DRINK: From Pippins to Winesaps, the Apple Alchemy of Craft Cider

By Steve Russell / Photography By Steve Russell | January 01, 2014
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craft cider

Hard cider is making a big comeback in Virginia, appearing on draft and in bottles alongside fine wines, earning rave reviews from The New York Times, and attracting growing numbers of new fans to tasting rooms as distinctive as the artisan ciders being poured there. And as it turns out, it also pairs damn well with homemade venison bologna.

That hearty discovery is made on a chilly, damp morning in northern Rockingham County by Tim Edmond and Dan Potter, the 29-year-old cidermasters behind the three-year-old Potter's Craft label. They have driven over from their base near Charlottesville to Showalter's Orchard in rural Timberville to facilitate the pressing of 500 bushels of Albemarle Pippin apples into 1,500 gallons of juice that they will then ferment, blend, and otherwise nudge into becoming their next release of hard ciders.

Dodging a cold drizzle, they duck inside the production shed where the Showalter family has made its popular sweet cider since 1975, and are spotted by 74-year-old family patriarch Joe Showalter. Deftly bridging a two-generation gap, he proffers thick wedges of the dark pink, peppercorn-studded deer bologna on a pocketknife blade, and naturally they reciprocate by uncorking a bottle of Potter's Craft Farmhouse Dry that they brought along. Cheers, breakfast is served.

Moments like these are hard to be had in a corporate cubicle, which goes a long way in explaining why these two took a hard career turn toward craft cider not long after graduating from Princeton and setting off on more expected paths. Even so, this morning is a crucial first step in a new cider season that will run them ragged for the next few months, and they are focused on the work at hand.

It all starts, of course, with the apples. The Pippins, picked at Turkey Knob orchard just down the road and hauled over to the Showalter's press, are in amazing condition for cider apples, with hardly a bruise on their pale green skin. "We like Pippins because they are really tart, with a low pH and a high acidity that balances out some of the other apples we use that don't have as much acidity," says Dan, taking an exploratory bite and immediately jotting down notes in his ever-present notebook.

"That acidity really gives cider a liveliness and brightness," adds Tim, mindful to connect the chemistry to the final consumer experience.

Crate after 20-bushel crate, the Pippins are tipped onto an exterior conveyor that feeds them through a crusher. The resulting pulp is carried inside to a picnic-table-size hydraulic press that squeezes out a cascade of juice, which is then pumped into 275-gallon portable containers. Diverting the tube for a moment, Dan fills a small plastic bottle with juice that will be whisked down I-81 to Virginia Tech and tested for nitrogen, a nutrient vital for successful fermentation. It's an important measurement, as cider's acidity is less hospitable for yeast than, say, beer. And if fermentation doesn't happen, you're stuck with just cider, instead of hard cider.

Not content to wait, or rely solely on the lab, Dan and Tim swig the fresh Pippin juice themselves, and more notes and calculations go into the notebook. In the coming weeks, they will also press Gold Rush, Winesap, and Arkansas Black apples from area orchards and, based on the same alchemy of science and intuition, shepherd the blends of their cider styles.

Farmhouse Dry, a pale, crisp, tart cider, was introduced in 2011. "Farmhouse changes a bit from year to year with the types of apples we use, and even changes in character of the same apple," says Tim. It has earned a following for its ability to complement pork, duck, and cheese – and its wallet-friendly price of $11 a bottle. "We are very focused on getting new people to try craft cider," continues Tim, "so we're happy to be at a price point that may be considered a bargain."

In 2012 they introduced their second style, Oak Barrel Reserve, which receives extra aging in oak barrels sourced from the Laird's apple brandy distillery in North Garden. The result is more body and pronounced notes of caramel and oak. It was another instant hit, which means this year even more barrels must be procured.

Collaboration among Virginia cidermakers isn't just a buzzword; it's seen as a savvy shortcut toward boosting the profile of a long-dormant beverage. The libation of choice in Colonial America, hard cider all but dried up when 19th-century industrialization siphoned populations away from agricultural areas and recent German immigrants stepped in to serve them beer brewed in mass quantities. But with the modern eat-local movement came a renewed interest in heirloom apple varieties – and the good stuff once made from them. Now longtime orchard families and whippersnapper entrepreneurs alike are leading a new cider charge.

After positioning another crate of Pippins, Shannon Showalter, the 44-year-old son of Joe, hops off a forklift to talk shop with the Potter's Craft guys. Shannon and wife Sarah now run the orchard and sweet cider operation (to the tune of 30,000 gallons a year) – and have also joined Virginia's hard-cider resurgence, launching their own Old Hill label two years ago. They sell several styles in shops across Central Virginia and in their on-site tasting room on the edge of a postcard-worthy apple grove.

"We were looking to make the small family farm more sustainable," says Shannon. "Sarah and I both are foodies and enjoy wines, so we'd been exploring starting a winery. Finally someone smacked me on the head and told me to look at what was going on with hard cider. I mean, we already have the trees and much of the equipment."

To get up to speed, Shannon attended a cidermaking course at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, but truth be told, hard cider is in his blood. When he was growing up, he says, local orchards often kept a "community barrel" of fermented cider tucked away, and neighbors would pull up at Showalter's with a truckload of apples to be pressed. "They would leave here with unpasteurized juice that you knew they were going to make into hard cider. We didn't ask a lot of questions."

The three cidermakers swap tales, tips, and tastes of the various styles of cider they are making, until it's high time for Dan and Tim to head back to their side of the Blue Ridge.

A few days later finds them back in the company of their fellow cidermakers at a Virginia Cider Week party near Charlottesville, pouring samples next to Diane Flynt, whose Foggy Ridge Cider in Dugspur was the first of eight cideries to start production in the state since 2006. Others at the event include Albemarle CiderWorks, Castle Hill Cider, and Blue Bee Cider. All of their ciders are different, as are their reasons for getting into such an untested venture.

Dan and Tim's trajectory has to rank among the more unusual. The two met as undergrads at Princeton, and forged a friendship over a mutual enthusiasm for homebrewing. After graduation, Dan joined an environmental engineering firm in Durham, North Carolina, while Tim worked for an investment bank in nearby Charlotte. (Or as Dan wryly interjects, "He was causing the collapse of the economy.")

"On weekends we'd meet up to brew beer and think, There's got to be more to life than this," says Tim. "That was planting the seeds to figuring all this out."

Dan left his job in 2009 to work at Tuckahoe Plantation, the childhood home of Thomas Jefferson near Richmond. There he planted hops and barley beside the James River with the notion of starting a farmhouse brewery. "But the first year the crop got flooded out," says Dan. "That was an eye-opening welcome to farming."

In the meantime, though, Tuckahoe had been sourcing apples from Henley's Orchard in Crozet to make the sweet cider it sold at farmers' markets. Dan began requisitioning some of the raw juice to make hard cider, and soon became serious enough about its potential that Tim left his job to join the effort. Even today, the question of how their families felt about the two young men using their Ivy League degrees to become novice cidermakers elicits paroxysms of laughter. "Let's just say that Tim's family was. . . concerned," says Dan.

They tested hundreds of variations of cider styles and – by the time they were satisfied with the results and their abilities – had also decided to relocate their fledgling operation to the Charlottesville area, where they could readily source local apples and hopefully find a market for their cider. "This is a great home base for us, as we're interested in local food, and the community is too," says Tim, noting that they quickly made plenty of new likeminded friends, including Erica Hellen and Joel Slezak, the young couple that runs nearby Free Union Grass Farm. "I particularly enjoy our cider with their roasted duck, so sometimes we work out a trade."

One of Potter's Craft's first pitches was to Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, where they didn't have an appointment but were lucky enough to walk in with samples during a meeting of the leadership team. "They make beer and we didn't know if they'd even consider serving something not made by them, but they asked on the spot if we could bring them a keg to put on tap in their restaurant," says Tim. "We said sure thing, absolutely – though at that moment we didn't really know how to get our cider into a real keg."

Since then, making and selling cider has been an all-consuming venture, with demand causing the partners to increase supply by thousands of bottles each year. They share the daily workload, though Dan's engineering skills come in handiest when dealing with equipment (or constructing it himself to save money) and Tim's finance background puts him in charge of the spreadsheets. As for the venture's name, it was Tim who actually suggested that Dan's surname evokes an earthy, artisan feel befitting an upstart cider label.

Located in a former horse veterinary clinic in Free Union, and unburdened by a tasting room (at least until they refurbish a 1965 Airstream trailer for that purpose), the Potter's Craft cidery feels part barn, part lab, and part clubhouse. Dan and Tim spend a lot of time there, doors propped open, checking the ciderin-progress for acid, tannins, sugar, and aroma as it ferments and ages for several months in twin silo-like tanks. And this year Dan had to plot how to utilize every square inch to accommodate more bottles, more barrels, more equipment, more. . . everything.

Even so, they can't resist the youthful urge to take on even bigger challenges. So this year they're shaking up the local cider scene by introducing a less traditional, but no less artisanal, hopped cider. "We know and love hops from when we used to homebrew," explains Tim, "so we started experimenting and ran cider through some hops and were like, 'Holy crap, it's good!'"

Though adding hops to fermenting cider is not unheard of (especially in the Pacific Northwest), Potter's Craft is the first cidery to offer it in Virginia, and maybe the only cidery anywhere to devise a system that draws the cider through the hops. "We didn't want to pull out any alpha acids, which express bitterness," says Dan. "We wanted to pull out the beta acids and aroma. So instead of overriding the character of the apple, the hops just complement it."

He's right – there's real harmony among the Pippin's tropical undertones and the citrus quality in the hops they are selecting. Still, at first sip, your tongue may wonder if it's tasting cider or beer. Halfway through the initial glass, however, it will just accept this new phenomenon, and probably ask for a second glass. (If you want to try for yourself, Potter's Craft hopped cider is already available on draft at Beer Run, the Whiskey Jar, and Whole Foods in Charlottesville. Bottles showcasing single varietals of hops will be released in early 2014.)

At press time, the partners haven't settled on a name for this breakthrough new cider, but with experience and success comes a certain amount of confidence, and they don't seem the least bit concerned. "Every time we create a new product, we hash through hundreds of names and sometimes put together focus groups with our friends that turn into great, big cider-drinking parties," says Tim. "Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and your first choice – or give your friends free cider and write down everything that gets thrown out there."


CHEERS TO CIDER!

Find Potter's Craft ciders for sale in bottles at many area locations, including the following:

Charlottesville: Beer Run, Feast, Foods of All Nations, Gibson's Grocery, Hunt Country Market, Kroger, Market Street Market, Market Street Wineshop, Rebecca's Natural Food, Rio Hill Wine & Gourmet, the Farm, Whole Foods, Wine Made Simple, Wine Warehouse.

Crozet: Greenwood Gourmet, Great Valu

Culpeper: Vinosity, Frenchman's Cellar

Article from Edible Blue Ridge at http://edibleblueridge.ediblecommunities.com/what-drink/drink-pippins-winesaps-apple-alchemy-craft-cider
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