Hops & Cider: A Perfect Pair

Celebrating Growth in Virginia’s Hopped Cider Family

Four years ago, Blue Bee Cider became the first Virginia cidery to make a hopped cider. A style long popular on the West Coast, it was unfamiliar to our shores and took some regulatory tangoing to accomplish. Thankfully, all was eventually settled and our Hopsap Shandy was introduced to the world in November of 2013.

Hopsap Shandy with Hops

In its first iteration, Hopsap Shandy was a Winesap-York cider infused with whole-cone Cascade hops. The following year, the process remained the same, but whole-cone Citra hops were added along with Cascade. By the third year, we transitioned to a blend of whole-cone Cascade, Chinook, and Columbus hops, a combination still used in our current vintage.

While at first it was met with speculation by some and excitement by others, Hopsap Shandy became the gateway both stylistically and legally for other Virginia cideries to begin creating their own hopped ciders. Today there are 12 cideries (and counting!) in the state with hopped styles on the market, some offering several varieties.

On Saturday, April 29, Blue Bee Cider will host the inaugural Virginia Hopped Cider Festival to celebrate this growing cider style, providing the chance to learn more about the Virginia hop industry and sample the wide array of flavors and aromas possible from pairing apples and hops. The festival will be held at Blue Bee Cider’s Summit Stables complex at 1320 Summit Avenue in Richmond from 1:00 to 9:00 pm.

Blue Bee Cider - 2017 Hopped Cider Festival

In addition to our classic Hopsap Shandy, Blue Bee Cider will feature a version that has been aged in the small American oak barrels we use for our Harvest Ration brandy, as well as a new version using Motueka hops and Saison yeast.

motueka hops

Motueka hop pellets ready for infusing into Blue Bee Cider’s hopped Saison cider.  (Photo: Manuel Garcia)

Alongside these offerings, the festival will feature hopped ciders from Blue Toad Hard Cider, Bold Rock Hard Cider, Buskey Cider, Corcoran Hard Cider, Courthouse Creek Cider, Coyote Hole Ciderworks, Kindred Pointe, Potter’s Craft Cider, and Wild Hare Hard Cider. Several of the cideries will be present to talk with guests and sell merchandise and bottles.

The ciders will be available to taste in three flights or all ciders can be experienced in a side-by-side guided Grand Tasting workshop from 1:30 to 2:30 pm or 3:00 to 4:00 pm. While festival entrance is free, flights and workshops are ticketed. Tickets are available for purchase in advance and at the festival.

A sample flight featured on the Virginia Wine Chat preview podcast in March. (Photo: Nicole Martorana)

A sample flight featured on Virginia Wine Chat’s festival preview podcast.  (Photo: Nicole Martorana)

And as many of you may know, we at Blue Bee Cider love to eat, so there will be no shortage of foods to accompany your cider selections. Camden’s Dogtown Market, our former Manchester neighbor and the kitchen behind our “breads & spreads” program at Summit Stables, will be smoking barbecue on site and Continental Divide will be serving up a selection of tacos. We’ve also teamed up with Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwiches to create an exclusive Cascade hop-infused ice cream sandwich especially for the festival, so come early to get your hands on this sweet treat!

Nightingale Hopped Ice Cream Sandwich.   (Photo: Nicole Martorana)

Nightingale Hopped Ice Cream Sandwich. (Photo: Nicole Martorana)

Local arts vendor Newtowne Goons will be in our courtyard selling prints of their “Anatomy of a Hop” design, among others, and our Scott’s Addition neighbor Studio Two Three will be selling t-shirts with our official Festival design and live-printing tote bags from 3:00 to 6:00 pm.

Studio Two Three live printing at Blue Bee Cider's Grand Opening at Summit Stables in October 2016. (Photo: Charles J. Williams)

Studio Two Three live printing at Blue Bee Cider’s Grand Opening at Summit Stables in October 2016. (Photo: Charles J. Williams)

Setting the soundtrack for the day will be live music by Scattered Smothered & Covered from 2:00 to 4:00 pm and Moossa from 5:00 to 8:00 pm.

Photos from the bands' Facebook pages.

From the bands’ Facebook pages.

The festivities will continue Sunday, April 30 with the Virginia Hopped Cider Industry Workshop from 2:00 to 3:30 pm. Held in partnership with the Old Dominion Hops Cooperative and the Virginia State University Hop Program, the workshop will feature talks about the current Virginia hop industry, growing practices, and research. After you’ve filled up on knowledge, you’ll be led through a guided tasting of five hopped ciders created exclusively for the workshop by Blue Bee Cider’s cellar team. Tickets are available here.

Whether hopped cider is new to you or your go-to beverage of choice, the festival is sure to provide an array of options to challenge and delight your palate. Come explore with us, bring your friends, and enjoy all that this growing style has to offer!

-Nicole Martorana

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

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 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

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

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