Making cider is a consistent and challenging exercise of patience. As juice transforms into cider through fermentation, cider steps into the next stage of transformation during maturation. Some apples want to be served when they are young, their peak expression reached shortly after fermentation. However, the majority of cider apples are still too young after fermentation, with their flavors scattered and aromas switching week after week and the cider itself still recovering from fermentation. Not given the time it needs to develop, the cider will never have the opportunity to reach its peak expression.
Every couple of weeks we sample the tanks, monitoring the development of each cider and attempting to predict where it will go. During each week that passes, we see aromas becoming more pronounced, flavors and notes focusing themselves, and complexities creating layers to unfold. We age our ciders on their lees (sur lie), allowing dormant and dead yeast cells and apple gunk to settle over a period of time. Every so often we stir the lees into the cider, allowing the inhabitants of this invisible world to intermingle with each other. The lees settle again and we repeat the process as many times as needed. Each apple and cider demands patience and needs time to find itself again, to be strong enough to pronounce the characteristics we expect.
The second batch of Gold Dominion was intentionally forgotten, pushed to the side and allowed to mature beyond any cider we’ve ever released. York and Gold Rush were individually fermented with a champagne yeast. York matured on its lees for 17.5 months and Gold Rush matured on its lees for 10.5 months, both without any sulfite additions post-fermentation. Right before carbonation, the two single varietals were blended without any filtration. Gold Dominion has crazy tropical notes, bright tartness in the middle, and a dry farmhouse note on the finish.
The long-term maturation of cider allows for a heavy concentration of the essence of what these apples are known to be. Right after fermentation we smelled the typical fruity notes we get from these apples, but aging the cider for a long period of time allowed those same notes to intensify. With Gold Rush we ended up getting tons of fresh tropical notes and York gave us the most intense pineapple aroma we’ve ever smelled.
Allowing these two ciders to mature for a longer period of time was an experiment with an unknown outcome. Would it spoil? Would it reach its peak profile and quickly degrade from there? Or would it turn into a unique expression of York and Gold Rush that we haven’t seen before? After sampling Gold Dominion over and over again, I am proud of what these two single varietals were able to develop during their extended maturation. Experiments are always followed by new experiments and a never-ending succession of questions. As long as we continue to pursue our curiosity, we will continue learning about the apples we use while finding new ways to harness their unique characteristics.
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.
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.
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 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 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)
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)
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.
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!
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. Isley Brewing Co, made “Apple Brown Betty”, the return of our 2014 collaboration – an English brown ale fermented with Grimes Golden juice.
- 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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!
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.