution, or a product idea that really makes us better off. I used to call these our silver linings.

If you have been watching the local news the past two weeks, you may have heard about the devastating freezes in Virginia orchards and vineyards. As fruit tree buds and blossoms develop, they are increasingly less tolerant of cold temperatures. Here is a guide to put things in context. Our warm Easter  was cut short by two freeze events, unlike anything the older growers have seen since 1976. The second freeze on April 10, down to 19 degrees in some places, left us with a full crop of dead flowers on just about every block and the general mood has been grim.

Throughout the spring, Virginia Cooperative Extension organizes Fruit School meetings to bring Virginia fruit tree growers together to learn from each other. Yesterday was the first Fruit School since the freezes. Attendance was high. Everyone was ready to pull together to support each other and find answers in friendship and science, but we also found some serendipity.

Dr. Jim Schupp of Penn State came down to share his knowledge of and experiences dealing with freeze recovery. We hung on his every word. My key takeaway is that the freeze did our thinning for us. Fruit trees tend to produce 800% more blossoms than they can carry to fruition. In normal years this means that we thin off lots of excess fruit to improve the survival and size of the remaining fruit. This year even with 80% blossom loss, if the remaining 20% are all pollinated, it might still be too much for a tree to carry to fruition. His words, based in scientific research, helped to change our outlook, “Focus on what is living, not what is dead.”

Now it just so happened that the morning of Fruit School, there was an outbreak of late blooms in the country orchard. These secondary blooms usually don’t make it very far. They are usually outcompeted by early bloomers. But this year, they will be the crop and a potentially decent one at that, pending pollination and weather for the next three weeks. The picture above was the fresh batch of new blossoms that emerged that morning – the first sign of a new beginning in over a week.

While I certainly don’t want this level of drama to be the norm for us, it does drive home powerful lessons about those silver linings, our secondary blooms. New friendships, new solutions, new ciders, new hope; they are new every morning, every day.

-Courtney Mailey


Day One

April 20, 2013.

I cannot believe that it’s been three years since we opened the tasting room at Blue Bee Cider. In that brief time, we have more than doubled production, increased our lineup from one cider to roughly 20, introduced innovative new concepts, run out of space (twice), and plotted a relocation to Scott’s Addition.

On a sunny Earth Day in 2013, none of that insanity was even a gleam in our eye. A lot of folks visiting the present-day tasting room harken back to the more primitive times, when we “only had two ciders.” But the 163 die-hards from the opening know that we opened the doors with one cider: Aragon 1904, which remains our best seller to this day.

Sifting through old papers at home, I recently came across the original tasting notes that I scribbled down for opening day. I remember the associated waves of panic – for Courtney, as she readied to introduce her business to the world, and for me, as I scrambled and crammed and rehearsed to fake my way through presenting a product that we had only finalized and tasted a couple of days before. It amazes me to see buzz words that we still use today: Off-dry, minerality, tartness, lingering finish. I definitely forgot about the word “pétillant,” which Courtney introduced to me as a way of defining slightly sparkling levels of carbonation.

I couldn’t pronounce it, so I never used it.

Tasting room was a relatively easy gig in those days: Memorize two lines, repeat. Explain to visitors that no, Courtney and I were not married. Or brother and sister.

I particularly loved when people would walk in and ask, “So what’s the deal with a tasting?”

“Well, we have one cider. Would you like to try it?”

Soon, I was weaving in stories about the creation of Aragon 1904. And then hyping up the release of Charred Ordinary in May. And then suddenly a few months later, we accidentally had six ciders in our lineup.

Tasting room is not an easy gig anymore, as we typically have seven or eight ciders available year-round. Thankfully, there is nothing more rewarding than sharing these ciders and stories with you – our fans, our friends, and the reason we’re still going strong three years in. Thank you.

The fourth vintage of Aragon 1904 will be released on Saturday, April 16, 2016. See you there!

– Brian Ahnmark