Orchard Potluck: Saison

As previously noted in “The Discovery of Fermentation”, yeasts are just as vital to our process as the apples we choose to ferment. The curiosity we have for apples and their variation is extended to yeast and their finicky, magical ways. Yeasts are numerous and their potential is infinite. Some yeasts are quiet workers, leaving no trace of themselves other than the alcohol they create. They are happy to do their work and become phantoms of fermentation. Other strains are not content with just leaving behind alcohol and allowing the fruit to shine through – no, they want attention, they want recognition alongside the apple, they want the drinker to know and taste and smell their presence. They are nostalgic and sentimental. Before their death they want to leave their mark; they want to do more than just convert sugar into ethanol.  If these idealistic yeasts had a favorite scene in a movie, it would be when Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront says, “I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve had class and been somebody. Real class. Instead of a bum, let’s face it, which is what I am.”

When I first delved into the world of fermentation in 2013 I wanted to ferment everything in sight. High off the fumes of a brand new world, I devoured information about apples, yeasts, fermentation techniques, and anything within reach. I wanted to practice and explore because gathering information means nothing if those procedures aren’t applied and personally observed.

One of the small batch experiments fermented that year was influenced by saison beers. There are numerous interpretations of the style and I was curious what the yeast would do in apple juice. Saison yeast strains demand uncommonly high fermentation temperatures where they can produce a wide array of characteristics ranging from farmhouse to peppery spiciness or even tropical fruit.

In 2013 I fermented a half gallon of Arkansas Black juice with a saison strain. After pitching the yeast, it began fermenting at room temperature for a short period before I confined the carboy to a room with several heaters aimed directly at it. The temperature climbed, the fermentation roared, and the aroma in the room was extramundane. The finished cider was completely different than anything else I’ve tried before because of the yeast strain, not because I managed to do something special. I learned what kind of fermentation environment and treatment the yeast wanted and gave them exactly what they needed. The cider was cloudy and bone dry with reminiscent spiciness that transported me to some of my favorite saisons.

Every year since then we have attempted to make a saison cider on a bigger scale, always added it to the production schedule, but timing and resources preventing it from actually happening. This summer everything aligned itself and we had 400 gallons of Gold Rush juice, a saison yeast strain, and a week of temperatures in the press area above 95°F.

Orchard Potluck: Saison is the next stage of that initial experiment three years ago. Gold Rush’s acidity uplifts the tropical notes and its lack of tannins allows the phenolic spiciness to shine on its own without overlap. The semi-sparkling cider is hazy with yeast still in suspension, the aroma heavy with notes of pineapple, mango, and passion fruit. The acidity hits you before the tropical notes come in, the fruity esters mingling with mild spiciness and a long finish that remains on your palate. It is light, but complex. It is fruity, but dry. The yeasts are the focus; they are the victorious contenders against the quiet, phantom yeast strains and this is their moment.

Orchard Potluck: Saison will be pre-released  to Cider Club in September and to the public at the Grand Opening celebration of our new home in Scott’s Addition (date to be announced soon).  

-Manuel Garcia



In the craft cider world, we simple humans like to pretend that we’re in charge. But alas, Mother Nature is the boss. And she can be mean.

We are preparing to say goodbye to Fanfare, our cider infused with wild mulberries foraged in and around Richmond. A late April freeze, coupled with record rainfall in May, caused many local mulberry trees to drop the entirety of their unripe fruit. The berries that toughed it out were picked off early by birds, meaning our mulberry harvest was essentially nil. It was a particularly bitter pill because we had significantly raised the profile and awareness of this cider over the past two years; we were even planning to collaborate with Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, home to two massive, beautiful mulberry trees.

No mulberries = no new vintage of Fanfare this year. But the silver lining? All of that cider set aside for Fanfare is now dedicated to new creations. We are thrilled to share the triumphant return of Rocky Ridge Reserve, an oaked cider that we first released in February 2014. Old-timers may remember Rocky Ridge Reserve as our first small batch release (roughly 350 bottles) and our first successful launch party. Okay, maybe “successful” depends on your perspective. “Overcrowded, understaffed whirlpool of insanity” may be more accurate. But we sure learned a lot!

Rocky Ridge Reserve will be released at our grand opening event in Scott’s Addition this fall, along with other new and rare ciders – and several top-secret collaborations, as well.

But first things first; we need a proper sendoff for both Fanfare and our original home in Manchester. Please join us to pay your respects at Fanfarewell on Saturday, August 27 from 12-7 p.m. We will find good homes for the final bottles, enjoy food from Camden’s Dogtown Market and music by The Concussion Theory. And with Mother Nature’s blessing, hopefully Fanfare will return in late 2017.

-Brian Ahnmark

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)

Making Firecracker

Firecracker is a cider of transformations, traveling through various stages, incorporating specific processes, ingredients and an abundance of patience.

The first apples we pressed from the 2015 harvest were fermented and blended to create a unique cider that was sent to Catoctin Creek Distilling Company at the beginning of 2016. They expertly distilled the cider into an unaged apple brandy or eau de vie (“water of life” in French) and sent a portion back to the cidery. We filled new oak barrels with the majority of the eau de vie, aging for six months to create Harvest Ration, our original dessert cider fortified with brandy that will be released for the holidays.

Instead of aging the rest of the eau due vie in oak barrels, we infused the spirit with baby ginger from Casselmonte Farms. This batch of Firecracker contains yellow and blue ginger, something we’ve never tried before. The blue ginger offers a sweet, softer taste to balance the expected spiciness of the more common yellow. The ginger was frozen and sliced through a food processor to create shredded slivers that were tossed in the container without mesh bags. Every two weeks we stirred the ginger, never allowing it to settle to the bottom. After months and months, the ginger infused the eau de vie with its spiciness, yellowish color, and seductive aroma.

At the end of May we brought over some frozen Gold Rush juice from cold storage. As the frozen block thawed, we spent several hours pulling the concentrate that will serve as the base of Firecracker.

While the Gold Rush fermented, we calculated the ideal moment to add the ginger-infused eau de vie. The timing of the transfer needs to be perfect in order to achieve the desired percentage of alcohol and residual sugar. Too early and the alcohol is too low and the cider has an overwhelming sweetness. Too late and the alcohol is overpowering and there’s barely enough sweetness to balance the alcohol and heat from the ginger.

Once the eau de vie was transferred, the high-alcohol proof of the spirit created a hostile environment for the yeast and they stopped consuming sugars and settled to the bottom, halting fermentation and leaving the residual sugars we needed. At this stage, Firecracker exists nearly in its final form, though both the ginger-infused eau de vie and cider are getting to know each other, blending, marrying flavors and aromas, creating the complexity we admire about this dessert cider.

The unfiltered final product has a hazy golden hue that will settle in the bottle over time, though we recommend stirring the settled ginger and yeast back into the cider for a richer experience. It has a spicy ginger nose with notes of ripe pineapple. Upfront with subtle ginger notes and an underlying tropical sweetness, a subtle spiciness builds and lingers after each sip.

The new batch of Firecracker will be released to our Cider Club on Friday, July 1st and to the public on Saturday, July 2nd.

– Manuel Garcia

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

History on Tap: “Turn” and the Power of Interpretive Storytelling

“Storytelling is our process of telling who we are. We have to tell stories. […] Interpretation and imagination are absolutely integral to telling our history.”
– Dr. Edward Lengel, historian and author

“There’s a reason [storytelling] is a primal need for people and that’s because it humanizes history – we start to see things that we can relate to.”
– Samuel Roukin, actor


On April 25, 2016, we partnered with the Virginia Historical Society for another memorable installment of their “History on Tap” series. The event featured the Season 3 series premiere of AMC’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” Following the premiere, Blue Bee Cider’s own Cider Evangelist, Brian Ahnmark, took attendees through a tasting of our Hewe’s Crab Heirloom Series cider and President and CEO of VHS Paul Levengood moderated a panel discussion with Samuel Roukin (the actor who plays Capt. Simcoe in “Turn”), Andy Edmunds (Director of the Virginia Film Office), and Dr. Edward Lengel and Lynn Price (from the University of Virginia’s Washington Papers). The event concluded with a book signing by Dr. Lengel of his book, First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His – and the Nation’s – Prosperity.

As Blue Bee Cider’s Storyteller, it probably comes as no surprise that my favorite part of the evening was the discussion about historical storytelling. We learned that the writers for each episode of “Turn” are on set during filming, giving them a role not only in the creation of the story through script writing, but also as resources in bringing those words to life. Because there are multiple directors for each season, a showrunner – often also known as an executive producer – helps maintain a tonal continuity across episodes and ensures the core storyline is consistent.  

Throughout the discussion, Samuel Roukin spoke about his portrayal of Capt. Simcoe and Dr. Edward Lengel provided perspective about the real historical figure. Both Mr. Roukin and Dr. Lengel shared a commitment to interpreting history in a way that preserves the humanity of a person rather than creating archetypal figures simplified down to heroes or villains. In the case of “Turn”, this has included everything from the portrayal of George Washington shown in a state of controversial vulnerability during the Valley Forge episode in Season 2, to Mr. Roukin’s choice to give Capt. Simcoe – arguably the show’s most fearsome antagonist – a gentle, slightly higher voice.

One comment that particularly stood out was made by Dr. Lengel in response to a question by Mr. Roukin about historical records and accuracy of first-hand accounts. Dr. Lengel explained how historians are often unable to get a full emotional picture of a person in their first-hand accounts because you must always think about what influences may be at play. Is the writer unveiling all actions and feelings as they occurred or rather recording what they wish us to see in them (and what they wish to see in themselves)?

This is really the crux of any storytelling – how a story is told reflects something about the person doing the telling, and the way that story is then interpreted by the listener also speaks to the experiences and perspectives of that audience. At Blue Bee, we are committed to sharing our story with you, and that’s one of the valuable parts of this blog. You are able to hear our story from the diverse voices that make up our staff and community. And you in turn share your experiences with Blue Bee Cider, not only by reading about us here, but by actively taking part in building our story every time you drink a glass of our cider, visit our tasting room, or share us with others in your life. Here’s to you and here’s to our continuing story together!

For photos from the event, please visit VHS’s event album on Facebook.

And you can now get your very own bottle of Hewe’s Crab limited release cider at the VHS gift shop!

-Nicole Martorana

Our Soloists

It’s not uncommon for our tasting room visitors to react with astonishment when they see our wall of “glam shots” – photos of the various apples that we use for our ciders. Oftentimes, people have never heard of any of the heirloom apples that we so treasure.

A frequent refrain: “I thought there were only five or six different kinds of apples! You know, the ones you see at the grocery store.” What a joy it is to introduce the Winesap, Coxe’s Orange Pippin, Hewe’s Crab, Harrison… the list goes on.

In pre-Prohibition America, there were thousands of different kinds of apples in the South alone. Most people today can’t name more than 20. Most of our ciders are a blend of different apples, fermented individually to enable us to pinpoint the aroma and flavor characteristics of each apple. Much like grapes, every year is unique, meaning that our vintages will have distinctive profiles each time they are created.

In my younger days, I worked in the cellar helping to craft our first batches of cider. I have a vivid memory of sampling Dabinett, an exquisite cider apple, before it was blended into the original lots of Aragon 1904.

The deep color, the vibrant aroma, the transcendent flavor – my palate went into shock. I could not believe this rich, buttery delight had been fermented from apples.

With our new Orchard Potluck series, we seek to celebrate standout apples – “soloists,” as Courtney is apt to say. These ciders are limited, small batch single varietals. This month, we shine the spotlight on York, one of our favorite Nelson County apples. The cider is dry and lively, perfect for the warmer months, like a sassy sister of Aragon 1904.

Join us on Saturday, May 21 for the public release of Orchard Potluck: York, and look for a limited number of bottles and kegs out in the Richmond market.

-Brian Ahnmark