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.
Watercolor by Val Littlewood of http://pencilandleaf.blogspot.com
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.
There are worlds within worlds and slight variations that create new worlds. Ideas are often built on an established foundation, from questions, foggy daydreams, phrases, or arise from the ether in a split second before they disappear again. Once an idea is entertained, it becomes a guidepost simultaneously reminding you of your beginnings and allowing you to explore distant lands. All one needs is a willingness to take risks and a patience to allow the land to reveal itself.
Twice a year we freeze, thaw, and extract the concentrate of Gold Rush and Winesap juice in order to create the bases for our dessert ciders. We collect the gallons we need for each product and the remaining frozen juice reaches the end of its lifespan. Three years ago I continued to thaw the frozen juice and collected as much concentrate as possible. There cannot be any waste with what we do, everything can be repurposed, reused, or simply function as inspiration through small batch experiments. Hierophant stems from an exploration of questions and the uncertainty of experimentation.
What happens if you mature a cider on its lees for an extended period of time? Are there certain apples that produce ciders that can be cellared indefinitely, only improving with age? What would ice ciders taste like if they were fermented to dry? Can there be a cider that is as bold and aggressive as some red wines?
Concentrate is the essence of the apple once you diminish what constitutes the majority of its makeup – water. Once you reduce the water, you begin to see with a clearer focus the three main components of an apple – sugar, acid, and tannins. Tasting concentrate is tasting a drop removed from the sea of juice, producing intense flavors and aromas, an overwhelming sense of what the apple truly is.
An ancient priest known for interpreting sacred mysteries and the divine, Hierophant showcases the tannic essence of Winesap and the lifting acidity of Gold Rush. At the beginning of the year we scaled up the initial small batch experiment. The process from the first batch was recreated, both apples fermented to dry with a champagne yeast (10% ABV and 0.1% residual sugar). The cider matured on its lees (settled yeast, apple gunk, etc) for over ten months. Each month we stirred the lees back into suspension, allowing it to settle again and again.
The cider is still, dry and tannic like you wouldn’t believe. It is rich and full-bodied, filled with tropical notes from Gold Rush to offset the complex tannins from Winesap. Served at room temperature, the cider showcases its bolder, tannic tendencies. Served chilled, Hierophant’s intense characteristics are softened. Each temperature offers a unique drinking experience. In order to allow the complexity to unfold, we recommend serving Hierophant chilled and allowing it to warm up over a period of time. Hierophant unveils the mysteries of these apples and presents their primal characteristics in a complex cider.
Since opening our newly rehabilitated cidery in Scott’s Addition, we have had many requests to host private events, meetings and wedding celebrations. Beginning in 2017, Blue Bee Cider will begin taking reservations for its cider salon, cider garden and patio, and large hayloft. Here are some answers to the most frequently asked questions (to date):
How large of a group can you accommodate?
Our venue is rated for up to 150 people. A group this large requires a complete buyout of the venue. The capacity of the three individual spaces each max out at about 50 people depending on the event format (seated dinner v. cocktail party, etc.)
Can we bring in outside catering?
Yes. We do not have a commercial kitchen on site. If you want food at your event (who doesn’t?!), outside catering is required. We do not have a preferred catering list, but we do have a preferred food truck list.
Can we bring in outside beer, wine or spirits?
No. Our ABC license prohibits serving outside alcohol of any kind, for any reason, at our venue.
What does it cost?
Pricing varies widely depending on the time of year, day of the week, and the time of day. Peak tasting room guest hours are the most expensive. For general price ranges look here.
What is included in the price?
Unless otherwise specified, reservation quotes include: all alcohol served at the event, dedicated staffing to pour cider, an event coordinator, 18% gratuity, and the room reservation fee for a standard block of four hours including setup and breakdown time. Additional time can be added.
Can we hang decorations?
Decorations that do not impact the historic fabric of our venue are permitted. A 10% deposit is collected when the reservation is finalized and will be returned if there is no permanent damage to the property.
Can we use your furniture?
Sometimes. For some events our standard bistro furniture is not appropriate. We can share a list of preferred vendors for furniture and décor rentals upon request.
Do you offer no-cost reservations?
Yes. Nonprofits and very small groups may reserve space during non-peak hours and/or for nonexclusive use of a space. There may still be a returnable reservation deposit required depending on the scope of the event.
How do we get started?
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Photo: Paige Stevens Photography
‘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:
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.
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.
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.
– The Tasting Room Team