The sheer energy of Virginia’s local food and beverage culture is one of my favorite perks of living here in the commonwealth. Most people know about the proliferation of craft breweries in Virginia (and across the country). But our artisanal beverage community also includes a new cadre of inventive cideries that have earned our attention.
Their constantly-updated varieties are a far cry from the standard Woodchuck offerings I was drinking 10 or 15 years ago. Usually made exclusively from Virginia’s own storied apple orchards, our local ciders run the full spectrum from dry to sweet, experimenting liberally with hops, different fruits, and spices. As a bonus, they’re also an enticing gluten-free alternative to beer.
When I first got the idea last fall to host a cider-tasting party, I realized almost immediately that one event couldn’t possibly do justice to the local market. Even if I limited the tasting to ciders that stay true to their apple essence (so no rosé, blackberry, or cherry), we in central Virginia are afflicted with an embarrassment of riches. I decided to just have fun and resolve that my first cider tasting won’t be my last. (I’ll get to Buskey and Blue Bee next time, I promise.)
At this first attempt at serious cider scrutiny, a small group of friends sampled nine selections. As it turned out, the tasters’ ratings weren’t apples-to-apples. We quickly learned that people have very different cider expectations, fundamentally disagreeing on key metrics like ideal sweetness and the value added by prominent spices. Fortunately, our cider community has options to please almost anyone.
Highbrow Honors: Potter’s “Farmhouse Dry”
Those who know Potter’s won’t be surprised that it earned the most praise at our modest tasting. The 8-year-old cidery started by two Princeton friends in Free Union has flourished into a local craft favorite, offering more than 20 eclectic varieties (and counting). Potter’s uses only Virginia apples and doesn’t add any sugar or water during the cider-making process. Based on its success, the cidery recently announced a $1.56-million expansion to include a new tasting room in Albemarle County.
Potter’s describes its Farmhouse variety as “exceptionally dry” with hints of peach and melon, though I detected citrus instead. This option is a closer alternative to wine than to beer. At 8.5 percent alcohol by volume, Farmhouse pleasantly reminded our tasters of chardonnay.
Most Beach-Ready: Sly Clyde “Submersive”
Sly Clyde Ciderworks was unfamiliar to our tasters, which isn’t surprising since it opened only last year. Hampton’s Sly Clyde was the only cidery in our lineup located to the east of Richmond, and by its own account it’s the first cidery in coastal Virginia. Like Potter’s, 100 percent of its cider apples are sourced from Virginia. If your interest in the cider industry is at least passingly curious, check out Sly Clyde’s quick-and-dirty history of how we got to where we are. Nationally, cider has been marketed like beer but, being fermented from fruit, it’s actually produced more like wine, the founders say.
Sly Clyde rates its Submersive variety, at 6.7 percent ABV, as “just sweet enough” – which perversely primed our tasters to be surprised when it was still fairly dry. At least one person said that the apple flavor, usually associated with sweetness, hardly came through. But most of us came around to Submersive, really appreciating its intriguing balance of bright and bitter. Fresh, crisp, and tart without too much carbonation, this cider would be an excellent choice for a day at the beach in the summer sun. May I be blessed with one of those in my not-too-distant future – so say we all.
Most Festive: Wild Hare “Revel”
Wild Hare is a 4-year-old cidery in Leesburg that sources its apples from its own heritage orchard in the Shenandoah Valley. Wild Hare advertises several intriguing dry varieties featuring cherry, grapefruit, ginger lime, and berries. But in keeping with our region’s stubborn reluctance to welcome springtime, our lineup featured Wild Hare’s Revel cider (6.9 percent ABV): a “semi-sweet cider with fall and maple spices” that include cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and nutmeg.
Predictably, some of our tasters were turned off by an option that all but proclaimed itself as “pumpkin spice.” Others unabashedly love those flavors at any time of year. Both sides agreed that the spice blend was notably, even aggressively, clove-forward – a no-go for some. But the spice fades quickly, leaving you with a refreshing aftertaste of just fruit. I personally enjoyed this creation very much and will be looking for it again next Thanksgiving.
Most Improved: Bold Rock “Ginger Turmeric”
Six-year-old Bold Rock in Nellysford is the largest independently-owned craft cider company in the country, but so far it’s managed to maintain a reasonably local image in the active Virginia market. It sources all of its apples from Virginia and North Carolina, where it has another location. Although its ciders are often reviewed as some variation on “unobjectionable,” at least a couple of them stand out as not just drinkable but unique.
Our tasters generally put Bold Rock’s newest release, Ginger Turmeric (4.7 percent ABV), in the latter category. Made with apples from the Blue Ridge region, Ginger Turmeric makes a deceptively smooth, unremarkable first impression, reminiscent of honey. But the spice hits you on the back end, intensifying through the aftertaste. The featured flavors pair well, and both come through even for olfactory-challenged tasters like myself. This cider is a good ride if you, like me, enjoy a little adventure in your beverage. Not everyone does.
Prankster: Coyote Hole “HPA”
Coyote Hole Ciderworks opened in 2016 near Lake Anna. Like Virginia’s other up-and-coming cideries, it sources all of its apples from Virginia’s Blue Ridge region. Coyote Hole’s inventions tend toward the fruity, with seasonal infusions of everything from pineapple to peaches to pumpkin.
HPA (Hopped Pressed Apple, 6.9 percent ABV) is one of Coyote Hole’s three “flagship” ciders. Given its name, our tasters were expecting the bitter bite of an ale, in the vein of Bold Rock’s IPA (India Pressed Apple). We didn’t get it, which disappointed some of us. However, discarding the expectation of hops, I found that HPA had a warm, baked-apple character unique among our tasting selection. Its vibe was the opposite of tart, instead suggesting molasses or even port. A hint of spice kicked in at the end. I say, just forget about the hops and and pair this with bleu cheese or a roast chicken dinner.
Most Ambitious: Potter’s “Cranberry Orange Blossom”
Admittedly straying from our apple-focused lineup, our other selection from Potter’s was a dry cranberry cider, also seemingly geared toward holiday flavors. To get this variety, the cidermakers explain that they ferment Jonagold apples “on” cranberries and orange blossoms.
The cranberry definitely overpowers the apple here, even if it doesn’t overwhelm the overall taste experience. As you’d expect, this cider’s key traits are dry and tart, which may be a good choice for people who like fruit but can’t tolerate much sugar. Along those lines, the low-sugar fruity quality might be a bit reminiscent of diet beverages if your mind happens to go there (like cherry flavor reminds people of medicine). Otherwise, the distinctly authentic cranberry and orange blossom flavors marry beautifully even if the apple gets lost.
Friendliest: Bold Rock “Pear”
Our other non-apple fruit cider was Bold Rock’s Pear, which combines New Zealand pears with Blue Ridge apples. Like many of Bold Rock’s other varieties, Pear also features a relatively low 4.7 percent ABV. Our tasters found this cider to be the most agreeable: slightly floral and not too sweet. For better or worse, it was also the least assertive in a lineup with several more complex ciders.
Stiffest Upper Lip: Winchester Ciderworks “Malice”
Five-year-old Winchester Ciderworks is the joint product of an evolving apple industry and a yearning for old-world English ciders. As Virginia’s apple orchards have struggled both with declining demand for processing apples and with recent crop scourges, co-founder Diane Kearns began devoting more of her orchard’s apples to the cider press after a chance introduction to British immigrant Stephen Schuurman. English cidermakers are known for their relatively hands-off approach to fermentation, using a slow process that takes the yeast as it comes. The result, developed over centuries, is an austere style that eschews too much tampering.
Malice, Winchester Ciderworks’s flagship cider with 6.5 percent ABV, blends five local apple varieties. That complexity comes through in the tasting. We also detected a subtle, not-unpleasant sourness; one taster even specifically sensed cherry. But I personally didn’t prefer the traditional style, in part because I’m temperamentally attracted to the new and different, and in part because I like fizz. English-style ciders are notoriously low in carbonation, which to me came off as almost watery against the sparklier selections in our lineup.
Most Likely Case of Mistaken Identity: Cobbler Mountain “Mountain Top Hop”
Delaplane’s Cobbler Mountain Cellars, which over the past decade has operated as both a winery and cidery, boasts at least 10 year-round and seasonal ciders. I’ve since learned that Traditional Jeffersonian is a favorite variety there, but I happened to choose Mountain Top Hop for our lineup: a blend of Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Ginger Gold apples with Cascade hops, at 6.8 percent ABV.
One of our driest selections at only 5 grams of sugar per bottle, Mountain Top Hop to me was indistinguishable from champagne, both in the character of its carbonation and in its taste. Summoning my best powers of concentration, I eventually located the essence of apple through the fog of New Year’s Eve memories.
Mountain Top Hop isn’t a cider I would look for again, but I’m still very curious to try Cobbler Mountain’s Jeffersonian, Ginger Peach, and Maple Stout varieties. Next time!