Bold Rock Cidery, just south of Nellysford, received stainless steel fermenting tanks from Europe last month, kicking off its first phase in establishing a commercial hard cider operation and restaurant. Ground will be broken for two buildings in March, and the new operation is expected to be ready for the public before the end of the year.
The cidery is a project of John Washburn, his wife Robin and their partner Brian Shanks.
Washburn bought the land it will sit on 25 years ago when he was in his 30s, and then moved to New Zealand and spent 10 years farming there.
He is now in partnership with New Zealander Brian Shanks, who has made a name for himself as one of the foremost experts on hard cider in the world.
Shanks, an apple orchardist in New Zealand, started experimenting with cider production in 1989, “when it was virtually non-existent,” as way to “value add” to his apple production. He started with making juice and then turned to cider. He went to England and learned traditional techniques from commercial cider makers.
Shanks built up a cider company and eventually sold all but 15 percent of it to the British company H.P. Bulmer, a large cider company that has been operating for 200 years. Because he brought an “unrestrained eye” to the industry, Shanks was made Balmer’s director of innovation. An accomplished sailor as well, Shanks has twice won the 1,200 kilometer sailboat race from New Zealand to Australia across the Tasman Sea.
“When we first came here [to Nellysford] to look at the possibility of making cider, we looked for reasons it wouldn’t succeed,” said Shanks. “We didn’t find any. Here in Virginia we have a wonder legacy of cider. It’s very well known. The revival of interest across the U.S. is a testimony to it. We want to be part of the revival. Cider itself fits nicely between beer and wine. It’s in between in alcohol. It seems to appeal across the sexes and age groups. Beer is more masculine and cider is more uni-sex. Cider sales are expanding worldwide.”
“It’s kind of a lifestyle change to come to Virginia,” Shanks acknowledged. “But this opportunity seems wonderful, a culmination of all the skills and experience I’ve built up. People here are friendly. I like American values of private enterprise. Everybody encourages us and helps us.”
To make hard cider, apples are crushed, or “milled,” and pressed to extract the juice, which is then fermented in stainless steel tanks. Bold Rock is starting out with six 2,000 gallon tanks. Fermentation takes 10 days. The cider settles in the tank. Then it is blended, cold sterile filtered and bottled. Visitors will be able to watch the process through window walls that will separate the cidery from the restaurant portion of the building.
Bold Rock is expecting to make 8,000 cases of cider per year and will offer it in three styles initially.
“We’ve seen from local growers that developing a cider industry is win-win for them. Hard cider is defined by federal regulations and it is prescribed that it is made from apples.” Eight ounces is a normal hard cider serving and its alcohol content is regulated to be 7 percent. “That’s based on the natural sugar content of an apple,” Shanks explained. “Producers are saying the regulation should be changed to allow the alcohol content to go as high as 10 percent.” As with wine and craft beers, Shanks said, people are now looking for varieties of ciders. “We want it to have a crisp, refreshing taste.”
The best apples for cider are “high brix,” meaning they have a high sugar content, Shanks explained. They also have flavor, high acidity and tannins to add complexity. Shanks said the cidery will be selective about the apples it uses. Some apples are really bred just for eating. He gave Arkansas Black as an example of an apple well suited to cider.
“We believe we’ll be expert and have the right product. If you are passionate about what you do,” Shanks said, “you find out about what you are doing and you make it happen.”
“Our point of difference is that we hope to have a really good project architecturally that will attract tourists and that locals will also enjoy,” Washburn said.
The cidery is surrounded by growers of excellent apples, he said, and the property sits on Rt. 151, which ties together breweries on the Brew Ridge Trail, and near wineries that also attract tourists. “There’s a whole raft of combinations,” said Washburn.
They first had the idea to name the cidery after nearby Black Rock Mountain but they discovered that “black rock’ is already the name of a brewery. Shanks proposed making it Bold Rock instead. The cidery has a motto: Be bold. Tread lightly. Make it happen.
“As we look at the farm, we want to preserve pasture and openness. I hoped it would never be a subdivision,” Washburn said. The property is surrounded by land in conservation easement. “Our dream is that the cidery will fit in harmoniously with the natural environment of the Rockfish Valley.” The Rockfish River runs just below the site of the cidery’s main building.
A recently completed barn-like building is housing the new fermenting tanks, and cider making will be carried out there until the new cidery and restaurant are done.
First they will build a three-story, 4,000-square-foot building resembling an old mill—it will have a 16-foot wheel on it—which will be visible to southbound motorists on Rt. 151 once they cross Spruce Creek bridge. Designed by Robin Meyer in conjunction with Charlottesville architects Abbott and Skinner, it will have a retail area on the lower level and an elevator that lift visitors to the ground floor level of the cidery and restaurant next door. The upper floor of the mill building will have two private apartments. The parking lot will have 52 spaces.
“What we want for the cidery is a barn that looks and feels like a barn, but is not too rustic,” said Washburn. “Cider is in the middle of wine and beer and our building will be in the middle zone of the Virginia vernacular style.” It will be timber frame, with 700 oak beams, and 30-foot high ceilings. The restaurant will offer pub fare with a special emphasis on apples in the menu. The 11,000 square-foot cider production area will be visible to guests, as will the chefs working in the kitchen. The main building will have porches and terraces over looking the Rockfish River and a path will lead to a walk along the river.