It's 6:30 a.m,, and despite every intention to go snap a few photos on the farm, the half dozen bottles of cider we opened last night are calling me back to bed. I resolve again to get up early tomorrow for the "good light" before the sun turns skyward and the tasting room here at Albemarle CiderWorks comes to life.
But additional rest is out of the question. My head is already swimming with the cider homebrew course, North vs. South cider tasting, and half dozen cider cocktails on the day's agenda. My photo opportunities are quickly dwindling with the rising sun so I head downstairs quietly only to have my egress arrested by Tom Burford and Gary Nabham, already deep in conversation at the table. Both these men know volumes about cider and apples in this region, and are deeply commited to the revitalization of America's apple heritage. In short, I am way out of my league as an 'expert in residence' for Virginia Cider Week. I pack up my New York City know-it-all-attitude, grab a cup of tea, and sit down to get schooled. And this is only day one.
5 years ago, there was little hard cider in these parts. Most of the fruit went to the pick-your-own and pie markets. But thanks to efforts by people like Tom Burford, there are nearly a dozen cideries in production or in planning, and many either own their own farms or are partnering with local orchards.
The collaborative nature of the Virginia cider scene leads to a distinct terroir in the region; not only through the soil but also through the spirit. You can find traces of Tom's teachings in almost every Virginia cider. He has been influential in the use of the state's heritage apple varieties—the Virginia Winesap and the Albemarle Pippin—instead of English bittersharp and bittersweet cider apples. The result is a distinctly American cider close to those found in the region two hundred years ago.
But the similarities go far beyond the apples. Most ciders in these parts also have similar fermentation techniques. They usually ferment to dryness, and several use white wine yeasts other than the traditional Champagne yeast. It's a region that's learning and growing collectively.
And the entire cider community is elevated by Virginia's infectious farm-to-table culture. It's easy to get choked up by the passion for the land here, something often forgotten by even the most dedicated urban farmers' market shopper. In Virginia, the sprawling hillside orchards are never far from sight.
This week's Virginia Cider Week is the first time the community has come together to officially claim their presence in the emerging American cider scene. I met more than a few homebrewers who were already fermenting batches of cider and had never tasted a commercial drop. These ciders pull no punches and don't pander to the 6-pack cider market of the 90s that we are all working hard to move beyond.